Shock in performance art is nothing new – from Marina Abramovic to Yoko Ono, artists have been burning, mutilating and suffocating themselves for decades. Last Sunday, Petr Pavlensky contributed to this illustrious history by nailing his testicles to the cobblestones of Moscow's Red Square. Deliberately staged to coincide with Police Day, a national commemoration honouring the Russian police forces, it was a daring statement against police control and surveillance.
It's not the first time Pavlensky has pulled off a stunt like this; the overtly political artist has previously sewn his lips shut to protest Pussy Riot's incarceration, and once cocooned himself in barbed wire outside the Legislative Assembly of St Petersburg. In a country that intimidates and imprisons dissidents who dare to speak out against the state, Pavlensky is more than an artist – he's a hero who's more than happy to nail his colours to the mast. So to speak. Now facing charges of hooliganism (the same offence Pussy Riot members were convicted for), he tells Dazed why he's just scared like everyone else.
Dazed Digital: Where did you get the idea for this performance?
Petr Pavlensky: A man sitting on Red Square and staring at his balls nailed to the cobblestone is a metaphor of fixating on one's helplessness. It’s about political indifference that is very dangerous and accelerates the transformation of the country into a police state. The idea came to me when I was taking a stroll in Red Square and saw a huge number of snoops from the Federal Security Service (FSO). This is the very heart of Moscow, people come there from all over the world, but it’s always under surveillance from the snoops, security cameras, snipers and policemen. If the country turns into a police state, it will be filled with snoops, policemen and security cameras. And the permanent Police Day will come. The only thing left would be to stay nailed to the cobblestones by your balls, infinitely fixating on your helplessness.
DD: How did you prepare for it?
Petr Pavlensky: I rehearsed the order and the speed of removing clothes. I decided to hammer my scrotum before I was naked, so that I'd have a better chance of staying unnoticed longer.
DD: Can you describe the process of events?
Petr Pavlensky: First I sat down, still clothed, dropped my trousers and quickly nailed the scrotum into a gap between two cobblestones. All this time, about 33 seconds, I remained unnoticed since I was wearing a coat and was sitting with my back to the police car. Then I threw the hammer into my backpack, took off my shoes, trousers, coat and hat. I shoved these into the backpack and threw it as far as I could – this was the start of the action, there was a naked man in the middle of the square, his scrotum nailed to the cobblestones, as if he materialized there just like that.
DD: How nervous or scared were you?
Petr Pavlensky: I was mostly worried that I wouldn't have enough time to do the nailing right, or that I wouldn't then have time to take off my clothes, in which case the performance wouldn't have worked. The main fear was the fear of failure.
“I'm scared just like everybody else. I just strive to fight the fear”
DD: You were finally arrested and taken away by police. What happened after?
Petr Pavlensky: First an ambulance took me to a hospital, where they removed the nail from the scrotum, disinfected the wound, gave me a tetanus shot and offered surgery, which I refused. Then I spent 24 hours in the police department where I was questioned several times. The next day, I was taken to court, spent three hours waiting in an avtozak [a van for transporting prisoners and those under arrest]. After that, the guards let me out, returned my passport and gave me the court verdict that said I was free to go. The judge didn't even bother with a hearing, she probably didn't want to attract publicity.
DD: Last year, you sewed your lips shut in support of Pussy Riot. How do you feel about them a year on?
Petr Pavlensky: I'm still convinced that they are a colossal phenomenon in political art as well as culture, more broadly. The moment the judge sentenced them, it was clear that Pussy Riot won and the church ripped its mask off, revealed itself as an apparatus of violence and launched its inevitable breakdown and self-destruction.
DD: Doesn’t their incarceration scare you off making such public protests?
Petr Pavlensky: I'm scared just like everybody else. I just strive to fight the fear.
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