The Dangerous Art of Pyotr Pavlensky

On a fall day in Paris, in the luminous courthouse built by Renzo Piano near the Porte de Clichy, the Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky sat in the dock, listening to an interpreter’s translation of the proceedings against him. Pavlensky had spent the past 11 months in a French jail, primarily in solitary confinement, for what he considers an artwork and the French government considers a crime.

In the early hours of Oct. 16, 2017, Pavlensky set fire to the ground-floor windows of a branch of the Banque de France on the Place de la Bastille. A video showed him standing in the doorway of the fortresslike building, a black-clad figure framed by wings of flame. The site had been carefully chosen. The Banque de France is the French equivalent of the Federal Reserve, and this particular outpost was erected where the Bastille prison, stormed by revolutionary mobs in 1789, once stood. In the text accompanying the work, titled “Lighting,” Pavlensky declared the bank a symbol of modern-day tyranny and central bankers the new despots.

In an aftermath common to his artworks (which Pavlensky calls “actions”), he was arrested on the spot, hauled off for psychiatric examination and put in jail — this time with his longtime partner, Oksana Shalygina, who was assisting that night. The couple were charged with “property damage involving risk to others.” Shalygina, who is also the mother of their two young children, was released on probation after two months. But in September, almost a year after “Lighting,” Pavlensky was still in prison awaiting trial.

Seated before the panel of judges hearing the arguments for his pretrial release, Pavlensky, a hollow-cheeked man with enormous yellow-green, tigerish eyes, was dressed in his customary outfit of black scoop-necked T-shirt, black cargo pants and black sandals. The courtroom was packed with his supporters. One, a red-bearded artist named Sébastien Layral, had chopped off his earlobe for the occasion — recalling Pavlensky’s 2014 performance piece “Segregation,” in which Pavlensky climbed naked onto the wall of Moscow’s most infamous psychiatric institute and cut off his right earlobe to protest the political abuse of psychiatry. Outside the courthouse, six young women from the feminist group FEMEN stood bare-breasted, their lips sewn shut, their chests and backs painted with the slogans “Free Pavlensky” and “Activism Is Not a Disease.” Policemen raised a curtain of gold-foil blankets to hide the women’s naked torsos from onlookers, but their silent fists pumped high above it.

During his incarceration, Pavlensky held two dry hunger strikes (no food, no water); one was broken only, he says, when the prison authorities force-fed him. His right to daily exercise in the prison courtyard or to receive visitors was frequently denied.

This harsh treatment, Ariane Mnouchkine, founder of the avant-garde company Théâtre du Soleil, contended in an open letter to the judge, was an “unheard-of practice” in a country that prides itself on its tradition of artistic freedom. Before his arrest, Pavlensky was widely praised by critics for being, as one British newspaper put it, “the patron saint of Russian dissidence.” He was showcased in a prestigious 2017 survey of Russian art at the Saatchi Gallery in London and granted asylum in France the same year. But once he shifted the object of his critique from Putin’s Russia to the Western democracy that gave him refuge, the French government — and even some of his art-world supporters — grew decidedly less enthusiastic. In a country rattled by terrorist attacks, Pavlensky’s “action” took on a sinister resonance. Just two weeks before “Lighting,” the French Parliament passed a sweeping counterterrorism bill, making permanent most of the government’s state-of-emergency powers.

In the courtroom, waiting to be questioned by the judge, Pavlensky’s co-defendant, Shalygina, a tall, lunar-pale woman with a peroxide semimohawk, was pessimistic about her partner’s release. She had sat through half a dozen hearings in this case, and each time the judge had prolonged Pavlensky’s detention another three, four months, with no trial date in sight.

What made the case particularly uncertain was that the artist himself was not asking to be freed. For Pavlensky, the judicial process is an integral part of the artwork. “The government’s aim is to suppress or neutralize art, to reduce me to a vandal, a madman, a provocateur,” he told me earlier, “but the criminal case becomes one of the layers of the artwork, the portal through which you enter and see the mechanisms of power exposed.”

