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A cock and bull story

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Genitalia have played an important role in recent Russian politics: last year Pussy Riot, this year Pyotr Pavlensky who has made a very public spectacle of his private parts in Red Square. Is he just a prick or is the balls-up Mr Putin’s?

Aleksei Plutser–Sarno
21 November 2013

On 10th November 2013 a skinny young man walked across Moscow’s Red Square up to the walls of the Kremlin, undressed, sat down naked on the ground, spread his legs, took a hammer and banged a 20cm nail through his scrotum into the cobblestones. His name is Pyotr Pavlensky. After his action appeared on the Internet, a storm of abuse broke on his artistic head. Opinions differed: some upstanding citizens called it pornography, others insanity, still others hooliganism, while some put it down to simple exhibitionism and masochism. Those with more intellectual pretentions claimed the artist was a saint or a fool-for-Christ; and some particularly enraptured experts described him as an ascetic and martyr. The authorities, however, do not believe in saints, so they first sent him off for a psychiatric assessment, and then charged him with hooliganism ‘motivated by political, ideological or religious hatred.’

Pavlensky himself called his performance, ‘Fixation,’ and described it as ‘a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society.’ That, however, is merely one of an infinite number of possible interpretations.

Phallic symbols

In the first place, ‘nail’ is a common euphemism for penis, a universally recognised phallic symbol; and here, the artist’s penis obviously symbolised a collective national penis that he thrust into the very heart of the power system as represented by the Kremlin and Red Square, although, of course a totalitarian system has no heart. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that Pavlensky thrust his prick into the arse of the monster. As I always say on these occasions, ‘Leave the arse alone if you don’t want to hear it squeak.’ 

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On 10th November 2003 Pyotr Pavlensky hammered a 20cm nail through his scrotum into the cobblestones of Red Square-a a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society.’ Picture: Facebook

On the other hand, the reaction to any provocative act is an integral part of the act, so all these criminal prosecutions and show trials only increase the impact of the original action; the monster itself admitted as much when it raised such a stink and started calling for a five year sentence for our aesthete. Naturally, the criminal charge is also fabricated, like all the others against the thousands of political prisoners rotting in Russia’s jails and prison camps.  The most prominent of these at the moment are the members of Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace activists, but we should also not forget Taisia Osipova, an activist of the opposition Other Russia party, convicted of drug possession at about the same time as the Pussy Riot trial. Osipova has diabetes, and the eight years she received is, for her, a death sentence.

Interesting how, when the Russian regime sets people up, it matches the charges with its own nefarious activities.

Interesting how, when the Russian regime sets people up, it matches the charges with its own nefarious activities: if, for example, it commits armed piracy by illegally seizing a Greenpeace ship, it accuses those on board with piracy; if, on the other hand, it stages a hooligan attack, as it did against Pussy Riot, then they are charged with hooliganism; and since the cops provide protection for drug dealers, they plant drugs in people’s flats during searches, as happened with Taisia Osipova.

Voina

The interaction between a symbolic prick and a metaphysical arsehole is in fact a fairly regular occurrence in Russian Actionist performance art. ‘Voina’, [‘War’] the group to whose conceptual and ideological creation I gave seven years of my life, was always more focused on protest than aesthetics. 

In our action ‘Mento-Auto-Da-Fe’ [‘ment’ - slang for police officer] we burned a Black Maria in a police station car park. Of course, in the last few years, thousands of police vehicles have been burned by political protesters across the world, but our aim wasn’t to make some new artistic statement; our task was to leave behind the mouldy old gallery-centred art world, and get involved in real protest territory, then transform protest into new kinds of art.

In 2010, Voina painted a 65 metre-high cock on St Petersburg’s Liteiny Bridge, right opposite the FSB headquarters, revealing a magnificent erection when the bridge was raised for shipping. Another action involved inserting a frozen chicken into the vagina of one of the group’s members. This summer Voina organised a mass blowjob on the president. Thus, Pyotr Pavlensky’s performance can be seen as a worthy contribution to this tradition. 

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In June 2010, Voina painted a huge penis on St. Petersburg’s Liteiny bridge, which when upright looked directly at the Bolshoi Dom (Big House), the infamous FSB headquarters. Picture (c) Housicker

The phallic symbolism of the action was also enhanced by the fact that the artist, as he sat on the ground, didn’t take his eyes off his prick, obviously seeing it as the central symbol of the performance. It was also significant that it took place on the official Day of the Officers of the Organs of the Interior Ministry – a gift for the cops on their special day. In this context the nail symbolises the totalitarian power vertical, serviced by the impotent fuzz. The piercing of the genitals is also linked to castration: on the one hand, the artist is castrating the regime: by nailing the organs of law enforcement to the cobblestones with his iron vertical he is himself representing an impotent cop with his genitals strung on the phallic power vertical, but he also represents himself as the incarnation of Art, castrated by the regime. For Actionists this kind of contradictory multiplicity of meaning only increases the provocative impact of an action. 

The nail that pierced his genitals will turn into another nail in the coffin of Russia’s authoritarian regime. 

