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Petr Pavlensky – Extreme Performance Art

“I think that would have discredited everything I’d done before, if at the first sign of danger I’d gone into hiding. So I decided to take a position of strength, because there is nothing to be afraid of.
 
You can be afraid if you feel you are guilty of something and I don’t. Anything the authorities do against me means discrediting themselves. The more they do with me, the worse they make it for themselves.”

Saint Petersburg native Petr Pavlensky has already made a name for himself as one of the most intriguing figures on the contemporary Russian art scene, and, at the same time, as one of the most well-known performance artists in the world.

Pavlensky fuses risque performance with a deep disdain for the current political environment in Russia, attracting international attention.

His works have a real social impact; he definitely played a significant role in addressing the cases of human rights violation in contemporary Russia.

What remains controversial is the way the artist explores the boundaries of the body and its resistance to pain in his works.

Concerning Pavlensky’s private life, there are not too many pieces of information that are available to the public or the artist himself desires to make his work speak for him.

Background

Pyotr Pavlenskiy was born on the 8th of March 1984 in Leningrad in Russia. He attended at Saint Petersburg Art and Industry Academy for studying monumental art, which he described as a ‘disciplinary institution that aims to make servants out of artists’.

He also took training at St Petersburg Pro Arte Foundation for Culture and Art during his fourth year at the Academy.

In 2012, Pavlensky and his colleague Oksana Shalygina founded Political Propaganda, an independent online newspaper which dedicates its efforts to analyzing contemporary art in political contexts ‘overcoming cultural chauvinism, implemented by government’ , gender equality and feminism.

In 2013, the publication is awarded the Alternative Prize for Russian Activist Art.

Pyotr-Pavlensky-Photo-of-the-artist-Photo-Credits-The-Guardian

Aside from exposing control and repression in Russia, Petr Pavlensky also talks about more universal issues: how the body is simultaneously socialized and objectified and whose biological survival is completely dependent on others.

Since 2012, he has carried out several public actions, now well- known in the world.

Petr Pavlensky became noticed for sewing his mouth shut as a sign of protest against the imprisonment of the Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk rock band.

It was the artist’s first extreme performance came in 2012 on July 23. Pavlensky appeared at Kazan Sabor in St.Petersburg, holding a banner that stated: ‘Action of Pussy Riot was a replica of the famous action of Jesus Christ’ (Mattew: 21:12-13)’; his lips was sewed up.

Pavlensky’s photo taken during this protest for Pussy Riot took the world by the storm. He became a symbol of fighting against political repression.

However, it was a troublesome situation with police and Pavlensky was taken to a mental institution for a psychiatric examination.

Ultimately deemed as sane person, he was released soon after ‘the public incident’. The focal point of the radical protest was highlighting the lack of regard for artist in Russia.

According to Pavlensky’s own words, his intention was not to surprise anyone or came up with something unusual, but he felt that he had to make a gesture that would accurately reflect his situation.

To The Extreme

One of the most extreme performances that Petr put into action is The Carcass from 2013 (May 3).

It was another political protest against repressive government policies. In this very performance, he had assistants who brought him naked and wrapped in a cocoon of barbed wire, placing him in front of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg’s main entrance.

Lying still in a half-bent position, the artist remained silent; he did not react to anything around him remaining in that state until the police came and freed him from the barbed wire’s grasp.

Petr Pavlensky later explained the meaning behind The Carcass: the human body is naked like carcass; there is nothing on it except the barbed wire which was invented for protection of livestock.

These laws, like the wire, keep people in individual pens; the metaphor of the action had its immediate realization in the reality: as soon as the barbed wire was cut off, and the artist was freed from it, the same wire wrapped him back in with police, ambulances and numerous field investigators.

All this has been done in order to turn people into gutless and securely guarded cattle, which can only consume, work and reproduce.

Fixation

The arguably most notorious performance piece by Pavlensky came on November 10, 2013.

While sitting naked on the stone pavement in front of the Lenin’s Mausoleum on the Red Square, the artist hammered a large nail through his scrotum affixing it to the street. The timing was intentionally decided- the protest coincided with the Russian Police Day.

