Media organizations differed in their assessment of Pavlensky’s controversial performance, with some seeing it as an act of political protest or performance art, and others not covering it at all.

Famous artist Pyotr Pavlensky's controversial performance attracts attention of the public. Photo: Artem Zagorodnov  

A 29-year-old artist from St. Petersburg, Pyotr Pavlensky, made world headlines as he got undressed on Moscow’s Red Square on a chilly afternoon on Sunday, Nov. 10, and nailed his scrotum to a cobblestone. In a statement that went viral on social networks, Pavlensky explained that his act, “Fixation,” performed on Police Day, is a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern society, which condones Russia turning into a police state.

Pavlensky became famous in July of 2012, when he took to a square outside the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg with his lips sewn together in support of the three members of the Pussy Riot feminist punk group imprisoned for performing a song of theirs, “Holy Virgin, Chase Putin Away,” at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.

In May of this year, Pavlensky attracted the attention of the public again, by wrapping his body in a cocoon of barbed wire in front of the St. Petersburg legislature in protest against what he saw as repressions.

While internationally the news about Pavlensky’s latest stunt stole the limelight from everything else happening in Russia on Nov. 10, quite a few Russian media organizations preferred not to publicize it.

State-funded Channel One, which has the largest TV audience in Russia, ignored Pavlensky’s art piece as such, focusing on Police Day celebrations on Sunday. The channel broadcast a 2.5-hour long theme concert in the Kremlin, attended by Vladimir Putin, and ran a story about the holiday at the beginning of the 9 pm weekly news program.

There has been no mention of Pavlensky on another major state-funded channel, Rossiya, and only Russia’s third biggest channel, NTV, put up the news about the artist on its website on Sunday and updated it as the story developed. The lede for the news read, “A man nailed his manhood to a cobblestone on Red Square and called this act ‘art’.”

“Unfortunately, there is somewhat of self-censorship both with top and mid-level management [of the channels],” said Arina Borodina, a television critic.

In contrast, a small cable network, Dozhd TV, popular among Moscow youth and intelligentsia and known for a critical take on government policies, made Pavlensky’s actions a top story on Sunday and Monday.

Dozhd invited Pavlensky to its 9 pm Monday news program to talk about the idea behind his aberrant street protest. “I wanted to show a fixation on helplessness,” Pavlensky told the hosts. “We’re heading toward a police state – the ongoing reforms of science and culture are about cutting their funding, while police, law enforcement and security agencies see an inflow in cash and manpower, and ordinary people allow this to happen.”

On the same evening, Dozhd did an interview with another artist, Fyodor Pavlov-Andreyevich, who spoke of Pavlensky as “a man who with exceptional delicacy and power put across a point that has been on everyone’s lips.”

As for the press, Komsomolskaya Pravda, a popular national tabloid, whose editor-in-chief Vladimir Sungorkin was Vladimir Putin’s agent during the latest presidential campaign of 2012, ran a series of brief news reports about Pavlensky, fleshing them out with one comment by a psychologist, Daria Loginova, who was quick to come up with a diagnosis for the artist.

“That’s possibly an amalgam of a personality disorder and a desire to shock the public and hit the big time,” Ms. Loginova said. “What he calls art is actually called mutilation. He hurts himself to allegedly point to “the wounds of society,” while there are lots of other ways for a normal person to communicate a message, especially if he’s an artist.”

Some media organizations preferred to talk to art critics about Pavlensky’s act of protest. BBC Russian Service quoted Yekaterina Degot, who specializes in modern Russian art, as saying that “performances of this kind have been part of international art for the past 50 years.”

She added that protests like the one staged by Pavlensky are typical for the Russian prison subculture. Convicts sometimes mutilate their bodies, most often by slitting their wrists, to protest humiliating conditions in prisons.

The Moskovsky Komsomolets daily interviewed a group of Moscow-based artists to find out what they think of Pavlensky’s performance. “People immolated themselves in the Soviet times. Now the 1970s are back, and so is heroism. Art has always been radical – it showed how free one is,” said Gosha Ostretsov.

A colleague of his, Yelena Kovylina, said she believes that “the world should be changed with artistic statements that promote certain values, not acts of destruction.” “It was more of a political performance, which has little to do with genuine art,” she added.

In the western media, Pavlensky’s protest was met with quite a lot of support. The well-known Russian author Masha Gessen said in her op-ed in The New York Times that “Pavlensky uses self-mutilation to point out that the victims of Russia’s policies are human beings of flesh and blood.”

Gessen also quoted art dealer Marat Guelman as calling Pavlensky’s actions “an act of desperation.”

“I guess a normal person would not do something like this. But then apparently the situation in the country is not normal. This is no longer a protest action; it is a manifesto of helplessness,” Guelman was quoted as saying.

Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky linked Pavlensky’s message about apathy to a gloomy prognosis for the Russian economy. “Pavlensky may have been on to something. The apathy and fatalism he so dramatically depicted is clear in the Russian economic ministry’s long-term economic development forecast,” Bershidsky wrote in a piece titled “Artist Mutilates Himself as Putin Paralyzes Russia.”

“In March, when the previous version of the forecast was adopted, the basic scenario was a moderately optimistic one that had the Russian economy growing at an average of 4 percent a year,” Bershidsky said. “The current version is based on a “conservative” scenario, with average growth limited to 2.5 percent annually. In other words, Russia will keep lagging behind other developing nations.”

Pavlensky’s protest prompted The Guardian to compile a top ten of similar performances staged in the past that “have endangered life and limb.”

“Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky’s nailing of his scrotum to Red Square isn’t as unique as you might think: artists have shot, burned, disfigured, and eaten themselves,” The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones said. One such artist is the famous New York-based Marina Abramovic, who in 1974 placed on the ground a large, five-pointed wooden star, an echo of the communist red star, soaked it in petrol and lit it. Abramovic then jumped through the flames into the center, where she fainted due to a lack of oxygen.