You could be the one

In conversation with Pyotr Pavlensky.

Russian born, Paris based contemporary artist who is known for his controversial art in conversation with Maria Abramenko talking about Subject-Object Art and his upcoming solo show in London.

It is obvious that behind your actions and performances there is a certain position. What are you trying to convey?

First of all, it must be clarified that I don’t realise actions, nor performances. What you are talking about are called “events”. And the difference between an event, an action, and a performance is quite significant. A performance is close to theatre: it’s one of its contemporary versions. It means using a prepared room or prepared outside space, having an invited audience and showing a scene to this audience. Such a show can feature a rather broad range of conventionalities. All the way to ketchup imitating blood. The spectators get emotionally involved in what they see, perhaps even participate in the show in some way, and then everyone goes home happy. It must be added that a performance needs to be announced, since without an announcement its organisers can’t invite spectators. An action is no longer theatre for an invited audience. It is some kind of pure activity. It doesn’t require invited spectators and, consequently, doesn’t need to be announced. An action often implies some conditions required for its realisation that are different from those required for a performance. It can happen suddenly before an unprepared audience, or it can be performed without an audience and video recorded. Yet the idea of an action lies in its simplicity, in the fact that an artist can perform actions as often as every week, for instance, as the Viennese actionists did. Their actions were called just that: action No. 34, action No. 79, action No. 132, etc. And here’s the main difference between an action and an event. An event differs from an action in scale. The thing is that no artist can realise an event of Subject-Object Art every week. They can’t do that because an event produces a crucially different social effect. This effect results in significant upheavals both in the life of the artist and in the lives of the people it has touched in some way or another. After each event the artist’s life changes irreversibly. And not just their life but sometimes also the lives of people who were quite far from the epicentre of the things. Thus, the main difference between an event and other, outwardly similar art forms is manifested in their consequences and scale. To date, I could only realise eight events: the “Seam” event, the “Carcass” event, the “Fixation” event, the “Freedom” event, the “Segregation” event, the “Threat” event, the “Lighting”, and the “Pornopolitics” event. As for my position and what I’m trying to convey, everything I do is really just about redefining the disposition of art in relation to power. Because it is commonly accepted that art should serve the interests of power, political conglomerates, or political oppositions. Yet Subject-Object Art turns this disposition upside down, forcing power, political conglomerates and political oppositions to serve the interests of art.

How many times have you been shut down and for what? Can you compare Russian and French prison experience? How to survive in a Russian prison?

I was in pre-trial detention twice. Once in Russia and once in France. Both times it was a form of censorship. A way to suppress art by isolating the artist from society. By and large, there is no surprise here, the apparatus of power always does this when art starts to interfere with its work and interests. In this sense, both Russian and French power mechanisms operate exactly the same way. It’s logical – if they meet an obstacle, the authorities must eliminate it. But prison is the least power can do to suppress art. Prison, psychiatric hospital and other forms of prosecution can be called means of suppression of the first level. Because they’re actually the softest means. But if they’re not enough, then the apparatus of power start using means of suppression of the second level. This is an attack on the artist’s reputation. What kind of attack depends on the prevailing morality… Because nowadays, the most condemned violations are all those related to political incorrectness, violence and sex, then the artist is currently accused of these. And the most surprising is that when the authorities want to damage an artist’s reputation, there are always people ready to fully satisfy them. Apparently, it’s all about social incentives that are meant for those who, at the right time, will declare themselves victims of “monstrous and inhuman violence.” But, despite the severity of such an attack, there is a high probability that it will also be ineffective. After all, artists simply despise morality. It’s always a great pleasure for an artist to spit in the face of moralists inflated with their own moral superiority. And so, if the artist is not a slave to the mob, then he will be able to stand firm and keep going even after the use of the second-level means of suppression against him.  But then, the apparatus of power start using the means of suppression of the third level. This is an attack aimed at destroying the identity of the artist. That is, at a certain moment, the authorities, with the help of the media, launches a massive campaign in which it is claimed that the artist is not who he is. That he is anyone, but not the one who he really is. They start to deny that the artist is an artist. And this is the toughest means they can use. The toughest because here the attack is directed at the total destruction of one’s personality. It may seem idiotic, but the journalists who take part in that kind of campaign explain the logic of what they do in a very simple way. For example, I know about one conversation that occurred between my beloved woman, Alexandra De Taddeo, and a journalist who works for the newspaper Libération, whose name is Quentin Girard. They talked about “Pornopolitics” and Quentin Girard argued that this event was not art, and I am not an artist. To Alexandra’s arguments that, apart from me, art historians and museums recognise “Pornopolitics” as art, Quentin Girard, answered in a very simple way – he said that he didn’t care about art historians and museums, and that he was the only one to decide what is art and what is not. But once again, he lied. Because he doesn’t decide anything. His chief editor decides. What he says to speak and write, the journalist will speak and write. Otherwise, the journalist will fail to make a career in a prestigious media. And the chief editor knows what should be said and written because he receives orders from higher authorities. And even if they call these orders by a harmless word such as “recommendations”, he has no choice but to fulfil them. After all, he is interested in keeping a high position. And this is how it all works very efficiently and harmoniously. As for your question about prison, there is nothing terrible about it. Comparing
the Russian and French penitentiary systems is quite difficult since the difference lies in details. Something is better in a Russian prison, and something else is better in a French one. In general, all the pros and cons in those prisons that I saw somehow balance each other. Well, of course, it all depends on who you are and the region of the country the prison you will go to is located. Therefore, it is very difficult to do any generalisations.

