Hands off a citizen!

17.11.2015
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Piotr Pavlensky is in detention, but his cause lives on. That is exactly how he sees his role in art – all of his actions are strictly individual and even create an impression of complete loneliness, but in spite of this they liven up everything around as people unintentionally get involved in this game/struggle, in this art of protest, in this dialogue of a human and inhumanity.

The lightly burned entrance to the terrible building of ex-KGB on Lubyanka square in Moscow is hastily covered with steel sheets and this cover-up of the door becomes an amazing follow up to the scary incendiary act (although there is no secret that the door hardly even burned and this all resembled a fakir’s trick when he “exhumes fire” in a way not to burn himself). Later Pavlensky’s supporters stood with their posters near this door in individual pickets. This would not be some art or magic if there had ever been pickets at this particular door earlier.

Their posters are simple and do not claim to be some form of artistic action, reading “Freedom to Piotr Pavlensky!” and talking of a triumph over fear. But then we have some aggressor trying to destroy one of the posters, while the next thing we see is a police officer rushing to help a picketer with an unexpected and quite ingenious scream “Hands off a citizen!” The citizen – in its primary and proud sense – is a person who claims his responsibility for what happens in his polis, country or the world. And that’s exactly who Pavlensky is, so do take your hands off that citizen, exactly as the police officer said!

People start discussions around this scene, speaking out freely about the things they seemed to be afraid to talk or think about just yesterday. A passer-by tries to see “what’s the logic of all this?” Pavlensky’s supporters tell him rather reluctantly that it’s all about art, that it’s a form of protest. Suddenly the passer-by understands and exclaims “The general logic here is that this is a seed and something will grow out of it”. There is something medieval, Chaucerian or Cervantesian about the wisdom of this simple man. Piotr Pavlensky is definitely the Don Quichotte of our senseless epoch and it was just this Sancho Panza who was so far lacking for the play to be complete.
Meanwhile, a young policeman enters the discussion, he too wants to understand why the picketers do not consider Pavlensky an offender. He is given examples of symbolic burnings and suddenly the policeman starts his own discourse (sic!) – “Ok, let’s think deeper – what was he protesting against?”
It is such a pity that Pavlensky couldn’t hear this himself! He would definitely not regret anything and would stop at nothing in order for people to start “thinking deeper” and try to understand what produced his discontent (and maybe theirs too).

But we really should not pity Pavlensky because he did not stop at anything and he knew full well how to ignite people’s hearts, he knew how to provoke them and get them involved in his actions, whether they wanted it or not. What amazes me the most in this man is his enormous adequacy, the complete proportionality of his terse and rare gestures to what is going around him. He believes in unbelievable things, and they are turning into reality: I remember him describing with what pleasure he went in for questioning on criminal charges of vandalism (for his action “Freedom” on Konyushenny bridge in St. Petersburg, where in the early morning of February 23 he burned old tires and banged on trash cans). Pavlensky happily recalled how during these interrogations he expressed to the investigator his views on contemporary art, and how the investigator listened attentively and, of course, according to Pavlensky’s hope, would sooner or later understand and accept the position of the accused. Was it possible to believe it? I must confess that I felt it was much more reasonable to talk as little as possible during interrogations and not read lengthy lectures in an absurd hope to persuade the investigator. For us, those who tried to dissuade him from such a strange behavior, it seemed that we were sensible and sane people, and that Pavlensky is an eccentric man, who didn’t understand anything about life. So who turned out to be right in the end? Who knew life better? The investigator not only fully understood and accepted Pavlensky’s position, but he left his job in the law enforcement agencies and became Pavlensky’s lawyer!

Don Quixote is mad in the eyes of his neighbors and contemporaries, but he entered eternity as a man who stood above the squalid reality, as an idealist and romantic of the highest nobility. But the windmills were mere windmills, Dulcinea – a simple peasant woman, none of the admirers of the great character created by Cervantes think that Don Quixote was right in attacking windmills, but we appreciate him for his inadequacy to reality, a reality which is not worthy of recognition and acceptance.

