Tjebbe van Tijen on Fri, 15 Nov 2013 13:33:31 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> ARTIST WITH BALLS ON RED SQUARE: an attempt at understanding the self-mutilation protest of Pyotr Pavlensky

ARTIST WITH BALLS ON RED SQUARE: an attempt at understanding the self-mutilation protest of Pyotr Pavlensky


The tableau picture on which the text below is based can be seen at

an attempt at understanding the artistic protest of Pyotr Pavlensky on the Red Square in Moscow, who nailed his scrotum to the pavement in front of the Mausoleum of Lenin and the Kremlin walls, yesterday. Shortly after he was cut loose and arrested for his deed. Pavlensky said his action was to "protest against the Kremlin's crackdown on political rights." (1)

Self-mutilation in public has a long and varying history and a diverting set of meanings. The re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is performed in many places all over the world. The Islam knows the self-whipping men parading through the streets. Fakirs show their overcoming of the body by the mind by all kind of piercing actions. Piercing of body parts is of all times, often as an act of initiation or embellishments of the body. Modern art has a whole a whole score of body art, whereby some form of self-mutilation is performed, from the enactment of (self)castration by the Austrian artists Herman Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, to the suspending in space of his body through wires and hooks in his skin by the Cypriot-Australian artist Stelarc. 

All these examples differ in meaning from the action of Pyotr Pavlensky yesterday on Red Square, in front of the walls of the Kremlin and the Mausoleum of Lenin. His action points to the self-mutilation of soldiers and prisoners who try to escape from their dire situation, who are so desperate to get out of their actual situation that they re willing to hurt themselves, even badly. Soldiers that shoot themselves in the hand or leg (a common occurrence during the long lasting trench warfare of World War I, prisoners that try to poison themselves, harm their body or twist their mind and behavior in such a way, that they may be transferred to a hospital or a mad house. In the case of the long history of the Russian deportation camps from the time of the Tzars to the Stalin period and even beyond that, an attempt to escape to some form of hospital was a desperate act indeed, as the medical facilities in most of the Gulag camps was below any standard and in some cases more hellish than the actual concentration camp itself. 

Nailing down oneself with a pin through the scrotum, between the balls, has been registered by several witnesses, and such examples did appear again in recent anthology of testimonies on the Russian Gulag by Anne Applebaum, published in the year 2003:

"A prisoner tells the story of a thief who cut off four fingers of his left hand. Instead of being sent to a field as invalid, however, did sit invalid snow and seeing others work. Forbidden to leave, afraid of being shot for attempted escape, "he soon himself and asked for a shovel, using it as a crutch, with his hand survivor, put it in the frozen ground, weeping and cursing. " Still, many prisoners felt that the potential benefit they made was worth the risk. Some methods were rude. The criminals were particularly known for his simply cut three fingers intermediates with an ax, so that they could not cut more trees or hold a wheelbarrow in the mines. Others cut off a foot or a hand, or rubbing acid in his eyes. Others still, to leave for work, a wet cloth wrapped around the foot, at night, came back with frostbite of the third degree. The same method could be applied to the fingers. 

In 1960, Anatoly Marchenko saw a man preaching his testicles in a bank in prison. It was not the first: Valerii Frid describes a man who preached his scrotum in a tree stump."

[Applebaum, Anne. 2003. Gulag: a history. New York: Doubleday; pafge 445 in the eBook edition I used]

The use of the verb 'preached' is odd, and hardly used in English, as far as I could ascertain. I took the quotation on line, once more from Google Books and there another rendering of this sentence is given:
"In the 1960s , Anatoly Marchenko watched a man nail his testicles to a prison bench. Nor was he the first  Valery Frid describes a man who nailed his scrotum to a tree stump.” (2)

It seems that the action of Pyotr Pavlensky did find its inspiration source right there. Or, if not so, it is a way to read his action, as it is not only the actor who determines how others perceive his performance.

However gruesome the act - piercing a long nail through the tender skin of the scrotum straight between the most sensitive part of a man's body, his balls onto the cold pavement of a huge square - it is still a few steps away from the public sacrifice of one's life. Self-immolation is such a final act, being of another order. It can hardly be called an 'artistic act' when one drowns one's own cloths and body in an inflammable liquid and sets it afire. Examples galore with certain strains of Buddhism and Hinduism accepting this form of self-sacrificing acts. Russia has its own horrid history with the persecution of the 'old believers' in the 17th century, whereby whole villages in fear of a horrid end at the hands of their persecutors preferred to burn themselves to death, in what was called their 'fire baptism'. 

The most recent political use of self-immolations were in Bulgaria in a protest against the against the Borisov government. The protest of a Tunisian street vendor, Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, against his maltreatment in December 2010 triggered in the end the Arab Spring movement and when we move back through time we meet Tibetans, Czechs and Vietnamese monks that use this form of ultimate protest.

