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The body politic: art, pain, and Putin

The phrase ‘scrotum artist’ was never going to be easy to ignore when it appeared in a newspaper headline. It is also a phrase that has made me reflect upon the nature of politics, the issue of public expectations, and even the role of a university professor of politics. In a previous blog post, I reflected on the experience of running a citizens’ assembly and how the emotional demands and rewards of the experience had been quite unexpected. ‘Raw politics’ was the ‘headline’ phrase but now I cannot help but wince with embarrassment when I think about this phrase. ‘Wince’ being the apposite word given the manner in which the Russian political artist and protestor, Pyotr Pavlensky, nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square and sat there naked until the authorities arrested him.

This, it appears, was just the latest in a series of art installations by Pavlensky in which he uses his body to symbolise not only the abuses committed by the Russian state, but also as a symbolic sign of taking back control, in light of the authorities’ constant attempts to impose restrictions on personal freedom. Not surprisingly Pavlensky’s mother is somewhat bewildered by her son’s disturbing artistic interventions; while others praise him for pushing the boundaries of political protest in an attempt to expose the state of oppression under Putin. The intervention with the nails and his scrotum were just the latest in a series of subversive acts.

In 2012 a project entitled ‘Seam’ saw Pavlensky sewing his lips shut with garden twine in order to protest at the jailing of Pussy Riot. In May 2013 a project called ‘Carcass’ saw Pavlensky naked, wrapped in layers of barbed wire, and dumped motionless and powerless at the main entrance to the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg. The more the confused policemen attempted to untangle and remove him, first by putting a blanket to hide the horror then attacking him with  wire cutters, the more Pavlensky was gashed and cut by the self-imposed net. If this were not enough, in October 2014 he sat naked on the perimeter wall of the Serbsky Centre, a psychiatric hospital used in Soviet times to imprison dissidents, and cut off his right ear lobe with a kitchen knife, in order to protest at the political abuse of psychiatry in Russia.

‘I’m perfectly sane and that’s been widely proven’ Pavlensky responds to anyone who questions his mental health. ‘To seek to dismiss me as a madman is exactly what would suit the state’. And yet the power of his art to shame and harass, to expose and discredit, cannot be so easily dismissed. His performances are filmed, photographed, and receive growing global attention. ‘Art has the power to send a message other mediums like the media have long lost’, Pavlensky states, ‘It’s my way of resisting and I have no intention at all of giving it up’. Now that’s what you really call raw politics!

Featured image credit: Red Square, Moscow by flowcomm. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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