Russian artist self-mutilates for justice

Pyotr Pavlensky, a performance-based Russian artist, sat naked on the roof of the Serbsky Psychiatric Centre on Sunday, Oct. 19. He climbed up in protest of the forced psychiatric treatment of political dissidents. But instead of merely occupying the roof to make a statement, Pavlensky took it one step further. He cut off his right earlobe.

This type of physical mutilation is not a first for Pavlensky. He’s performed a few controversial stunts, including sewing his mouth shut after the prosecution of the punk-rock band Pussy Riot and nailing his scrotum to Moscow’s Red Square, which he called at the time a “metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society.” Self-mutilation is an extreme form of protest, but it does guarantee one thing: attention.

Pavlensky’s performance art has made the news worldwide, drawing notice to whatever issues are at its origin. He is very good at what he does, assuming that someone who protests through self-mutilation can be good at what he does. During his demonstrations he is very vacant, often expressionless, which makes the entire spectacle more shocking. By being so silent during what we would imagine to be awful physical pain, the performance is not personal, but rather focused entirely on the act and what it stands for. Between the pain and the calm, the protest is a contradiction of itself and ultimately demands our attention.

So what exactly is Pavlensky achieving by cutting of part of his ear? He’s trying to draw attention to the controversial, Soviet-era methods that the Serbsky Centre is using to lock up political dissidents. In April, Mikhail Kosenko, a demonstrator in Bolotnaya square, was sentenced to indefinite psychiatric treatment. Amnesty International has called the sentence very similar to Soviet-era practices of immorally stifling political opposition. Along with Konsenko, Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko is being tried for complicity in the deaths of two Russian war correspondents, as well as undergoing a psychiatric exam. Both of these charges have been condemned as politically motivated.

Pavlensky has every reason to be protesting this kind of treatment from the Russian government. Besides the obvious abuse of power by officials who order this type of sentencing, there is severe malpractice in unjustly subjecting someone to psychiatric treatment. Pavlensky has been subject to psychiatric exams many times after his demonstrations, but each time he has been declared sane. The Russian government is notorious for magically ridding itself of political enemies, but as much as the government likes to deny it, opponents’ disappearances and mistreatment aren’t kept completely quiet.

As far as Pavlensky’s demonstrations go, I respect him greatly for putting on such a dramatic demonstration to draw attention to a major issue. It’s unfortunate that he has to go to such lengths, but in a country like Russia, subtlety will get you nowhere when protesting the government. If anything, it’ll probably get you caught. A subtle performance will alert Russian officials that you need to be dealt with, but it won’t gain enough international attention to give you outside support.

Upon reading about Pavlensky, I immediately thought of the 2010 Arab Spring, when the Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire and sparked a movement across much of North Africa. Subtlety does not create movements in oppressive societies. Subtlety does not speak out in states without free speech. Subtlety does not encourage widespread change. Pavlensky’s demonstrations are sad, a little scary and definitely shocking. Despite all of this, in some cases, I think they are necessary.

Emma Whitford ’18 is from Middleton, Wis. She majors in political science.