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Petr Pavlensky cutting off his earlobe at the Serbsky centre in MoscowCourtesy of Petr Pavlensky (Photo: Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters)

Earlobe-slicing artist Petr Pavlensky: ‘I feel excellent’

The Russian artist talks about getting sent to the psych ward for his ear-chopping protest against state psychiatry

This Saturday, Petr Pavlensky climbed naked onto the wall of Moscow’s Serbsky psychiatry centre and swiftly sliced off his right earlobe. The Russian artist stayed there, bleeding in the cold, completely silent and still for two hours. While he was forcibly removed, restrained and hospitalized, his statement against the psychiatric "institution" and the definition of the "norm" emerged online.

"Armed with psychiatric diagnoses, the bureaucrat in a white lab coat cuts off from society those pieces that prevent him from establishing a monolithic dictate of a single, mandatory norm for everyone," the Guardian quoted, tying in recent cases of politically inconvenient individuals being forced to undergo psychiatric evaluations at the Serbsky centre, including the captured Ukrainian air force pilot Nadya Savchenko and Bolotnaya Square anti-Putin protester Mikhail Kosenko. The same Serbsky centre is notorious for mass-diagnosing Soviet dissidents with "sluggish schizophrenia" before locking them away.

Previously, the artist had sewn his mouth shut, entangled himself naked inside a barbed wire cage and nailed his scrotum to the ground near the Kremlin – all very physical protest metaphors of submission to oppression. But it was his action "Freedom", when he burned tires in the Red Square last February in homage to the Maidan protests in Ukraine, which had the Investigative Committee repeatedly trying and failing to have him declared insane.

Pavlensky was released yesterday. As he spoke to Dazed earlier today, he calmly explained how he penetrated the system to make the authority an active participant in the latest action. He laughed sadly when he described the conditions he saw inside the mental ward. He also made a few problematic declarations against the institution of psychiatry as a whole and the definitions of mental disorders. It was a nuanced and experiential critique, a bit of an Ouroboros. Draw your own conclusions. Or don’t.

How are you feeling?

Petr Pavlensky: I feel excellent. Actually, there was no need for me to go into a hospital. It could have been fixed with a band-aid and I would have gone on with my day.

What happened after you were removed?

Petr Pavlensky: The action took place over two hours. It was quite cold. The representatives of authority were continuously trying to provoke me. When they put the mat down below, it was like placing food in front of someone on a hunger strike. The point was to endure. I was prepared to sit there all day. They pointed, cursed, shouted. But the mat was a distraction. They snuck up from the back, fell on me, twisted all my extremities. They placed me in handcuffs and tied my legs, strapped me to a gurney and lowered me off the wall with ropes.

How did you prepare? 

Petr Pavlensky: I cut off my right ear lobe. It’s a fragment, not a vital organ. I just needed to make sure that the knife was sharp enough, otherwise it would have caused me great suffering.

Why did you do perform this action at the Serbsky centre, the site criticized specifically for its activities in the Soviet era?

Petr Pavlensky: We are currently in a state of total debauchery. It’s nostalgic. There is a return to using psychiatry for political motives. These are Soviet methods, declaring that only those who are spiritually ill can oppose the future of communism. Currently, spiritual disorders and mental illnesses have absorbed the demons from the Middle Ages, and our faith in them. It’s a new occultism: the union of the hammer, the sickle and the cross. Opposition is deemed either criminal or insane. But where is the mental illness? It’s what is convenient; it is in service of stereotypes.

What about psychological help, as opposed to psychiatric treatment?

Petr Pavlensky: All of it is oppression to some norm, some stereotype and standard of normality. And these factors are controlled by the government. A person receives certain information – or propaganda – and that’s how he forms his opinion. It is the framework that reinforces itself. Psychotherapists work towards normalization.

What if a person poses a danger to others?

Petr Pavlensky: I believe society can take care of that itself.  

Your previous actions conclude in policemen arriving and removing you. As an artist, do you consider their actions as participatory in your performance?

Petr Pavlensky: Absolutely, that’s part of it. My objective is to create a particular situation, using only minimal components... The government tries to make society and the individual into objects of their authority, to objectify them. My goal is to create situations which pull the governing bodies into it and objectifies them, when they intervene and develop the action, at the point when I am already not doing anything. I’m just sitting there, or lying down. I don’t make another action or effort. I just stay still and not react, and they are forced to participate. That’s one of the main elements — to make the instruments of the government powers produce the artwork. They can’t neutralize me, really, because they are now performing in the action.

“I was given a proposition: if I just lie there and not say anything, they offered to take off the restraints” - Petr Pavlensky

When did you start speaking?