The idea for this very action came when the artist was briefly held in a cell after the Carcass stunt. A fellow prisoner regaled him with stories of the Gulag, where prisoners had sometimes nailed their scrotums to trees in an act of protest at the inhumane conditions and miserable existence.

The artist said his action titled Fixation was a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society. Pavlensky had a blanket thrown over him by the confused police officers and was eventually detached from the stones and taken to hospital.

He was discharged that evening, and released by the police without charge- only for them to open case of ‘hooliganism motivated by hatred of a particular social, ethnic or religious group’ a few days later.
 
It is the same article of the law that was used against Pussy Riot and can carry a jail sentence of several years.

 

 

The Segregation, Freedom, Burning Door

The Segregation from October, 19, 2014, the same year was directed against political use of mental illnesses and against putting political prisoners into mental institutions.

While sitting totally naked on the roof of the infamous Serbian Center, where various experiments on political prisoners falsely diagnosed with mental illness took place, Pavlensky cut off his earlobe with a chef’s knife.

On February 23, 2014, the artist organized protest supporting the Ukrainian Revolution; the action was named Freedom.

Pavlensky along with his friend built an imitation barricade on Tripartite Bridge in Saint Petersburg and burned it down, beat drums and shouting Maidan slogans.

The performance was interrupted by Saint Petersburg police and the group was arrested; they were held for two days until the administrative case against Pavlensky and his assistants was dropped.

On the night of November, 9, 2015, The Lubyanka’s Burning Door was happened; artist doused the front door of the Lubyanka Building with gasoline and set fire to it with a cigarette lighter.

The Lubyanka Building is known as the headquarters of the Russian Federal Security Service. The Lubyanka’s Burning Door was the reason behind Pavlensky’s arrest and the most serious charge he ever stood against.

He was charged with vandalism and debauchery. Simultaneously, a video appeared on the Internet with an explanation of the meaning of the event: Pavlensky chose Lubyanka as a symbol of political oppression in Russia.
 
It was a place where victims of the Stalinist purges were tortured in the 1930s, among other things.

The next day, the artist asked to reclassify his crime as an act of terrorism, which was opposed by his defendant who claimed that as a lawyer she could not ask for a more severe punishment for her client.

Pavlensky was charged with a half million Ruble fine, officially for destroying ‘the national heritage’ which was nonsense considering the doors were new. Once again, he exposed the court and authorities’ helplessness against political crimes and manifestations which they fear most.

Marat Guelman, an influential critic and gallery owner called Pavlensky’s act ‘the artistic equivalent of setting yourself on fire’. He said it was a gesture of hopelessness and desperation.

We all more or less share this position; people have been forced into a corner- the choice is between leaving, going to prison or joining up with those in power.

In Pavlensky’s mind, his actions are less a helpless cry of anguish than an aggressive statement of defiance. His performances are not only a protest against the system, but also a protest against people’s apathy.

Escaping the long arm of Russian justice by going on the run was never an option for Pavlensky.

The same impulse informs his art. Whenever he does a performance, he never leaves a place. The authorities are in a dead-end situation and don’t know what to do; they can’t do anything with a man inside barbed wire.

Eventually, Pavlensky was made to go into exile in France due to the still unproven rape allegation.

Protest Art

Petr Pavlensky takes inspiration from a long line of Russian protests, especially the ‘Moscow activism’ school of the 1990s and the protest group Voina, who were known for their outrageous activist art.

Voina’s performances included staging a mass orgy inside Moscow’s biological museum the day before the election of Dmitry Medvedev as president in 2008, under a banner: ‘Fuck for the teddy bear heir’.

Two of the original Voina artists formed the punk collective Pussy Riot who with their art, activism and mix of music also chose Red Square for one of their first performances, in 2011.

Afterwards, Pussy Riot would stage their fateful action in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which would see three of them stand trial for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’.

According to his words, this trial affected Pavlensky more than many things in his own life and he began understanding the need for a more radical approach to art.

