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 Shalygina)

On September 13, Russian artist Petr Pavlensky was released from pre-trial detention in a French prison after being arrested last October and charged with property damage for setting fire to the entrance of France’s central bank in an action he called “Lighting.”

Prosecutors, however, are displeased with Pavlensky’s release and have asked that the artist be kept in prison for 10 years, according to Oksana Shalygina, the artist’s partner, who spoke about the hearing with the Russian service of Radio France Internationale (RFI).

“Prosecutors had given a long speech and set out around five points according to which [Pavlensky] definitely must not be released,” Shalygina said. A representative from the Bank of France also stated in a pre-trial court hearing that the institution might sue Pavlensky for “defamation,” to which the artist responded that the Bank of France is “a symbol of the destruction of all revolutionary initiatives, which financed the destruction of 35,000 people,” according to Shalygina.

The artist clarified his statement to Hyperallergic via email, referencing the Bank of France’s financing of the 1871 massacre of the Communards, in which an estimated 20,000 to 35,000 deaths occurred and more than 43,000 prisoners were taken. Pavlensky also pointed out that the Mur des Fédérés still stands inside the Père Lachaise cemetery, pockmarked with thousands of bullet holes from the murder and disposal of bodies.

“The Bastille was destroyed by a people in revolution; the people destroyed its symbol of despotism and power,” Pavlensky explained at the time of his “Lighting” action, in a statement released via the human rights activist and FEMEN leader Inna Shevchenko. He continued, “The Banque de France has taken the place of the Bastille, and bankers have taken the place of monarchs.”

According to the RFI, the Paris court ruled that Pavlensky be released, but ordered him to report to the police regularly. Elsewhere, news outlets are reporting that his trial will begin in January 2019.

Outside the courthouse, FEMEN activists showed their support for the Russian artist by recreating his first Moscow protest. The women sewed their mouths shut and stood topless with black-painted messages across their chests, demanding Pavlensky’s release. On Twitter, Schevchenko said that the group “denounced the disproportionate repression led by the French state toward Piotr Pavlenski [sic] and the willingness to muzzle his militant speech and to deny his freedom of expression.”

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 Moscow’s 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 the Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB and the current home of Russia’s Federal Security Service (2016).

In May 2017, Pavlensky, his partner, and their two children were granted political asylum in France after fleeing Russia via Ukraine 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 Shalygina have denied the claims.)

A performance by Petr Pavlensky in Moscow

Previously, Hyperallergic reported on the conditions of France’s Fleury-Mérogis prison complex, where Pavlensky was serving his pre-trial detention. Back in March of this year, Shalygina accused the government of unduly censoring the artist’s contact with the outside world by restricting visitation rights and inbound letters to the prison.

In a Facebook post on September 7, Shalygina shared Pavlensky’s account of abuse that he and other inmates were allegedly subjected to in prison. He described conditions as worse than those in Moscow’s Butyrka prison, where he had once been held. He writes that the French prison guards “throw [prisoners] on the floor, strangle until there is rattling [in the throat], twist arms, pull handcuffs back so that the skin on wrists splits.”

“Everyday, the whole apparatus [of prison] works to accustom a person to unthinking submission,” the artist told Hyperallergic. “Regulations replace common sense.”

A crucial part of Pavlensky’s artistic practice is his journey through the state’s judicial system. As Shalygina told Hyperallergic back in March, “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.”

When Hyperallergic asked Pavlensky if a possible 10-year sentence seemed disproportionate to the alleged crime he committed, the artist responded by saying that it was indeed a long term, but “in my case this is only a numeral that limits the fantasy of the prosecutor.” He went on to claim that there is no fundamental difference between how the Russian and French governments have responded to his work.

Can he predict what the outcome of his case will be? The artist thinks it’s too early to draw conclusions. “We must wait for the tribunal,” he said.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...