The presiding judge that day was Président Jean-Marie Denieul. Balding, bespectacled, genial, Denieul flipped through Pavlensky’s hefty dossier, summarizing his career with the relish of a doctor presented with a particularly rare medical specimen. Here was an artist who thought nothing of chopping off body parts “to make a political point,” Denieul remarked. “A skeletal Homo sapiens, but pretty tough!”

“This sounds like a homage!” said Pavlensky’s lawyer, Dominique Beyreuther-Minkov.

“It is, in a way,” the judge replied.

The prosecutor was not so well disposed. The defendant faced a prison sentence of 10 years, she pointed out. Since he had no job, no bank account, no legal home, she believed he posed a high flight risk. Moreover, since he refused to recognize the legitimacy of the French judiciary or that his act of arson was a crime, there was nothing to stop him from setting more buildings aflame. “He lives for his political acts,” she declared. If they released him “he will do it again.” Public safety, she concluded, demanded that Monsieur Pavlensky be kept in prison.

I first encountered Pavlensky in the summer of 2017. He and his family arrived from Russia six months earlier and were living in a series of Paris squats and collective apartments. Their latest hosts didn’t allow journalists, so Pavlensky suggested a rendezvous in Père Lachaise, the French cemetery where such luminaries as Balzac and Jim Morrison are buried.

Until “Lighting,” Pavlensky, who is 35, worked only in Russia. Most of his “actions” involved spectacular acts of self-mutilation or endurance. For the 2013 “Carcass,” he had himself deposited, naked and cocooned in barbed wire, outside the St. Petersburg Parliament, in response to a series of new laws restricting personal freedom. Later that year, in “Fixation,” he attached his scrotum with a Crucifixion-style nail to the paving stones of Red Square to symbolize the passivity of the Russian people. He was inspired, he told me, by “zeks,” imprisoned criminals in Russia who “sometimes do this to protest administrative decisions.”

Unyielding in his public stances, Pavlensky in person is unexpectedly warm, a little shy. Perched on a graveyard bench under a pitiless sun, he kept his head ducked, smiling often as he spoke about his path to political art. Born in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1984, he was 16 when Vladimir Putin first became president. Putin closed down independent TV stations, made regional governors his direct appointees and seized banks and industries, imprisoning their oligarch owners or driving them into exile. He embraced the Russian Orthodox Church as a power base, encouraging the traditionalists’ vision of Russia as a “holy nation” whose destiny owed nothing to liberal democracy; art became a pawn in this cultural struggle. In 2003, Orthodox extremists attacked and defaced a Moscow exhibition called “Caution, Religion!” The charges against the vandals were dismissed, but the show’s curators were convicted under Russia’s infamous Article 282, known as the “blasphemy law.” A few years later, one of the curators was again fined for an exhibition called “Forbidden Art.” To many, these high-profile art trials recalled the Soviet-era trials of dissidents like Joseph Brodsky.

In the fall of 2011, Putin and Dmitri Medvedev announced that they would swap jobs (Putin had been serving as Medvedev’s prime minister since 2008 because Russian law barred him from serving a third consecutive term) and Putin would once again assume the presidency. This announcement, followed by what were widely seen as rigged parliamentary elections, sparked a nationwide wave of demonstrations. Many were characterized by an “Occupy”-style exuberance. The punk feminist group Pussy Riot, whose members specialized in guerrilla actions, seemed to embody this spirit of revolt. Shortly before the presidential election, Pussy Riot performed a “Punk Prayer” in The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Clad like cartoon ninjas in lollipop-colored dresses and balaclavas, they pranced and kickboxed as they shouted a song whose refrain went, “Mother of God, chase Putin out!” The church was almost empty and the “prayer” lasted less than two minutes, but three of the performers were nonetheless arrested and charged with “inciting religious hatred.”

At the time, Pavlensky was 27, an art student who hadn’t yet found a mobilizing subject for his work. “Even among my friends, there were few who understood Pussy Riot’s action,” Pavlensky told me. “I was shocked by the violence of people’s reactions. These women had touched nothing, but people wanted to burn them at the stake; even so-called dissidents condemned them.”

