Banned Art

The Power of Pavlensky’s Nailed Body

by Sean Guillory November 16, 2013

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’s has 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.

Pavlensky’s “Nail” has been met with confusion, respect, and ridicule. The act of a man nailed to the ground through his scrotum certainly points to the navel gazing of the Russian opposition. Such powerlessness is exactly what Pavlensky wanted to convey. His work symbolizes the impotence of society, while reminding us of the body’s strength and ability to endure pain, and how society, with its innumerable bodies, is imbued with authority. Even in the symbolic representation of powerlessness there is a comment on the body’s durability as an instrument of power. “So far during all actions where my body is my instrument, I’m lucky that it restores itself to normal,” Pavlensky toldSnob. “The human body is much studier that it looks… During an action I relate to pain as a regular feeling and not as something I need to endure for the sake of it. The body, in this case, is the object I speak through.”

Pavlensky’s art of self-mutilation seeks to capture the state of Russian society. His “Suture,” in which he sewed his mouth shut to protest Pussy Riot’s conviction, conveyed “the most simple and accurate gesture of protest, with respect to today’s reality in Russia. The show trial of Pussy Riot, and other less high-profile cases, as well as the laws governing the establishment, send a strong message that society should shut up, and every careless statement may result in a ritual of punishment.” Pavlensky’s “Carcass,” in which he wrapped his nude body in barbed wire, represented “human existence in a repressive legal system where any movement causes a severe reaction of the law, which sinks its teeth into the body of an individual.”

The body is central to any protest against power. The success and failure of Russian opposition street demonstrations are calculated according to the number of bodies occupying a space. Protesters exercise power, and defy authority through the presence of their bodies. And police prevent and repress protest through beating, arrest, and restriction of bodies. The authorities and those who dare defy them are locked in a struggle over where bodies can move, gather, stand, and sit. The body is the medium through which power and protest speak. Often, however, it is the state’s voice that speaks loudest.

 

Pavlensky’s “Nail,” however, did something different: it silenced authority.

The greatness of Pavlensky’s work is that by nailing himself to the pavement, he neutralized police power. The presence of his spiked testicles emasculated the police, who were to afraid to handle a man’s bare genitals. Their only solution was to cover him and call the paramedics who, through medicalization, safely released Pavlensky’s crotch without homosexual inference. As Pavlensky told Vocative, [The police] were really thrown off by it. None of the police officers could muster up the courage to do it. They ended up having to call the paramedics. That was a very important moment for me—when the authorities are powerless and don’t know what to do. All their control and management recipes fail, and they can’t even move you from one place to another. That is a moment of victory.”

Petr Pavlensky’s “Nail” was an assault on the stasis that grip contemporary Russia. With a nail, a hammer, and a naked body, Pavlensky symbolized Russian society’s impotence at the same time he reveals its potential power. The body is central in both gestures. On the one hand, Pavlensky’s body, nailed to the pavement, represented Russian society as a whole—immobile, indifferent, and frozen in fear, ever gazing at its own private parts. On the other hand, his mutilated body sitting bare at the center of Russian state power, Red Square, silenced, albeit momentarily, the police by playing on their homosexual anxieties. Ultimately, fear is Pavlensky’s main target: “I am trying to fight a range of human fears, such as nudity and pain. These are acquired phobias that paralyze people and prevent them from acting. I am trying to mirror what is taking place between the people and the government in our society.”