But Pavlensky is an adequate Don Quixote, he not only believes incredible things are possible, he makes them possible, he knows the exact points and when and how to strike them. The thin, naked, wounded and helpless man, wrapped in a roll of barbed wire, he lies in front of the St. Petersburg parliament and expresses his protest in a way nobody else can.

An incredibly beautiful, expressive and memorable picture – a symbol of suffocated freedom, martyred civil society, where “every movement hurts”. Deputies staring out of the windows and the cops unable to pull the painter from the barbwire, nor to remove him from the square, they just bustle around with pliers until one of them brings the cover from the sofa of one of the deputies from the Mariinsky Palace and covers Pavlensky like a singing bird in a cage – another wonderful example of artistic complicity.

By its beauty and power this was, to my taste, the best of his actions, but people are not very moved by such fine art touches (though for this action he was later awarded with an art prize), And Pavlensky wishes for a response, it is necessary for him to wake people up – and he nailed himself to the cobblestones of the Red Square. Moscow, as we know, is not same as St.Petersburg, and Pavlensky woke up not simply famous, but very famous the next morning (although he coouldn’t care less for fame and scandalous glory, what he looked for was to wake people up). The best part of his action on the Red Square was its name – “Fixation” – to the place of execution, to his own pain, helplessness, lack of freedom, humiliation … If the name were different, the piece would be completely changed.
And there was no need to think of something extraordinary! There is no need to invent some fanciful words about “the descent of the Holy Fire” and other lofty scientific words about the action on Lubyanka. “Threat” is a short and clear word, it is tough and scary. A man, a simple man stands with a petrol canister next to a blazing building of authority, terror and inhumanity – and by doing so challenges it. He considers his action and gesture to be a glove thrown by society in the face of authority. Don Quixote challenged an imaginary giant to a fight, Pavlensky called on a real giant. The windmills were not affected by the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, but the terrible Lubyanka was put ablaze and covered its voracious mouth due to Pavlensky’s action, that of one small man with a canister.

What happened next was exactly what Pavlensky had hoped for and planned – he was detained, charged and placed under arrest.

They aim to punish him, but they do exactly what he wants his enemies to do. Completely calm and apparently without any irony he tells the judge that he is fully satisfied with the motive of “ideological and political hatred”, which he is charged with, because, as Pavlensky said himself, “what other feeling can a normal person have towards Lubyanka?” Pavlensky is a normal person, he hates Lubyanka and expresses his feelings. He is glad that his emotions were adequately understood and qualified. (Just as a matter of explanation, if a person is charged with vandalism, he is not supposed to be held under arrest, unless the offense was motivated by hatred and/or was organized by a group of persons. If his actions weren’t charged with a hatred motif, an accusation that Pavlensky applauds, he wouldn’t be held under arrest ahead of court hearings!)

He does not care for normal people so much, as they continue to praise him and consider him a hero. He entered into a dialogue with authority, threw a glove in its face and continues to fence with his sword, to attack and to provoke, while the authorities involuntarily start to play his game. It is obvious that the accusation of being a terrorist is the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of authority. So far he is qualified as a vandal, but this can be reconsidered any moment soon. While they still consider it and think of using it as a threat, Pavlensky himself stands up and asks – if you have to accuse me of something, accuse me of terrorism. Or otherwise let me free because a gesture is not a crime. But if you want to judge and accuse let’s play according to the rules: you are terrorists yourselves, but you judge ordinary people for being terrorists!

What is left for the authorities to do? They are still preparing to threaten him, while he already enters their territory himself, dictates conditions, carries out his battle and disarms them.
It is not a simple matter of having no fear, as there is quite a lot of brave and self-sacrificing people. There also many who would love to be heroes. “Into the fire? Well go ahead! Are you going?” One can make the fearless step, but it is sad and pitiful to end like a paper soldier in a famous song by Bulat Okudzhava.

The actions of fearless individuals are often potentially suicidal, but Pavlensky is not alone – he is being heard and seen, he is being hated and loved, people believe in him and have high hopes for him.

Article originally published in Russian on the website of Radio Liberty.