When Pussy Riot went on trial that July, Pavlensky decided to stage his first “action.” He stood outside the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, his mouth sewn shut, carrying a sign likening Pussy Riot’s performance to Jesus’ expulsion of the money-changers from the Temple.

“At first, I just wanted to go out in the street with my poster, like a one-man strike,” Pavlensky recalled. “I’m an atheist, but I wanted to show that the Russian Orthodox Church was in conflict with its own teachings, that it was just another instrument of state power. But then I started thinking: What if the police question me? What will I say? I realized if my mouth were sewn shut, there would be no possibility of answering, then I’d be the one with the power. People helped me sew my mouth; I got in a taxi, my mouth covered with my hand. I was frightened, but I tried to understand, Is this an objective, a rational fear, or is it just because I’ve seen that normally people don’t do this? It was the moment of no return, when I managed to overcome my own fears and become the political artist I am today.”

Titled “Seam,” the work was captured by several photojournalists, including Maxim Zmeyev, who cropped the photo to an iconic headshot. Pavlensky’s emaciated face, lips zigzagged in blood-red twine, radiates an almost Christlike suffering. By choosing this gesture, he also inscribed himself in a powerful lineage of artistic resistance, referencing a seminal 1989 work by David Wojnarowicz, “Silence=Death,” in which the artist sewed his lips shut to mark the Reagan administration’s refusal to address the AIDS epidemic.

[Read more about David Wajnarowicz.]

The Pussy Riot trial ended with the conviction of three members. Two of them, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, would spend nearly two years in a prison camp; the third, Yekaterina Samutsevich, received a suspended sentence on appeal. Tolokonnikova later expressed her joy that Pussy Riot had found a worthy successor. “Pavlensky,” she tweeted, “is the mind, honor and balls of our epoch.”

Pavlensky’s work draws on a venerable tradition of performance art in which the body is used to interrogate cultural norms and power dynamics. In the 1960s, the Viennese Actionists staged performances using their own blood, urine and excrement to expose Austria’s willed amnesia about its Nazi past. In 1971, the American artist Chris Burden made a video of a friend shooting him with a .22 rifle in a kind of commentary on the Vietnam War.

As an art student, Pavlensky encountered the work of the Moscow Actionists. One, Oleg Kulik, pretended to be a dog: naked, chained, he barked at passers-by in a reminder of the animality beneath our civilizational veneer. Another, Alexander Brener, stood in boxing shorts and gloves in Red Square, demanding that President Boris Yeltsin, who had just started the First Chechen War to prevent the republic from gaining independence, come out and fight him.

The Moscow Actionists, with their guerrilla happenings in unsanctioned public spaces, insisted on a kind of art that couldn’t be bought. Pavlensky operates with a similar ethic, always choosing sites under high police surveillance. “If there is a scale of expression, with opera at one end and terrorism at the other,” he told me, “political art is closer on the scale to terrorism than to opera.”

For Pavlensky, the initial action is just the beginning of a larger process. Even as every element is precisely calculated — “I have to practice each gesture carefully, where I’m going to put my foot, my hand, because once I’m there, everything moves very quickly and there are so many unforeseeables,” he told me — what interests him is the state’s involuntary collaboration in his work. A recent exhibition at Milan’s Galleria Pack included photos of his Russian police dossier: grainy close-ups of embossed lettering on a gas canister, CCTV shots of a hooded figure on a wintry street corner — images that, as he points out, anonymous Interior Ministry employees have cropped, edited and laid out with deliberate artistry. “What I’m doing is turning the tables, drawing the government into the process of making art,” he said. “The power relations shift, the state enters into the work of art and becomes an object, an actor.”

In 2014, Pavlensky embarked on a more direct confrontation with the state. It was the year Putin began a war in Ukraine, cracking down on Ukrainian activists opposed to the invasion by imprisoning them on trumped-up terrorism charges. The filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was convicted of supposedly plotting to bomb a series of buildings and monuments and is now serving a 20-year sentence in the Russian Far North.

