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After Incendiary Performance, Russian Artist Awaits His Fate

Petr Pavlensky fled Russia in 2017, but late last year he was arrested after setting fire to France’s central bank. The subsequent legal proceedings have been cloaked in secrecy.

Petr Pavlensky being detained at the scene of his piece, "Lighting," in Paris. (all photos courtesy the artist and Oksana Shaligyna)
Petr Pavlensky being detained at the scene of his piece, “Lighting,” in Paris. (all photos courtesy the artist and Oksana Shaligyna)

Petr Pavlensky is not receiving his mail. Even letters from his children have somehow lost their way to the Russian artist’s cell in France’s Fleury-Mérogis prison complex. The government has even denied visitation rights to friends of the family. And now, Oksana Shaligyna, the artist’s partner and collaborator, is alleging that the French government has unduly censored Pavlensky’s contact with the outside world to a degree unseen in their native Russia.

“At the moment there is a blockade of the artist from information,” Shaligyna writes in an email to Hyperallergic. “Censorship in France is tough, as 80% of the letters did not reach me when I was in prison. It turns out a lot of people have written to me, but I still have not received their letters. I received five letters out of 50.”

A performance by Petr Pavlensky in Moscow
An action by Petr Pavlensky in Saint Petersburg entitled “Carcass”

On October 17 of last year, both Pavlensky and Shaligyna were charged by a Paris judge with damaging property at the risk of endangering others. They were arrested after Pavlensky’s action two nights earlier, “Lighting,” during which he set fire to France’s central bank, the Banque de France. (Shaligyna was jailed for over two months then released, pending further judicial action.)

Pavlensky defended his inferno as artistic expression. The Banque de France stands on the grounds formerly occupied by the Bastille, of French Revolution fame. “The Bastille was destroyed by a people in revolution; the people destroyed its symbol of despotism and power,” Pavlensky explained at the time, in a statement released via the human rights activist and FEMEN leader Inna Shevchenko. “The Banque de France has taken the place of the Bastille, and bankers have taken the place of monarchs.”

Petr Pavlensky in front of the FSB building in Moscow after setting its door on fire.
Petr Pavlensky in front of the Federal Security Service building in Moscow after setting its door on fire.

With the police investigation recently completed, Pavlensky’s case was officially transferred to the prosecutor’s office on March 1. Shaligyna predicts that in the next few months, the case will either go to court or be closed. Meanwhile, she says, Pavlensky remains strong in spirit and cheerful despite what he is up against.

The couple and their two children were granted political asylum in France in May 2017 after fleeing Russia in January of that year. After numerous detentions by Russian law enforcement agencies, Pavlensky was charged by the government with the sexual assault of the actress Anastasia Slonina. (Although many have cast doubt on the charges, Slonina and her theater troupe, Teatre.doc, stand by the claims. Both Pavlensky and Shaligyna have denied the claims.)

A performance by Petr Pavlensky in Moscow
An action by Petr Pavlensky in which he nailed his scrotum to Red Square in Moscow.

Over the past decade, Pavlensky has cultivated a reputation as a radical among radicals. He has made headlines for his breathtaking actions of self-inflicted violence: suturing his mouth shut to protest the arrest of Pussy Riot (2012); placing himself, naked, inside a coil of barbed wires as a protest action against the police (2013); nailing his scrotum to Red Square to protest political indifference in modern Russian society (2013); cutting off his earlobe to object to the use of forced psychiatry on dissidents (2014); and setting fire to the doors of Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB and the current home of Russia’s Federal Security Service (2016).

However, there is more to Pavlensky’s work than the thrill of blunt violence; political malfeasance becomes a conceptual element of the art. As with the work of other outspoken live artists, curators have long questioned how best to exhibit Pavlensky’s work. In Saatchi Gallery’s recent London exhibition, Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism, documentary images from the artist’s actions were displayed alongside material evidence from the Russian government’s response: photographs of gas canisters, a re-staging of Pavlensky’s interrogation by Russian authorities, and a copy of a bureaucrat’s signature. An upcoming solo exhibition at Milan’s Galleria Pack will consist entirely of photographic documentation of his actions. It’s important to understand how Pavlensky’s political activism transcends the accusations of exhibitionism often leveled by his critics.

A performance by Petr Pavlensky in Moscow
“Segregation,” an action by Petr Pavlensky in Moscow for which he cut off one of his ear lobes.

Not that Pavlensky is entirely lacking in supporters. Across Europe and the Americas, artists, academics, and fans have pledged their support for the Russian dissident artist. One in particular, Spain-based visual artist Anna Gimein, has published a public letter on Facebook petitioning the French courts on behalf of Pavlensky and signed by hundreds of artists, arts workers, and artists. The letter was delivered to the judge in Pavlensky’s case and added to the case documents.

“With his actions, Pavlensky raises his voice to draw attention to situations of repression, and the society’s acceptance of that repression,” Gimein’s letter reads in part. “Depriving him of the right to public judicial proceedings also means depriving the general public of its right to know how justice is done.”

For activists, a major issue in the artist’s case is the closed-door judicial proceeding that has silenced Pavlensky’s voice while concealing the facts of the case from an interested public. While there is nothing necessarily illegal about closed-door sessions in the French legal system, activists feel that the proceedings mock the spirit of Pavlensky’s work, with its focus on freedom of speech, human rights, and testing the limits of government transparency. Last month, the French Court of Cassation sided with Pavlensky’s supporters and ordered that his hearings should be open to the public (consequently, the most recent one was).

Petr Pavlensky being detained at the scene of his piece, "Lighting," in Paris.
Petr Pavlensky being detained at the scene of his piece, “Lighting,” in Paris.

But why has France so tightly guarded access to Pavlensky’s trial? One reason for the strict guidelines may be the proximity of “Lighting” to the two-year anniversary of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks. Actions that could be construed as arson in a city already on high alert would certainly not play in Pavlensky’s favor with the authorities.

However, Shaligyna opts for a more conceptual outlook on the situation. “Being inside the power mechanism, he studies it,” she notes. “The criminal case is a door to those mechanics; therefore, it is senseless to argue in the banal definitions of punishment and guilt with this case. There is work needed to expand the boundaries and forms of political art. We are not taking about a crime, we are talking about the precedent of political art.”

Hyperallergic contacted France’s Ministry of Culture for commentary on Pavlensky’s case and its implications for issues of freedom of expression in the country, but has received no response.

Correction: This article originally misidentified the hometown of Petr Pavlensky and Oksana Shaligyna as Moscow, but it is in fact Saint Petersburg. The article originally also incorrectly suggested that Shaligyna participated in lighting the fire at the Banque de France building in Paris in October 2017, but this action was carried out by Pavlensky alone. We apologize for these errors, which have been corrected.

Russian law enforcement agents detaining Petr Pavlensky.
Russian law enforcement agents detaining Petr Pavlensky.
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