There are rumours about your authority in the criminal world. Is it so? Is it true that your actions “Seam” and “Fixation” come from the Russian prison tradition protest against the lawlessness of the administration?

I would like to know who the imbecile who spreads these rumours is. It’s obvious that he is mentally handicapped. I obviously never had any relationship with the criminal world. I am a stranger there. And if these rumors are spread because I’m continuously prosecuted by the judicial mechanism of power and I was briefly jailed several times, then I would like to remind those mentally handicapped people of the history of art and all those artists, poets and writers that, for one reason or another, were jailed too, or chose exile because of the constant persecution from the authorities. Let’s talk about some of them, and only the most famous ones, so that you don’t need any additional information. Let’s talk about Benvenuto Cellini, and Francois Villon, and Michelangelo da Caravaggio, and the Marquis de Sade, and Jacques Louis David, and Gustave Courbet, and Paul Verlaine, and Alexander Radishchev, and Kondraty Ryleev, and Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Egon Schiele, and Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Federico Garcia Lorca, and Daniil Kharms, and Alexander Vvedensky, and Nikolai Oleynikov, and Nikolai Zabolotsky, and Robert Desnos, and Valerie Solanas, and many many others up to the present day. So again, to everyone trying to spread rumors, I just advise you to better learn about art history.

Regarding the “Seam” event and the “Fixation” event – yes, this is true. But it’s connected for only two reasons. The first is the recontextualization method, which is one of the fundamental methods I use for the realisation of Subject-Object Art events. You know, I never invented anything in order to realise my events. I just took a certain gesture or incident and transferred it from one context to another. For example, the event “Pornopolitics” was built on the fact I moved pornography from the context of the entertainment market to the context of politics. But also, to turn to the historical heritage of Moliere, more precisely Moliere’s Tartuffe and to recontextualize it in today’s world. That’s all. Each of my eight events was built on this principle.

Where do you think it’s all going? War, regime in Russia, struggle of freedom against tyranny? Do you see yourself in Russia? Do you think that Russia will be at all exist in the near future?

See, one smart person wrote in ancient times: “He who speaks about what he does not know, always speaks disgustingly”. And I absolutely agree. Therefore, I cannot make any military-political forecasts. I simply can’t because I don’t know anything about it. I can’t return to Russia either, but this became clear at the end of 2016, so there is no news about this. The only thing I am convinced now is that we all need to turn to Goya’s legacy. We all need to read about his life. We all need to look at his engravings to better understand what is really happening. Because what is happening today is the “Time of Goya”.

There is a popular belief that Russian culture can only flourish in state of unfreedom. Do you agree? Could you attribute this to your art and do you think that the Russian artist needs to act in the conditions tyranny to express yourself in the best possible way?

This is bullshit. Especially when you consider that the only and truly powerful upsurge in Russian fine arts occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, just when the imperial regime fell and the Bolsheviks came to power. And this upsurge continued exactly until the new government had to solve the problem of reigning chaos and managed to streamline everything.

Tell us why you dedicated your Lighting court-post to the Marquis de Sade.