Pavlensky was an active supporter of the protesters gathering in Ukraine’s Maidan, and in what now seems a precursor to his Banque de France action, he set ablaze the doors of the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Russian security service, then waited for the police to arrive, gas canister in hand. The “action,” which Pavlensky titled “Threat,” referenced Sentsov’s supposed plot. Pavlensky was arrested, sent to a psychiatric ward for a few weeks and then imprisoned for seven months, awaiting trial. In solidarity with Sentsov and other incarcerated activists, he demanded to be charged with terrorism. Instead, he was convicted of vandalism and let off with a fine, which he refused to pay.

The incident that would drive him into exile occurred just a few months after his release. An actress named Anastasia Slonina, associated with the Moscow theater group Teatr.doc, filed charges against Pavlensky and Shalygina. She claimed the couple assaulted her with a knife when she resisted their sexual advances. Pavlensky and Shalygina, who had an open relationship, denied the charges. “There was no violence, no knife,” Pavlensky says. (Anastasia Slonina did not respond to requests for comment.)

The charges created bitter divisions in Russian intellectual circles, the writer Masha Gessen told me. “On the one hand, ‘If she says it happened, we have to assume it happened.’ On the other, ‘No one should ever go to the police’ — an unimpeachable argument in Russia, where whatever the court system doles out is a priori unjust.” Pavlensky and Shalygina’s supporters insisted the couple had been framed. Although Gessen says she has no opinion on the case, she notes that “Russia loves to put dissidents in jail on sexual charges, because who’s going to stand up for a sexual predator?” Gessen cites the case of Yuri Dmitriev, a historian uncovering Soviet-era mass graves who is currently imprisoned on charges of sexual abuse and child pornography, widely regarded as having been fabricated. After “Threat,” “it was inevitable they were going to get Pavlensky one way or another. I think they wanted to get him out of the country.”

Pavlensky and Shalygina say they were warned that if convicted, they could each be sentenced to 10 years in prison, their two small children placed in a state orphanage. They decided to seek refuge in France, which Pavlensky chose because it was the “alma mater of revolution.” “I’m not scared of prison,” he said, “but I won’t go like a sheep to the slaughter for something I didn’t do.”

[What do we mean when we call art “necessary”?]

Two months before “Lighting,” I visited Pavlensky and Shalygina at their latest home, the eighth in seven months. They said that the French state had offered them housing, but, as Shalygina explained to me with a laugh, they didn’t want to be “fed by the monster.”

Pavlensky’s and Shalygina’s politics are loosely anarchist. They describe themselves as living by an alternative economy of foraging, donations from well-wishers and the occasional lecture fee. (French authorities were particularly irritated by Pavlensky’s telling German TV why Paris is a great place to live: When you’re hungry, you shoplift from supermarkets, and when you need to get somewhere, you jump the Metro turnstile.) None of Pavlensky’s art is for sale, and issues of Political Propaganda, an art magazine Shalygina began in Russia, are distributed free.

The address they’d given me was fairy-tale unexpected: a cottage in a cobblestone alley festooned in climbing roses, tucked behind a boulevard of grim high-rises. Inside, Pavlensky and Shalygina greeted me beaming. How had they ended up here? I asked.

The couple’s approach to house hunting, it turned out, was characteristically guerrilla. They’d fallen out with the inhabitants of their previous squat. One night, while on one of their regular family rambles around Paris, they came upon a bucolic alley and spotted a cottage that looked abandoned so they moved in. Twenty-four hours later, the owner showed up with the police, but evicting squatters from a Paris property that is not your primary residence can be a slow business in a legal system that favors tenants over landlords.

When I arrived, handymen were hooking the house up to the electricity mains. We climbed the steep broken stairs and emerged on a balcony, with views across Paris. Their daughters — 6-year-old Lilya playing a joyous peekaboo; 9-year-old Alisa, grave, reserved — clambered along the balcony railings, then scampered off to their bedroom to draw pictures. In Russia, Pavlensky and Shalygina had home-schooled their daughters, teaching them kickboxing, poetry, chess. Now, reluctantly, they’d enrolled the girls in the local primaire so they could learn French. Alisa liked school; Lilya didn’t.

