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Nudity as activism – Interview with Petr Pavlensky, Red Square Artist

Nudity as activism – Interview with Petr Pavlensky, Red Square Artist

Our world appears to be spiralling ever faster, ever more out of our control. We are more than ever linked with each other, bound together, depending on each other. At the same time we have never been as divided by class as today: class, religion, race, nation, gender – all of them tear us apart instead of bringing us together. First we stereotype everybody, including ourselves, then we put ourselves into any drawer just to make our own voice heard. Personality, character? They are no more. We conform to others. We desperately seek our individuality in a group that is just like us thereby becoming another anonymous loudmouth. Our protests become ever more extreme otherwise nobody would notice it.

Often enough outsiders do not easily understand such protests, such extreme measures artists and political activists seek out. Breaking taboos has always been and will always be difficult for everybody. That is the very point of breaking a taboo. Do I understand this way of activism? No. Do I know if this is the right way, will the new form of protest – one example of which we will learn more about in this interview – lead to reform? Or weill it just lead to a self-perpetuating cycle in which the extreme measure itself becomes the message? I honestly don’t know, and this is why I sat down with Petr Pavlensky to try to understand. Petr is a 29-year old Russian political artist. Before he nailed his scrotum to the Red Square earlier this year, he wrapped himself naked in barbed wire or sew his mouth shut to protest Putin’s oligarchic Russia. Most recently he founded the magazine “Political Propaganda “.

Naked body as activism – Does a naked body tell more than the one covered by clothes?
Not really. What’s important to me is the meaning of all elements in my performance. If my clothes don’t have any meaning and only distract the viewer, I exclude this element. In my performance called Stitch, the clothes played an important role, as I needed to draw attention to my sewn mouth and a poster.

What about nudity in the West?  Like most countries Western states have laws against public nudity. In the past few years even those nations known for their liberalism, like Great Britain, have been enforcing their “Public Order Acts” more and more. Do you think these laws on indecent behaviour in public are a serious threat against freedom of speech?
Of course, these laws are hypocritical, and people should oppose them. Such a law is always a step towards totalitarianism and ideological terror. It doesn’t matter what authorities have issued the law, the purpose is always to BLOCK, CENSOR, CONTROL. Their objective is cultural chauvinism.

Currently quite famous is the radical feminist group FEMEN, which protests all around the world but especially in countries of the former Eastern Bloc against gender inequality and oligarchic Capitalism. Their brand is the naked female upper body, which they bear with some writing on it every time they protest. Has nakedness become a taboo again, after the very liberal 1970s?
I don’t think that nudity has become taboo, but I see a potential danger of measures prohibiting nudity. Any authority, being an apparatus of violence, always seeks control over any manifestation of human liberties. It is necessary for SAFEGUARDING power of this authority. And nudity, if it happens by the will of the subject in a freely chosen place, means that this person has already overcome shame and fear, and therefore his or her nudity is a step toward liberation. And anything that is connected to liberation is perceived by authorities as a threat to their total control. Therefore, authorities keep coming up with various regulations and laws against it.

Or is it that nudity is only allowed in a cleaned-up sexualised version, with over-photoshopped, non-threatening young, virginal women? Do people have more trouble seeing a normal body with all its blemishes in non-sexual contexts?
Yes, authorities allow nudity in a sexual context in magazines and other places, because it encourages people’s DESIRES to consume more, this nudity draws people into the realm of capitalism, it has become an attribute of the modern capitalism. Besides that, nudity in a sexual context leads to a desire of sexual pleasures, and this desire contributes to family creation and population growth.

Is art in general becoming more political or do we just notice it more due to the extreme acts artists fulfill?
I don’t think so, actions of artists used to be more radical in the past. I believe that since the art is part of our communication system, it simply translates political events into visual codes helping people to understand the meaning of these events. That’s why the art in various countries and regions is so different. It depends on the political climate and geopolitical position of a country or a region. I think that worsening political conflicts make art more political.

Last year in solidarity with Russian punk rockers Pussy Riot you sew your mouth shut. A few weeks ago you sat yourself up on the Red Square, naked, and drove a large nail through your scrotum into the paving. How do people react to your performance?
There is a whole range of reactions, from insults and threats, to letters of gratitude and support. But the opinion of those people who disgust my gesture, is also significant to me. Because people who are most affected by my performance, are people who recognise themselves in it, and who try to hide behind insults and threats from what they’ve seen. But one can’t hide or escape from him- or herself.

Political art is aimed at revealing the power structure within a state, thus showing people what destroys them and what they need to destroy. I observe extreme performances like yours mainly in Eastern Europe and some Muslim countries. What do you think, will this kind of activism spread farther? Do you see similar problems, which should be attacked in a similar way, in countries like Germany, France, the USA?
As I said before, the political art is born out of political context, and forms of artistic expression depend on instruments used by authorities to suppress civil society. In Eastern Europe and Muslim countries , authorities act openly and rudely . Their aim is to repeatedly prove to themselves and to the public that the government is an apparatus of violence, and that the only thing people can do is being afraid of the government, so that the government can take care of all other things. This is why artists from these regions express themselves in such a radical way. Otherwise our actions wouldn’t fit the political context.
In Western Europe and the United States, forms of control and suppression are more sophisticated , the system often neutralises and sterilises a person by putting him or her in a cocoon of personal debt and consumerism. The tiger is not hungry, but it lives in a cage and it has to entertain the audience from time to time in a circus arena. The tiger has nothing to complain about, it is fed and cared for, but for his own safety, they have cut down its teeth. Therefore, activists should keep attacking society, but these attacks should match the political context. I think that the main subject to be attacked by activists in the West should be this mentality of living in a cage, the activists should also attack laws and regulations that form this cage.

Do you see yourself more as a political activist as an artist?
I think I’m more an artist than an activist. Political activists wouldn’t create difficulties for themselves by using metaphors in their actions. They risk to be misunderstood, whereas their main objective is convincing and recruiting new members. Artist’s actions would seem unreasonable for political activists in terms of desired results and dangers.

What do you think would have happened if you had done the same performance you did in Moscow in a Western capital, say Washington, D.C., in front of the White House or Congress?
I don’t know. I’m not sure they have paving stones there.

Why does self-injury play such a big role in your work?
Because the main theme of my work is the relationship between government and society. In my latest action “on the Red Square”, I wanted to make people physically feel, where their apathy and political indifference are leading at. People are hiding in their soft chairs in offices or at home, being afraid to go out and determine their own future, and I want to show them truth about their lives. Because their indifference today makes the prison state possible tomorrow.

Do you believe in God?

Any concrete plans for the next art performance?
I can’t answer this question, as each of my performances is unique. I don’t have plans for the next few years or a series of prepared actions. My actions are born out the political context, and in Russia it’s changing quite rapidly.

Petr Pavlensky the trial of Pussy Riot outside the Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg (2012)



Picture: performance “Carcass” by Pavlensky in front of the City Parliament in St. Petersburg. May 2013


Performance “Fixation” by Petr Pavlensky on the Red Square (2013)


Big Thanks for great translation and help to Dierk Haasis

Photo top: Victor Ribas

Belonging to the first generation of true Europeans, with roots almost covering the continent, I spread my life between Germany and Serbia. Read more