Because the Marquis de Sade is the greatest Frenchman in the history of mankind. He is one of the greatest writers who was able to show the nature of power. And through this, he was able to show human nature. He is a writer who wrote his works almost two hundred and fifty years ago, but those works have remained extremely relevant to this day. He is a writer for whom two hundred and fifty years is not long enough to make him a bloodless scarecrowed from History. In addition, the “Lighting” event was about the nature of power, about the importance for power to maintain dominance even when it comes to such things as historical symbols. Symbols whose meaning almost everyone has long forgotten. At a first glance, it seems that it’s irrational, but facts show that it’s of great importance to the authorities. And the last thing is that the “Lighting” event was about the Bastille prison, and the Marquis de Sade was jailed there shortly before its destruction. He is a writer who spent about thirty years in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. He died in a psychiatric hospital. At that time, in France, the holders of power and the regimes were constantly changing, but all these powers waged a campaign against de Sade, aiming at his complete destruction. But he never broke down. He stayed true to his chosen path in art. It was my personal duty to dedicate this trial to him. It was a matter of conscience.

You are often associated with artists such as Chris Burden, Joseph Beuys and Viennese Actionists, but I couldn’t help but remember (from our last conversation at Foundry Molodkin in Maubourg earlier this year) your explicitpassion for Caravaggio. What is the source of this passion? What do you two have in common?

Yes, Caravaggio is one of my favorite artists. And it’s been a long time – since I was a student. Why? Well, first of all, Caravaggio is a very powerful artist. I mean in terms of composition, colors, tone and other formal qualities. This year, I went to Italy to see his paintings, and many of them are actually much better than reproductions in books or on the Internet. And this is not the case with all artists. More often, the opposite is true. Secondly, because at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century, Caravaggio already defended the independence of art. And it was a time when art was totally subordinated to the Church or feudal lords. That is to say that the artist and his art could only exist by working for the representatives of power. But when Caravaggio received orders from cardinals or dukes, he asked prostitutes to be his models. He got into trouble because of this, and some paintings were refused by the Church and removed from the altars. But Caravaggio, with an inexplicable persistence, didn’t give up and continued to ask prostitutes to pose, over and over again. By doing so, he ceased to be a weak-willed servant forced to please the authorities. He ceased to be a servant at least in his own eyes but judging by the fact that he has always chosen well-known prostitutes to pose for him, it is likely that he also ceased to be for the people around him at that time. Including clients. And thirdly, for the method of tenebrism, of which he is considered the initiator. This method consists in building an image and the meaning contained therein by the sharp opposition of light and shadow. Indeed, each of the Caravaggio’s paintings portrays the tragedy of darkness devoured by light. Very few people can remain indifferent to that. It was his method of tenebrism that inspired me the realisation of “Freedom”, “Threat” and “Lighting”. All these three events were calls to the historical legacy of Caravaggio. And if you look at the photos of these events, everything will be obvious. That’s why fire was chosen as a source of light and night as a natural shadow. And well, what Caravaggio and I have in common is that he was an artist – and I am an artist too. And I think that is enough.

You have a solo exhibition in London soon. Where exactly? What can we expect from it?

The exhibition will be held at the “a/political” exhibition space from October, 11th to December, 16th. I have collaborated with a/political on several projects before, and they proved to be very professional and worthy people. Now, let’s talk about what you should expect from this exhibition. This exhibition will present ten of my artworks. Ten images. Each of them is a precedent of Subject-Object Art. Here, I must say that a “precedent” and an “event” are two completely different things. Similarly, photo or video records of an event can never be a precedent. The only things that can constitute precedents are images or texts produced by power mechanisms in the process of oppressing an artist and their art. The artist takes no part in the precedent-making process itself; all the work is done by the officials. For that is when the artist effects a turn-around so much needed by art. For your readers to understand better, I think I should explain what Subject-Object Art is and what kind of turn-around I’m talking about. To explain very briefly, Subject-Object Art is about arranging a certain combination of circumstances to force officials to proceed to exercise their powers of authority and thus to realise the artist’s idea. In other words, it is simply about making power work for art. Through that, a subject of power becomes an object of art. And what turns them into an object is their own power of authority. In the process, everyone remains where they belong. Power remains power, and art remains art. The only thing that changes is who works for whom. Art no longer serves the interests of power: now it is power that begins to serve the interests of art. All the artist has to do is create circumstances that would force power to commence work. And then select the best of the products of this labour. The result of this selection will be presented at this exhibition. And I hope that each person will be able to find something interesting for themselves. After all, it’s the result of years of work by those charged with managing us and controlling our lives. These are the years of their work for art.

Pyotr Pavlensky / You could be the one


Artist: Pyotr Pavlensky / @pyotr.pavlensky
Editor: Maria Abramenko / @mariabramenko
Assistant: Camilla Di Pasquale / @micalliroe
Special thanks: Roman Abramenko / @handballaw

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