In the aftermath of sentencing the exiled Russian artist Petr (AKA Pyotr) Pavlensky on Thursday, I ask myself why is he doing this? Is it for art? Or should we categorise him as an attention-seeking spoilt brat? Pavlensky was on trial for setting fire to the facade of a French central bank building, a performance that was filmed and circulated widely on social media.
“Historically shameful: “Bankers have taken the place of monarchs” – Petr Pavlensky
After all, France did take him in after he suffered persecution in his own country and to be quite frank putting lives at risk by setting fire to a building in order to produce a viral video is not justification to break the law, as proven by his court sentencing.
Petr Pavlensky, 34, was given a one-year jail term and two years suspended for the performance stunt. The pair were convicted of “dangerous destruction of property”. However, after, having already served 11 months in custody he will most likely walk free after a month. His former partner in crime, Oksana Shalygina, received a two-year sentence, 16 months of which were suspended. Pavlensky was also ordered to pay 21,678 euros ($25,000) in damages to the Banque de France. “Never!” he shouted in Russian as the verdict was called out.
Pavlensky escaped to France in 2017 and was granted political asylum. He is a comrade/contemporary to the Punk artist collective Pussy Riot. He notably sewed together his lips as a protest for the jailing of members of the feminist punk group. He also wrapped himself in barbed wire, chopped off part of his ear but is best known for “Fixation” in 2013 where he nailed his scrotum to Moscow’s Red Square as a protest to artistic freedom and political oppression.
In France, Pavlensky staged a number of performance pieces. In October 2017 he and Oksana Shalygina set fire to the front windows of the Paris Bastille branch of the Banque de France. The location on the Place de la Bastille, was chosen for it’s context to the French Revolution which began in 1789. The site was “historically shameful”, he added: “Bankers have taken the place of monarchs.” This was the performance that prompted the trial and quite possibly the just outcome.
The question still remains, what drives an artist to pull these kind of attention seeking stunts? To be quite honest just go and see the current Ulay exhibition at Richard Saltoun Gallery. The premise is more honest and it makes more sense in the context of performance art.
Born in Leningrad in 1984, Pavlensky studied monumental art at the Saint Petersburg Art and Industry Academy. During his fourth year in the Academy, he took additional training at St. Petersburg Pro Arte Foundation for Culture and Arts.
Pavlensky and Oksana Shalygina founded an independent online newspaper Political Propaganda in 2012, which was dedicated to contemporary art in political contexts, “overcoming cultural chauvinism, implemented by the government”, feminism and gender equality.
He was awarded the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent in 2016. The Prize was later withdrawn after Pavlensky announced his intention to dedicate it (and its monetary award) to an insurgent group and then explicitly endorsed the use of violence as a valid method to combat government oppression.
Words: Simon Glenloch Photos © Artlyst 2019