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Russian Artists Convicted in French Court for Setting Fire to Bank of France in Performance

After a dramatic court hearing, the pair were convicted for dangerous destruction of property on Thursday. Alongside prison time, they must pay nearly $25,000 in damages to the Bank of France.

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)

A saga of fire and fury has ended in a Paris court on Thursday, January 10, when  a Paris court convicted Russian artists Petr Pavlensky and Oksana Shalygina for setting fire to the Bank of France’s façade in an October 2017 action they call “Lighting.”

The couple, who has recently separated, was charged with dangerous destruction of property and faced up to 10 years of prison. The court convicted the duo, issuing Pavlensky a two-year suspended sentence and one year of jail time. Because he has already served 11 months in pretrial detention, he will not spend further time behind bars and was allowed to walk free after the trial. Shalygina received a 16-month suspended sentence and five months imprisonment with penalty adjustment, meaning she does not have to immediately serve her sentence. (A suspended sentence defines a period of probation; if the defendant doesn’t break the law within that period, the judge dismisses the sentence.)

Additionally, Pavlensky and Shalygina must pay €18,678 (~$21,440) in pecuniary and €3,000 (~$3,440) in non-pecuniary damages to the Bank of France.

“Never!” responded Pavlensky. Shortly after the trial, Shalygina confirmed with artnet News that the pair doesn’t intend to pay the fine.

A performance by Petr Pavlensky in Moscow
A performance by Petr Pavlensky in Moscow

Several media reports confirm this dramatic account from the courtroom. The judge even called the trial “quite exceptional,” according to the French newspaper Le Figaro. “This is an audience where art encounters the law, where one opposes legal code and collections of poetry.” He continued by quoting avant-garde filmmaker Jean Cocteau before acknowledging the fire’s damage to the bank and danger to the public. During the trial, Shalygina wore black sunglasses and a wig as a tribute to the famous robber Jacques Mesrine.

Speaking in court and to the press after the trial, the artists have compared their 2017 fire with the recent Yellow Vest protests. Shalygina tells artnet News that “the manifestations of the gilets jaunes confirmed our statement. Everything was different in the moment when we were performing our action.” She explained, “At the time, it was a look into the future, an anticipation. The action was visionary because it was predicting the future, to an extent, predicting this revolution. What we were discussing a year ago is happening now in France.”

A performance by Petr Pavlensky in Moscow
A performance by Petr Pavlensky 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 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.)

On September 13, 2018, Pavlensky was released from pre-trial detention in a French prison ahead of his court date. Prosecutors had recommended that the judge issue the Russian artist a full 10-year imprisonment for his actions, which FEMEN activists had protested outside the courthouse as a disproportionate response to an artistic action.

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

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 talking about a crime, we are talking about the precedent of political art.”

When Hyperallergic asked Pavlensky last October 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.

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