 The multiple meanings of this performance encompass a symbolic crucifixion, castration, sacrifice (the artist lays himself on the Kremlin’s altar) and even public execution. Red Square, of course, is also the location of the platform where, for centuries, prominent criminals met their death. Here we have a picture of the mafia state that simultaneously slaughters the Artist (the People) and is itself castrated and crucified by the Artist (the People) at the traditional place of execution. The nail that pierced his genitals will turn into another nail in the coffin of Russia’s authoritarian regime. 

Tryptich

The ‘performances’ of Pyotr Pavlensky and Pussy Riot, and the actions of the Voina group, are no longer mere political art: they are more a form of resistance. I am in no way slighting them as works of art, but the chief significance of this new wave of actionism lies in the fact that the artists have identified themselves with the wider protest movement, and moved away from the purely aesthetic aspects of creativity, and a traditional focus on the narrowly artistic qualities of an artwork, as well as conformism and commercialisation. In this new context it is unsanctioned protest street art that is the new artistic avant-garde, pushing into the shade the mildewed old masters, the pseudo-intellectual conformist lefties, the careerists and grant-guzzlers. 

Pavlensky’s nailed balls were the final part of a major triptych: its second part was his ‘Carcass’ performance in May 2013, when he was wrapped, naked, in an enormous barbed wire cocoon and laid on the street in front of the Mariinsky Palace, the home of St Petersburg’s legislative assembly. That action symbolised Russia’s total lack of freedom – barbed wire, after all, is what surrounds prisons and prison camps – and it was also an allusion to Christ’s crown of thorns, in the same way as ‘Fixation’ alluded to his crucifixion. 

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Pyotr Pavlensky, Pussy Riot and Viona have all identified themselves with the wider protest movement in Russia. Picture: Facebook

The first part of the triptych was created on 23rd June 2012, when Pavlensky pierced his lips, stitched his mouth shut with thick thread, and stood in front of St Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral with a placard reading, ‘Pussy Riot’s performance was a replay of the famous action of Jesus Christ;’ a reference to Christ driving the money changers from the Temple; and only too topical, given the Russian Orthodox Church’s total commercialisation. 

Pavlensky’s triptych is a true portrait of Russia today.

Pavlensky’s triptych is a true portrait of Russia today, with its sewn-up mouth, naked body wrapped in barbed wire, and the scrotum nailed to the ground outside the Kremlin. It is not an attempt by an artist to dazzle the public with his high intellect or the originality of his ideas, or astound them with the sophistication of his artistic conception. No, he has created a metaphorical portrait of Russian political reality, and shown it to the world.

Prison protests

The action of someone sewing up their mouth was first done by the American writer and artist David Wojnarowicz in 1990 for the film ‘Silence = Death.’ It first occurred in Russia’s protest actionism in December 2000, when Maksim Gromov, a writer and Other Russia Party activist, stitched up his lips and chained himself to a statue of Lenin. Since then hundreds of prisoners have used this means of protest; in the single month of January 2012, for example, 1300 prisoners in the former Soviet Republic of Kirghizia sewed up their mouths, many with wire, and declared a hunger strike in protest at their inhuman conditions. Pavlensky’s ‘Fixation’ also has its origins in prison protests, where inmates nail their scrotums to wooden bunks, stools and floors. By referencing prisoners’ real actions in his performances, he is bringing the horrors of prison life in Russia to the outside world.

Pussy Riot followed this same path of taking inspiration for their art from criminal life.

Pussy Riot followed this same path of taking inspiration for their art from criminal life. They had no wish to astound the artistic world with fresh aesthetic insights; their aim was to give the monstrous totalitarian system a good kick up the backside and, by provoking it into attacking them, to show the world its real bloody snout. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Akekhina, students of Voina’s founders Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalya Sokol, left the group to found their own in 2009, and began to perform remakes of Voina’s ‘Punk Concert in the Taganka District Courtroom.’ They repeated their punk concert on a trolleybus roof, in shops, on the streets, on Red Square and, finally, in the Church of Christ the Saviour. The fact that they were copying someone else’s idea is beside the point – they found a place to do it that would really get up the Kremlin’s nose, and that is why their last kick in the arse was the most powerful. 

Trauma and Tyrant

An artist who is motionless and nailed to the ground is also a symbol of Trauma, and his or her action is a gesture of hopelessness and helplessness. The image created – of a corpse or a statue, a hangman or hanged man – is an embodiment of that Trauma, but less individual, and more collective.

There is no point in looking for the roots of this public Trauma in the individual, the subjective; the Slovenian philosopher and cultural commentator Slavoj Žižek has written about the Tyrant: ‘his psychological profile gives us no key to the understanding of the horrors he has perpetrated;’ as we know, the most terrible atrocities are usually committed by apathetic bureaucrats. Yet, at the same time, all this Russian social pathology, all the torture and executions, are regularly reproduced by a socio-symbolic system whose existence, unfortunately, relies on our belief in its necessity. The public begins by objectifying the Tyrant as an abstract concept, and then the concept is incarnated in a real flesh-and-blood tyrant. Without this Russian belief in the redemptive need for tyranny, we would long ago have begun to live in a bright future of social network structures and bottom-up self-government.

