This week’s Russia Magazine column, “The Power of Pavlensky’s Nailed Body,”
The image of Petr Pavlensky sitting on the cold, wet cobblestone of Red Square with a long nail driven through his scrotum is shocking and bewildering. What is the performance artist trying to achieve? What does a spike impaling his testicles symbolize? Titled “Nail,” Pavlensky’s installation, which coincided with Police Day, served as a “metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society.” “It is not bureaucratic lawlessness which deprives society of the possibility to act,” reads a press release, “but the obsession with our defeats and losses which nail us ever more into the Kremlin’s paving stones, creating an army of stuffed dummies patiently awaiting their fate.” “Having forgotten its advantage in numbers,” the statement continues, society’s inaction “brings the triumph of the police state closer.” Pavlensky’shas since been charged with hooliganism which carries a maximum five year prison sentence.
Like many, I too was quick to ridicule Pavlensky’s art. A cock and balls nailed to the ground makes it all too easy to descend into grade school humor. But after I read Masha Gessen’s post on the NY Times, I began to seriously contemplate Pavlensky’s installation. “Each of these actions required the police to deal with Pavlensky’s body — something Russian law enforcement officials almost never have to do, even though they routinely mangle, maim and kill protesters, convicts and perceived violators of rules and laws. Pavlensky uses self-mutilation to point out that the victims of Russia’s policies are human beings of flesh and blood.” I was struck how Pavlensky used his body to alter the power dynamic between the protester and police. But “Nail,” as well as Pavlensky’s other acts of self-mutilating art, points to the centrality of the body in protest.