Irene Langemann’s documentary on Pyotr Pavlensky asks: In the face of extreme suppression by the State, what can an individual do but act in an extreme manner?
What is an individual to do when he sees things are spiraling downwards? When a current or upcoming disaster (political, social, technological) is not prevented, but instead confirmed and facilitated by organized powers, by rules and laws, which declare every act to resist as criminal or outrageous? This was the question asked by Ted Kaczynski, otherwise known as the “Unabomber”, and his radical response was to attack leading problematic figures, as explored in the film Das Netz (The Net) from 2003 by Lutz Dammbeck.
Death for Beliefs
In a key moment in ancient Greek philosophy, Socrates chose not to fight his execution, but instead to accept polis law even though the accusations of corruption of youth (by encouraging them to question authority) was a simple yet effective attempt in defying the leading powers. Socrates was put to death for being a philosopher. In an astonishing devotion to his beliefs, he remained in prison, renouncing the possibility of escape offered to him. At that time in history, law and order took precedence over the possibility to practice philosophy.
Since then, territorial powers called “States” have had ample time to perfect their capacities of control. Today, citizens are observed in the finest of detail on the Internet. Their capacities to act are limited and restructured through prefabricated patterns as shown in Stare Into The Light My Pretties, the film by Jordan Brown (2017). The invention of “terrorism” was, and still is, one of the best working tools to concentrate and apply control, surveillance and domination as a growing infallible pattern of today’s society.
«Pavlensky combines a radical form of body mutilation and performance art that has been around since the 60s.»
So what can an individual do? Become a member of a political party, convince others to win majority votes, and face the enormous influence of the established administrations and multi-national organizations?
The Russian Pyotr Pavlensky portrayed in Irene Langemann’s documentary Pavlensky – Man and Might (Der Mensch und die Macht), sets into action his response. His retaliation, which he undertakes under his own terms and decisions, is to protest against the upcoming integration and transformation of art into a well observed and restricted state tool. His political performance art pieces are demonstrations against oppression and “State terror”. The turning point in his work was during the trial of Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot, and the forced silencing of artists by those in power. His work has evolved, bringing awareness to the profound changes in Russian society, the oppression of political opposition, freedom of speech and human rights through intimidation, imprisonment and torture.
He appeared in the public space at Kazan Cathedral with his mouth physically sewn shut (“Stitch”, 2012), an accusation directed at the State for forcibly silencing and manipulating its citizens. In 2015, he set fire to the front door of Lubyanka, Russia’s FSB Secret Service headquarters (previously the KGB), where hundreds of thousands of opponents to the State have been tortured and killed (“Lubyanka’s burning door”, 2015). In solidarity with anti-government protestors in Ukraine, Pavlensky reconstructed some of the events from the Maidan Revolution. He set fire to a mound of car tyres, and drummed on metal sheets near Malokonyushenny Bridge and Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the place where Czar Alexander II, who brutally suppressed all political dissent, was assassinated in 1881 (“Freedom”, 2014).
«Even being incarcerated in a closed psychiatric facility for one month didn’t break him.»
On the Russian Police Day in 2013, he sat naked on the cobbled ground of the illustrious Red Square having nailed his scrotum to the paving stones as prisoners have done before in prison camps (“Fixation”, 2013). He appeared wrapped in barbed wire lying on the ground in front of a main public building to remind onlookers that power is an apparatus of violence (“Carcass”, 2013). In his “Segregation” (2014) he sat on the towering wall of the Serbsky Institute of Forensic Psychiatry, the main center for penal psychiatry, and cut off his ear lobe with a knife. The fate of many dissidents had been decided inside those four walls. However, instead of incarceration they were simply declared insane and institutionalized.
Pavlensky combines a radical form of body mutilation and performance art that has been around since the 60s such as in work performed by Rudolf Schwarzkogler from the Viennese Actionism Movement. However, he places his art in a precise political context. He includes police, judicial and administrative proceedings, the national intelligence service and the psychiatric system in his actions in order to bring attention to (and perhaps the breakdown of) the hypocrisy of the system. The Stalinist era of prison, psychiatry and torture is still prevalent today.
Pavlensky secretly recorded his interrogations even during a lie detector test, which Langemann uses for reconstructions. His trial and imprisonment are an integral part of his actions–he is not concerned about the outcome. The fact that he is beaten and injured is only mentioned in the context of standard daily incidents that also concern other prisoners.
Failing to punish him as a criminal (Pavlensky’s symbolic actions do not fall under the criminal code) the new adopted political strategy was to declare him mentally “ill” or “insane”. In light of this, Pavlensky insisted he be tried as a terrorist, risking the highest possible punishment, in order to expose the mechanics of the criminal procedure. In so doing, he usurped the power and decision making process from the State and applied it himself. He can’t loose anymore, punishment is transformed in self-declaration.
Bent but not Broken
Even being incarcerated in a closed psychiatric facility for one month didn’t break him. On the contrary, we perceive gestures and actions of solidarity, sensibility and magnanimity from the other inmates. His concept and ideas also spread during his imprisonment. His fellow activist inmates initiated their “art works” by sending art letters to each other. Finally, an independent psychologist refused to declare him “certifiably insane” or “psychologically perturbed”. Langemann makes room in her documentary to explain his reasoning. In a surprising turn of events, the first state investigator in charge of interrogating Pavlensky chose to quit his job after having spoken with him, and today works as a lawyer on his defense team.
For a long time Langemann followed Pavlensky’s actions and made contact with artists who showed solidarity in their works, like Lena Hades who painted with her own blood or Oleg Kulik who transformed Pavlensky’s actions into sculptures. Kulik states simply: “Pavlensky is completely on his own. If an institutional power or organization would support him, he would already be dead”. The documentary is composed of a surprising interweave between Pavlensky’s reflections declared in situ, documentary materials, solidarity meetings, interviews, staged scenes and reconstructions on the basis of scripts and recordings. The various levels of reflection and representation balance the shocking extremes of his actions.
«The various levels of reflection and representation balance the shocking extremes of his actions.»
There is no difference between art and reality. Pavlensky’s partner, collaborator and mother of their two daughters, Oksana Shalygina states: “We believe that with each intention and action, each spoken word, we either reject, repeat or pass on the existing order imposed on us.”
What can an individual do? Pavlensky’s answer is challenging: create awareness, take responsibility for your actions, don’t pass it on to someone else or delegate it to the authorities.