Sitting on the balcony in the crisp sunlight, Pavlensky talked about his own upbringing in a high-rise complex on the western edge of St. Petersburg. His parents were “conformists shaped by the Soviet system, people who above all wanted a comfortable life.” His father was a geologist who spent his entire career at a government institute. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the elder Pavlensky fell into acute alcoholism. “My father died alone at 49, choking on a piece of raw meat. His example taught me how not to live. I saw how his reliance on the state for comfort, his disappointment at the state’s abandonment, led to this horrible death.”

Pavlensky’s mother, a retired nurse, is still alive. In a book of interviews, Pavlensky described her exasperation with the life he and Shalygina had chosen. “My mother is someone who thinks you have to stay on good terms with the police and beware of the neighbors. She would unleash this stream of clichés on me: ‘The children have to go to school. If they’re sick, you send them to the doctor. Why don’t you have a job? How are you going to feed your family? Why don’t you have any money?’ The apotheosis of her arguments was, ‘If you don’t work, how are you going to save enough money to go on vacation?’ ” When he was first sent to a psychiatric hospital after one of his “actions,” Pavlensky had a flash of recognition. The nurses’ way of bullying patients into compliance was exactly how his mother had always treated him: Unless you were catatonic, you were considered dangerous.

Now, looking out at the bluffs of the Buttes-Chaumont park, Pavlensky recalled how at art school, he came to regard culture as just another state institution, with its own levers of power. “When I dropped out, my true education continued,” he said. “I can honestly say my life was changed by art — by the example of artists like Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Duchamp, Malevich. I saw that art helps liberate — that real artists’ work was in constant collision with power.”

A year later, Pavlensky sat impassive in the prisoners’ box in the Porte de Clichy courtroom, as the panel of judges returned from their deliberations. From his bench, Judge Denieul pronounced their decision. The trial date was set for January. In the meantime, the terms of Shalygina’s probation were to be eased — from now on, she would report to the police only once a week, and the sole area of Paris from which she was banned was the 11th arrondissement, where the Place de la Bastille is located. As for Pavlensky — Denieul paused — “the same.”

In slow motion, Pavlensky’s lawyer wheeled on her heels to face the audience. Pumping her fists high, she let loose an ecstatic, “Yes!”

Four hours later, I was on my way with Oksana to pick Pavlensky up from prison. Stéphane Chatry, a tall black-bearded Frenchman who runs a program called Artivism Contemporary Art, was driving; riding shotgun was a young photojournalist, Flavien Moras. Our destination was Fleury-Mérogis prison, 12 miles outside Paris, where Oksana had also served her pretrial detention. The mood in the car was jubilant; Oksana blasted a tape of a Metro-busker singing an Arabic rendition of “Billie Jean.”

Fleury-Mérogis, a ’60s-era polygonal complex that has held some of France’s most notorious bank robbers and accused terrorists, is the largest prison in Europe. At the entrance, a guard behind bulletproof glass told us that Pavlensky had not yet returned from his hearing. There were only two transfers a day, and the prison bus had to make the rounds of all the Paris courthouses. The waiting room was closed at night, so we sat outside in the floodlit cold. Periodically, we heard muffled roars of prisoners deep within the complex. A loudspeaker crackled intermittent orders at us: No photographs; no smoking. Every hour or so, there would be a carload of people who had come to meet a friend or relative who was also being released. Like us, these groups — invariably young and French-African or Arab — were loud, raucous with nervous excitement.

Stéphane and Flavien drove off to a nearby fast-food chain for coffee and pizza; Oksana didn’t want to budge. She talked about her upbringing in Norilsk, a nickel-mining city in the Arctic Circle that is reportedly one of the most polluted cities in the world. Her father and brother were both miners; at 16, hungry “for light and joy,” she escaped to St. Petersburg. Twelve years later, she met Pyotr in a bar. The little finger on Oksana’s left hand is missing: Some years ago she chopped it off as an act of restorative truth for having concealed a sexual dalliance from Pyotr. (Though their relationship wasn’t monogamous, the deal was total transparency.) “In Russia, there’s this saying that a woman’s word means nothing,” she told me. “I wanted to show that I was good for my word.”

