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).
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