Back to the action on the Red Square and the intent and effect of such actions. It was not Pavlensky 's first radical action. Another one was preceding it. As is explained on a Wikipedia page about this artist:

"By suturing my mouth on the background of the Kazan Cathedral, I wanted to show the position of the artist in contemporary Russia: a ban on publicity. I am sickened by intimidation of society, mass paranoia, manifestations of which I see everywhere." While commenting on the questionable originality of his action in one of the later interviews, Pavlensky mentioned: "Such practice has occurred among artists and prisoners, but for me it did not matter. The question of primacy and originality here for me does not exist. There was no goal to surprise anyone or come up with something unusual. Rather, I felt the necessity to make a gesture that would accurately reflects my situation."[Wikipedia Petr Pavlensky ]"

Does nailing your balls to the pavement of the most central and symbolic square of Russia "reflects accurately" the situation in Russia in general, or does the desperate act only reflect the state of mind of the artist? As a non-Russian it is impossible to come up with an answer, still there is no doubt that Russia of today is a society which carries it's repressive and violent past with it, like all powerful nations do. When reading the nailing action from the perspective of the Gulag history, the artist is willing to risk - at least - parts of his body, in order to escape from what he feels to be his imprisonment within the confines of a society full of paranoia. Self-mutilation was seen as a crime within the Gulag system. It could be heavily punished. Refusal to fit as an exploitable part within the Gulag (production system), could lead to a death sentence, however paradoxical that may seem. Pavlensky has already been arrested and examined to see if he would not better fit in the infamous Russian classification system of those who are mentally ill. After his action with sewing his lips, he did get out, and was declared sane. The question is if he will be so 'lucky' next time. 

One may also question whether the need for dramatic acts, grandiose symbolic performances that aim at the heart of the power system, is what will change the system. Grotesque gestures seem to me - as an outsider - an expression of the bombast of power as displayed by Tzars, Party Secretaries and other 'great leaders', a cultural phenomenon that has been aptly named in new-speak of the last century: 'Palast-Kult'. The artist as martyr for the great cause of the Great Russia... I see analogies with the the style of the National Bolshevik Party of Eduard Limonov and their need and ways to produce martyrdom (like the recent case of the bad luck of Alexander Dolmatov asking for political asylum in the Netherlands, that treated him so badly that he ends up committing suicide in a Dutch prison cell). 

Can the opponents of a power system be more than a reaction movement, mirroring in their actions and gestures the system they are fighting? One needs a lot of imagination to see any relationship between the 'nailed down balls' of the artist Pyotr Pavlensky and the 'free roaming big balls' of the ruler Vladimir Putin. The fragility of the male apparatus may do the trick: that is what the ruler and those who are overruled do have in common. We know that one day - at a moment least expected - the fragility of yet another 'big ball system' will come to the fore and what seemed most strong proves to be weak. 

Maybe there is yet another association: what seems to be omnipotent is nailed down so much to the all those strata of society that try to secure their interest and to extend their control with such a force that it there remains no more free roaming, no more potent policy. 'The potentate' is constantly pulled from one side to the other, until his scrotum can not withstand the contradicting forces exerted on it and it tears apart... leading to a collapse of what once was the towering pride of the ruler.

(1) There are several video versions on YouTube, comparing them I choose this (sensational kind of web site) but good version of a video registration, without initial advertisement and so on. One has to click first to agree not to be younger than 18 years. This is the caption:

"Guy nails his scrotum to the ground as protest against police brutality Artist Peter Pavlensky nailed his testicles to a nail on the cobblestones of Red Square, the correspondent of "Fringe."The action is timed to the Day of Police, which is celebrated on November 10. The action began at 13:00. Around 14:30 the artist was taken by ambulance to the First City Hospital. After going to the hospital to deliver him to the police station, "China Town". In a statement about the artist's action, called "Freeze", it is noted that it can be regarded as a "metaphor of apathy and political indifference and fatalism of the modern Russian society." Pavlensky known for other high-profile protests. May 3 this year, he went to the building of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg naked and wrapped with barbed wire. Campaign "Carcass" symbolized "man's existence in a repressive legal system, where any movement causes severe reaction of the law, bites into the body of an individual." In July last year Pavlensky held a rally in support of prisoners participating Pussy Riot. He sewed his mouth and stood at the Kazan Cathedral with a placard "Speech Pussy Riot has been famous action replay of Jesus Christ (mf.21 :12-13)."";

(2) Anne Applebaum cites Anatoly Marchenko's book "MY Testimony" (trad. Michael Scammel, London, 1969). I see that the eBook edition (what a shame does have neither page numbers nor foot- or end notes, so I can not give here the right page number.) Let me give at least a link to, as many libraries in the world do stock this book in one of the many editions that exist.

Tjebbe van Tijen
Imaginary Museum Projects
dramatising historical information
web-blog: The Limping Messenger
Flickr: Swift News Tableaus by Tjebbe van Tijen

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