Pavlensky’s unusually painful brand of art comes from an imperative impulse toward radicalism.

The very important step for him was to understand what happens when a person becomes an artist, when a person becomes stronger than their indifference and overcomes their inertia.

He states an artist has no right to take a stand; the artist cannot exist just be isolated and contemplative.

Could we ever draw a line between productive artistic aggression and simply going too far? How extreme is too extreme?

Pavlensky’s methods can be objected to due to their drastic form, but it can be denied that they touch political problems in a unique way, paying attention to an individual body’s specific vulnerability to power.

These are the arrests, court trials and imprisonments which are the artist’s target, and the bodily harm is mostly means to an end, not an end in itself.

The artist explores why symbolic self-harm in public is so feared by the authorities who on everyday basis tolerate much more disturbing examples of pathology and cruelty.

 

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Marina Abramovic – Death Toll Rising

“Once, Picasso was asked what his painting meant. He said, ‘Do you ever know what the birds are singing? You don’t. But you listen to them anyway.’ So, sometimes with art, it is important just to look.”

Towards the late 1950’s, Abstract expressionism began losing impetus, and many artists across the world, especially in America and Europe, embraced performance art. In that context, Marina Abramovic’s work is typical of the ritualistic strain in the 1960’s performance art, and very often involves putting herself in grave danger and performing lengthy, harmful routine that result in her being burnt or cut, or enduring some privation.
 
Her work might be interpreted as having displaced art from traditional media, as she moved it straight onto her body.

Background

Marina Abramovic was born on November, 30, 1946 in Belgrade, the capital of what was than Yugoslavia to an affluent family with politically active parents. Vojin and Danica Abramovic were Yugoslav partisans during World War II, and continue their engagement in General Tito’s communist party.
 
They were awarded high positions in the public sector for their contribution during the war; her mother became head of the Museum of Art and the Revolution in Belgrade, and her father worked with state security and was in the Marshal’s elite guard.

Marina’s relations with her mother were always fought. Her mother took strict control of eighteens-years-old Marina and her younger brother Velimir; under her mother’s strict supervision, she experienced life as difficult and cold. Although her mother was traditional, difficult and sometimes violent, she supported her daughter’s interest in art, encouraging her to express herself creatively through drawing and painting and at twelve was given her own studio at home.

Marina, age 5, in Belgrade
Marina, Age 5, Belgrade

Body Art & The Rhythm Series

Marina studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, from 1965 to 1970; during this period her earlier figurative expressions became increasingly abstract. During her further studies at Krsto Hegedusic’s studio and at Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, from 1970 to 1973, she began to use her body as a tool in her art, creating performative art pieces, creating sound installations, but moving towards works that directly involved the body.
 
In this period Abramovic spent most of her time at the SKC, Studentski Kulturni Centar, a cultural center in Belgrade, where she met young conceptual artists such as Rasa Popovic, Nesa Paripovic and Rasa Teodosijevic.

In 1973, Abramovic met the artist Joseph Beuys in Edinburgh and later that year at the Cultural Center in Belgrade. His happenings made a strong impression on Marina and greatly influenced her work. The same year, she enacted the performance piece Rhythm 10 at Vila Borghese, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Rome.
 
This piece is the first of the five performances in The Rhythm Series, in which she explored the limits of her body and consciousness.

On the Rhythm 10, she used a series of 20 knives to stab at the spaces between her outstretched fingers. In the process, every time she pierced her skin, she used another knife from those carefully laid out in front of her.
 
Halfway through, she began to play a recording of the first-half of the hour long performance, using the rhythmic beat of the knives striking the floor, and her hand, to repeat the movements, cutting herself at the same time.
 
She understood that drawing on the audience’s energy drove her performance, which was marked in this piece, and this aspect became an important concept informing much of her later work.

Viewing both performance and art as reaching beyond the realm of awareness, Marina has created performances in which she sleeps or becomes drugged into unconsciousness to examine this aspect of life; she used performance to push her mental and physical limits beyond consciousness.