Oksana described Pyotr as her “best friend.” She helped him plan and execute his “actions”; when he was in prison, she campaigned full time for his cause while looking after their children. Tonight — now that Pyotr was finally being released — she was wondering who she would be without him. “The only thing I know how to do is help artists get in trouble,” she laughed.

At 11:30 p.m., the prison bus arrived from Paris, and Fleury’s metal maw opened to let it through. Two hours later, the doors opened once again, and three men walked out, their silhouettes backlit. One disappeared into the industrial wasteland. The other, a bearded youth carrying his belongings in plaid shopping bags, was greeted by his friends with whoops and fist-bumps. The third figure was Pavlensky. He looked chalky-gray, but happy. “Salut, le Russe,” the other shouted.

On the drive back to Paris, Pavlensky spoke in an excited tumble of English, French and Russian, supplemented by pantomime. He told us stories about elderly Georgian inmates and TV remote controls as intramural currency and how much he’d enjoyed reading Voltaire and Madame de Sévigné and why he kept getting thrown into the punishment cell. He wanted us to know everything about prison and also to appreciate its fundamental unknowability — how you could spend 20 years in one prison and only be able to testify to what you’d witnessed in your particular block; how Building D3 at Fleury was a different universe from Building D5.

When we reached downtown Paris, it was 2:30 a.m., and Pavlensky was looking for a bar in which to celebrate. He had a wad of bank notes, money that had been returned to him by prison authorities on his release, and though he usually doesn’t drink, he wanted to treat everyone to a few rounds of vodka shots.

“Where to?” asked Stéphane.

The Place de la Bastille, of course, Pavlensky said. It fit his philosophy of resistance that we go to the one place that he and Shalygina were forbidden from going. Stéphane parked on a side street. Even at that hour, the Place de la Bastille was lined with police cars. Stéphane wondered aloud how long Pavlensky would manage to stay out of prison — a month?

“A happy month,” he replied.

We stopped outside the Banque de France, so Oksana and Pyotr could examine the aftereffect of “Lighting.” It had cost 18,000 euros to repair the damage, the bank claimed in its civil suit.

“Not bad — 18,000 euros for a work of art,” Pavlensky reflected. “It’s beautiful, the Place de la Bastille, one of the most beautiful places in Paris. But not a good place for a bank.”

In January, Pavlensky returned to court and was given a three-year prison sentence. The 11 months he spent in pretrial detention were credited as time served; the remaining two years were suspended. The couple were fined roughly $25,000, for material and “moral” damage. Pavlensky says he has no plans to pay it.

Since his release, he told me in an email, his personal life has been “catastrophic”: Shalygina ended their 12-year relationship, throwing him into what he termed a “double exile.” (She and their two daughters are fine, she reports in a Facebook message, but she doesn’t wish their current lives to be part of this article, or to comment on her breakup with Pavlensky.) His new partner is a Frenchwoman whom he describes as his “antithesis” — “an icon of bourgeois prudence” with “a big apartment in the prestigious 16th arrondissement.” It’s a “tragic love,” he said, doomed by contradiction.

Pavlensky’s work, however, is thriving. He recently took part in half a dozen of the gilets jaunes protests, in which shops, newspaper kiosks and even a Rouen branch of the Banque de France were set ablaze — an act he regards as a tribute to “Lighting.” For Pavlensky, the French state’s response to his artwork confirmed his central thesis: Institutions of power are oppressive, yet they are also oddly vulnerable to someone who denies their legitimacy. He is now at work documenting the government’s contribution to “Lighting” — the CCTV images, court transcripts, letters from the prison authorities that constitute the larger artwork. All his work, Pavlensky says, reveals that society at large may be a prison, but it is still possible to exert a kind of negative liberty. “Everything in my art is done to make people think. It’s not enough just to have your own individual freedom; you need to help others free themselves.”

Fernanda Eberstadt is the author of the nonfiction book “Little Money Street,” about Roma musicians. Her last article for the magazine was about the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.

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