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Rebel Artist Pavlensky Says Inspired By Pussy Riot, Russian Church

  • Melanie Bachina

PRAGUE -- Radical performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky says his dramatic brand of antiestablishment art was inspired by the shock of seeing fellow students at his art academy imbued with the national "clerical ideology."

But the 32-year-old bad boy of Russia's suppressed dissident scene says he was only driven to perform his public challenges to authority in 2012, when he saw the female punk protest collective Pussy Riot's members put on trial for taking on the church and the Kremlin in one wild, balaclava moment on video.

His response has been a series of antigovernment actions -- whether wrapping himself in barbed wire in front of a local legislature, nailing his scrotum to Red Square, or cutting off an earlobe atop the wall of a notorious psychiatric clinic, to name a few -- that he says are rejections of that stifling environment of the St. Petersburg academy where he learned his trade.

Comparing Orthodox Christianity's activities to Soviet propaganda burnishing atheism and the bright communist future, Pavlensky says his art-school days a decade ago showed him "how art is used as an instrument for ideology and propaganda -- as a political instrument."

He says he witnessed a "clerical ideology" at art school and that "by the fourth year, students would cross themselves and bow because of the ideology imposed on them," adding, "Just as in the U.S.S.R....they believed in the Bolshevik idea."

So he revolted.

"I realized that I don't want to allow the instrumentalization of art and to allow myself to be used to execute someone else's ideological goals," he tells RFE/RL's Russian Service during a visit to Prague.

His controversial stunts and the toll they have taken on his sliced, pierced, and frequently unclothed body have established him as Russia's best-known antigovernment artist since Pussy Riot.

"I began political art in 2012," he says. "The authorities themselves catalyzed this with their punitive action against the group Pussy Riot."

That punk collective divided Russian society when its activists burst into Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral and -- in the refrain of a song performed at the altar in brightly colored masks -- called on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin.

Many Russians were appalled at what they saw as the defiling of one of the holiest sites in Russia. But some others, like Pavlensky, regarded it as an audacious and important piece of performance art revealing unduly close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin.

The authorities were not amused, and three of Pussy Riot's members spent time in jail for "hooliganism."

Pavlensky responded with his first high-profile performance, sewing his mouth shut in an explicit act of solidarity with Pussy Riot in July 2012. He called the action "Seam."

In his most recent stunt, in November, he doused the front door of the imposing Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in Moscow in fuel and lit it on fire. He was arrested, but against virtually all expectations after his conviction on June 8 for damaging a cultural monument, Pavlensky was fined the equivalent of around $8,000 but spared more jail time.

Pavlensky tells RFE/RL that the shocking nature of his acts are important because they convey his message despite a public discourse that is awash with words and communication but ultimately devoid of meaning or significance.

"The situation is quite paradoxical," he says. "There are now so many words and there is so much communication that in actual fact a large quantity of people have plunged into a hubbub. It has just become noise. Society has plunged into silence -- silence insofar as action is concerned. It is this that I think we need to respond to this somehow and counteract it."

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