For instance, in Rhythm 5, 1974, she created a star shape with wood shavings covered in gasoline and lit the wood on fire. After cutting her hair and nails and than dropping them into the fire, she lay down within the burning star, a symbol of Communism in Yugoslavia, as well as a symbol of the occult.
 
During this performance, audience members realized her clothes were on fire and she had lost her consciousness due to the lack of oxygen they pulled her out, and the performance was ended.

 

Pushing the limits further, in the performance piece entitled Rhythm 0, with a description reading ‘During this period I take full responsibility’ and ‘I am the object’ Marina invited participants to use any of 72 objects on her body in any way, they desired, completely giving up control.
 
Those 72 objects included a feather, pen, saw, lipsticks, book, band-aid, rose, salt, gun, paint, bullet, scissors etc. The audience divided itself into those who tried to protect her wiping away her tears, and those who sought to harm Abramovic, holding the loaded gun to her head, and.
 
Eventually, after she stood motionless for six hours, the protective audience participants insisted the performance be stopped, seeing that others were becoming extremely violent.

This piece was an example of Abramovic’s belief that confronting exhaustion and physical pain was important in making a person absolutely present and aware of her/his self. The work is also reflected her intention to include the spectators in the process; her interest in performance art was to transform both the performer and the audience, as the participants in the show.

She said that the inspiration for such work came from both her experience of growing up under Tito’s Communist dictatorship, and of her relationship with her mother. Her work in Yugoslavia was much about rebellion, not against just the family structure but the social structure and the structure of the system there; she was trying to overcome these kinds of limits.

1975 and on

These pioneering works were created at the time when performance art was still a new emerging art form in Europe, and she had little knowledge of performance being outside Yugoslavia.

In 1975, in Amsterdam, Abramovic met the German-born artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, known as Ulay. He was a son of a Nazi soldier, born in 1943, in a bomb shelter in Solingen, an industrial city in Westphalia, Germany.
 
By fifteen, he had been orphaned, and was fending for himself. Marina met him on November, 30
th in 1975 in Amsterdam and their chemistry was immediate. According to her words, when she back to Belgrade, she got so lovesick that she couldn’t move or talk.
 
At the time, she was married to a former fellow-student from the Belgrade Academy of Fine Arts, but it was an oddly slack union; both spouses still lived with their parents. A few months later, Marina ran away in Amsterdam, at twenty-nine, to rejoin Ulay, her soul mate.

Ulay and Abramovic made art for twelve nomadic years, from 1976 to 1988, the two were artistic collaborations and lovers. Amsterdam was their base, but their home on the road, on Europe was a black Citroën van, which figured in their symbiotic work in performance of ideal couplehood.
 
They also lived in India’s Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and with Australian Aborigines, and spending some time in Sahara, Gobi and Thar deserts.

They performed their works in gallery spaces, mostly in Europe; some of their best known works included Imponderabilia, from 1977; it included a naked couple planted like caryatids on either side of a narrow doorway at the entrance to a gallery, they backs to a frame.
 
Everyone who entered had to sidle past them, deciding which body to face.

Also, Breathing in/ Breathing out, 1977, in which they inhaled and exhaled from each other mouths until they almost suffocated. The performance named Rest Energy, from 1980, a highly intense piece that revealed the fragility of the line between death and life; it was only four minutes and ten seconds long.
 
Ulay and Abramovic faced each other, aiming an arrow a tense bow, just inches from her heart. They placed small microphones on their chests in order to make audible their increasingly rapid heartbeats in response to the growing danger.

Opposite Directions

When Marina and Ulay decided to end their relationship, they embarked on their last performance on March, 30, 1988, The Lovers; the walking along the Great Wall of China. Abramovic walked from the Shanhai Pass at the wall’s east end, Ulay walked in a opposite direction, from the wall’s western end near the Gobi Desert. After ninety days, they met and reunion marked a definitive end to their romantic relationship, as well as the twelve-year long artistic collaboration.
 
Their union was much battered and repaired, though it ultimately couldn’t survive the demands of such intense proximity or a discrepancy in ambition.