 Without this Russian belief in the redemptive need for tyranny, we would long ago have begun to live in a bright future of social network structures and bottom-up self-government. 

The people believe that the Tyrant will protect them from this Trauma, from forgetfulness, from the extremes of horror and chaos, but then an artist defiles the sacred stones of Red Square with his naked bum, and skewers his physical and symbolic phallus. The mist clears, the Monster has been symbolically slain and the horror of the Trauma fades.

Pyotr Pavlensky’s prick may also claim the distinction of being the closing chord of Russia’s sham History.

In this context, the artist’s pierced scrotum is the embodiment of this Trauma, while the penis-nail is the last point in the socio-symbolic system of myths with which a totalitarian regime tries to dupe us with the help of its corrupt mass media. Pyotr Pavlensky’s prick may also claim the distinction of being the closing chord of Russia’s sham History, the instrument of its destruction. Unfortunately, we do not wish to know our Real History, because it is an unknowable horror, which symbolically did not and does not exist. These thousand years of mass executions and torture are just impossible to think about; Aal the horrors of the Gulag, the cruel murders, the unending sufferings of millions of people can only be symbolically made real in the form of an art action created out of absurd symbols that drives the regime and its apologists into madness. 

Kremlin executions

Pavlensky’s action is a portrait of a Russia that the Trauma has driven out of its mind, a Russia that has been unable to get over its agonizing addiction to Death and Trauma, as though they were forms of pleasure, a Russia for whom ‘Kremlin executions’ are a normal management system, and sticking a nail in your balls a means to achieve self-knowledge. The Tyrant finds pleasure in mass executions; the people find pleasure in their own suffering, and the artist parodies both.

There is a certain torpid peacefulness about this horror; this silent and static peace is what the naked artist nailed against the Kremlin walls, is showing us. Existence is dissolving away, and its terrible opposite, Universal Nothingness, is approaching to take its place. To paraphrase Heidegger, one could say that, at that moment, Nothingness itself appeared to us in the face of Pyotr Pavlensky. Yet the victims of Trauma are incapable of thinking about the unsymbolisable Nothingness, so the Kremlin’s only response to the artist can be execution. 

A hole in our existence

Pyotr Pavlensky uses his body as the instrument and ‘place’ of his work. During his performances he is always alone, and he offers no resistance when he is arrested, voluntarily offering his body as a sacrifice of repression. There is nothing of the holy fool, no victimhood or passivity about this; his solitary body on Red Square is more reminiscent of a monument, a statue or a corpse; and it is no coincidence that this live corpse chose to sit close to Lenin’s tomb on Red Square. 

At first the body is a symbol of Emptiness, with nothing ‘human’ inside it, but during an artistic action this Emptiness gradually fills with thoughts, meanings, states of consciousness and the reactions of people around it. The French poet Paul Valery, writing in the first half of the last century, defined a written text as a body; and for Valery Podoroga, a Russian philosopher of our day, ‘a text, opening to us as we read it, is our second body, which we wish to possess again and again.’ The body exists in our perception as a kind of image or picture. We always see our bodies through a reflection in a mirror, a photo, a responsive glance, our self-doubt or desire to be loved. Even the pain of a nailed down scrotum is perceived not as pain itself, but a story about pain, the experience of pain or fear of pain. Pain, after all, exists outside the limits of the symbolic. Pain is per se a Break with the Symbolic, a hole in our existence. It is difficult to describe without symbolising it, turning it into a text about itself, a fantasy; an action. 

Lacan’s jam jars

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said: ‘I become part of a painting as a stain…’ And it is true that the observer is always absorbed into the image he or she is looking at. So, in this sense, any art performance is ‘physical. In fact, any landscape, still life or painting of animals is already imbued with ‘humanity’; they are all acts of physical experience that do not happen to be burdened with a representation of a human body. A portrait, or any other representation of a human being, is a doubling of this experience, a repeat. A person is, after all, his or her portrait. As French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy said, ‘Here I am, appearing before you, I am my portrait and I am also standing behind my portrait to hear what I am going to say’. I think that is probably how the artist felt as he sat on his bare bum on the freezing cobblestones of Red Square. 

The Russian regime, with all its spires, skyscrapers and power vertical, is a mad phallic tautology.

The Russian regime, with all its spires, skyscrapers and power vertical, is a mad phallic tautology; and what it is most afraid of is a symbolic castration, the loss of its own attributes of power. Pavlensky showed that the Kremlin, flaunting its brutalism and flexing its muscles, is already castrated, and is sitting on its bare bum on the edge of its symbolic grave.

How should I sum up? It was not we who were watching Pyotr Pavlensky; it was him ‘watching’ us, the horror of our Trauma, in the same way as the jam jar watched the young Jacques Lacan in his boat. The performances of Pavlensky, Pussy Riot and Voina are empty jam jars, breaks with the Symbolic, through which you can look into the eyes of Nothingness. 

 

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