Petr Pavlensky: When my action came to an end in the hospital and I had to give my name and lawyer’s number. That was after they injected me with something. Valium, I think? The doctor was very pleased reporting that that’s what made me communicate. That’s not true. The doctor decided I had some sort of mystery psychiatric disorder and needed further observation.

I was driven to a different hospital’s psychiatric ward. A terrifying place, decripit. Dirty walls, peeling paint. There was a painting of a train. I got this sensation that it’s all in a context of a day care center. I asked the doctor, why? "Well, so they can remember childhood, of course! When you were happy and taken care of. It’s calming." 

It’s nonsense, of course. Half of the people there are drooling. I later found out that’s called "passive" ("nonviolent"). The "passive" ones are basically vegetables. Once you do anything other than that, like start talking, asking questions or make any effort to assess your predicament, you’re instantly labeled as "excited" ("violent"). I had a conflict with one of the staff within 20 minutes and they restrained me to the bed. I was given a proposition: if I just lie there and not say anything, they offered to take off the restraints. That’s how it works.

There seems to be a direct parallel to the world outside, to individuals within a corrupt society. They are forced to conform to authoritative bodies so they can be "free", if they just stay down and don’t say anything.

Petr Pavlensky: Yes, yes, yes, exactly. I came to understand the subtle parallel between the psychiatric staff’s proposal and my ongoing case with the Investigative Committee. The Investigative Committee has tried to get three separate courts to condemn me as insane (for burning the tires in the Red Square), but they just can’t find a judge who would. I am required not to leave the city while I’m being investigated and ask for permission and papers if I must. Not restrained, but tied down nonetheless.

Funnily enough, I was able to wiggle out of the leg restraints under the blanket. The doctor and a group of staff came by and sat down, with the doctor’s head quite within kicking distance. I showed the doctor that my legs were free... Look, I’m not going to try to hurt anyone, so what is the point? I talked to the doctor then, explained why I was doing this.

After that they picked a new tactic. They said I was in a severe, critical state and required life support. I was put into restraining clothing and transferred to an emergency wing. There was always someone in a room with me. They proceeded to terrify all the staff in the hospital, made a show of asking me not to damage or break anything because this is the life support section of the hospital; they are saving lives here, etc. At an point, a nurse tried to inject me with Haloperidol (an anti-psychotic). I didn’t let him. He tried to put it into a vial of glucose to trick me. But I didn’t let him.

I spent the night there. Another doctor came and talked to me. She said, "This is all very interesting. And strange." She didn’t see that there was ever a need to transfer me to the life support wing out of the psychiatric hospital. She declared me "normal" according to the system of the psychiatric treatment. I didn’t really need them to tell me because I reject their framework. I would have been ready in any case, even if that meant more time there.

“I am a perfectly ordinary person, just like everyone else in society. We are all governed by the same needs and desires, imposed by society... The government tries to instill in you that you cannot overcome this.” - Petr Pavlensky

So, in this action, you critique the system by entering the system. Then you provoked the system to critique itself. Then you rejected that too, as part of the your critique of the system. It’s a nice circle.

Petr Pavlensky: Yes, exactly. This is the work I do: interacting with the functions of power, the branches of its oppression. It’s about penetrating their mechanisms and doing something with them. This is political action, to manipulate them into the action and drive forward the objectification as an art statement.

Are these actions part of a whole body or reactionary to current events?

Petr Pavlensky: I work in stages and I have to work in the informational field and keep working at it. It will never complete. This is my material. The government needs people as a biological material to build its authority. They build societies where the individual can only function within that authority. It’s a vicious cycle.

What if a person is suffering and asks for help? Every time we speak or I see you speaking in public, you appear seem strong, measured, in control. What about those who are not?

Petr Pavlensky: I am a perfectly ordinary person, just like everyone else in society. We are all governed by the same needs and desires, imposed by society. This is why I can talk about it. This is overcoming it. The government tries to instill in you that you cannot overcome this.

How can you help them though?

Petr Pavlensky: Well... In my practice, I am trying to help by setting a precedent. The government tries to neutralize the precedent by censoring it. Culture is a just a collection of codes.

But are you calling for shutting down the hospitals and letting everyone out, or are you primarily trying to demonstrate a precedent that would catalyze a different way of thinking?

Petr Pavlensky: Well, I am not calling to close the hospitals — that would be pointless. Shutting things down, getting things to open — that is a different mechanism. My objective is to make people question the psychiatric institution and the definition of the norm. If the definition of the norm is questioned, then it can no longer wield power over the people.