Since that point, they have had very little contact with each other, both proceeding independently with their own artistic career.

Marina returned to independent work and making it both solo as well as with artistic collaborators. In this period, she worked increasingly with video and sculpture; Transitory Objects for Human and Non-Human Use, which comprise objects meant to incite audience interaction and participation.

Blood and Bones

During the 1990s as a respectable performance artist Marina Abramovic taught at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Hochschule der Kunste in Berlin, as well as Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste in Hamburg and at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste in Braunschweig in Germany.

In 1997, Abramovic was invited to represent Serbia and Montenegro at the Yugoslavian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. But, she broke off the collaboration after a conflict with the Montenegrin minister of culture. However, the performance piece Balkan Baroque was shown instead at the Italian pavilion, where it caused a stir.
 
She was awarded the Golden Lion prize for Best Artist of the Biennale.

The Balkan Baroque piece was created in response to the innumerable deaths that had taken place in the former Yugoslavia. In this performance, Marina spent four days, six hours a day, sitting on top of 1,500 cow bones in a white dress, washing each of these bloody bones, surrounded by projected images of her parents and herself.

The accompanying sound included her recorded description of methods used in Balkans for killing rats and her singing of her native folksongs. The performance progression was made visceral due to the fetid smell and unbearable heat of the basement room.
 
For the artist, it was not enough to simply recount the number of people lost in modern-day wars in Balkans. She aimed to remember the lives, hopes and efforts of individuals killed by carefully touching and cleaning ‘their’ physical blood and bones.
 
The comparison between the inability to scrub all the blood and the inability to erase the shame of was is a concept that Abramovic viewed as having universal reach.

 

 

Butcher Knives Ladder

In the early 1970s, while many artists made very little effort to capture, or document, their performances on video. They felt that the true performance could never be repeated.Marina Abramovic has since argued for the importance of continuing the life of performance art works through re-performance; the only real way to document a performance art piece is to re-perform the piece itself.

In 2002, in The House with the Ocean View, Abramovic spent twelve days in the Sean Kelly Gallery without speaking, eating and writing. Contained within three so called rooms built six feet off the ground, she slept, urinated, drank water, showered and gazed at the spectators wearing a differently colored outfit each day.
 
She could walk between the rooms, but the ladders leading to the floor had rungs made of butcher knives. In this performance, Marina ritualized the activities of daily life, focusing on the self and simplicity while eliminating all aspects of dialogue and narrative.
 
She stated that she saw this piece as an act of purification- for her, but also for any viewer who entered the space. Additionally, the piece was a shift from the masochism of her earlier works to performances that focus on ideas of presence and interaction, although there is still the element of danger (present in the butcher knives ladder).

 

One of the key figures of performance art, Marina Abramovic was part of the earliest experiments in this media, and nowadays, she is one of the few pioneers of the generation still creating and working in this field.
 
She has been, and continues to be, an essential influence for performance artists and contemporary art in general, making work over the last several decades, especially for works that challenge the mind and the limits of the body.
 
Abramovic’s feminism has always been a mythical rather than a political; her confrontation with the physical and self and the primary role given to the body, a female body have helped shape the direction of Feminist art in the second half of the 20
th century, especially in the 1990’s.

 

Retrospective

In 2010 the MoMa in New York City held a wide-ranging retrospective of Abramovic’s work, The Artist is Present. From opening time to closing, eight to ten hours a day, and for seventy-seven days, she sat immobile at a bare wooden table, gazing into space. Members of the audience participated by sitting in a chair opposite Abramovic’s; her intention was emotional connection with anyone who wanted to look at her however long.
 
It was an experiment that had never been tried before; The Artist is Present is the longest durational work ever mounted in a museum.

 

In order to give new life to older performance work, both, hers and the works of others artists, Abramovic create the Marina Abramovic Institute for Preservation of Performance Art, opened in 2012, in Hudson, New York.
 
As a non-profit organization, the Institute supports teaching, preserving and founding performance art, ensuring legacy for performance art and for the ephemeral art itself.