Russia: The street artists that drive authorities mad

31 October 2014


Russian street artists are twisting and testing the lines between art, activism and hooliganism. While most artists would define their various protest actions and expressions as art, or street art, the Russian authorities only see illegal hooliganism.

This report goes behind the arts scenes in the country which became internationally known for its conflict between protest artists and authorities in 2011 when members of the protest art collective Pussy Riot were arrested. Learn about some of the other Russian artists who have since been arrested and prosecuted with little or no coverage by international media.

By Masha Egupova

On 19 October 2014, the provocative contemporary artist Petr Pavlensky cut off his earlobe while sitting naked on the rooftop of the Serbsky State Scientific Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry. The images of naked bleeding Pavlensky with a giant knife spread like a wildfire across the web. Policemen took the bleeding man off the roof and delivered him to one of the Moscow’s hospitals.

Pavlensky has made a name for himself with provocative physical public actions driven by social commentary – such as sewing his mouth shut in support of Pussy Riot in 2012 and nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in 2013 as a critique of political apathy.

This time, severing his earlobe from his body on the roof of a hospital notorious for diagnosing political dissidents as mentally unstable during the USSR time was meant to call attention to state psychiatry being used to silence opposition.

“Knife separates the earlobe from the body. A concrete wall of a psychiatric ward separates reasonable society from the insane patients. By returning the usage of psychiatry for political purposes, the police regains power to determine the threshold between reason and madness,” he said in a statement.

Pavlensky was hospitalised and sent for psychiatric examination, released shortly after.

“[The nurse] declared me ‘normal’ according to the system of the psychiatric treatment,” Pavlensky told Dazed Digital. “I didn’t really need them to tell me because I reject their framework.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a former member of the protest art collective Pussy Riot, said on her Facebook page:

“Pavlensky is an actionist; his work is ideally situated in our time. He is an artist of the time of disillusionment, which has grasped us after 2012. When I met Pavlensky I told him that I felt like a grandmother next to him… It is because he is a better representation of our time than Pussy Riot. He is dark, stern, focused, ready for pain. Pussy Riot was colorful, festive, carnival-esque, carefree, and childlike, born in the the excitable time of the end of 2011.”

Abroad, Pussy Riot remains one of the best-known examples of Russian public protest art. Their performance of a protest song in a Moscow church and subsequent arrest cost Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina nearly two years in prison but won them international renown as freedom fighting superstars.

Although Pussy Riot has gained the most attention, there are many Russian protest artists who are staging similarly incendiary public art actions, and, who are unfortunately also facing criminal prosecution as a result.

Voina starts the war
When Vladimir Putin came to power in the 2000s and slowly started tightening the screws of political freedoms, various political art groups appeared across Russia, determined to shock Russian society out of what they saw to be a dangerous complacency. Artists expressed their dissatisfaction with the political situation in the country through publicly provocative actions, using detournement and culture jamming, and generally turning the public sphere into their medium of choice.

The art group Voina (“War”), founded in 2007 by Moscow art-activists, has been proven to be one of Russia’s formative and most persistent art protest groups, spoken of with equal parts reverence and disgust. Voina has taken over police stations, projected anti-homophobic and anti-racist performances in shopping malls, thrown live cats in McDonalds as a gesture of anti-capitalism, and even staged a public orgy in protest of the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev.

The group gained international attention for their most memorable action – turning one of the historic rising bridges in Saint Petersburg into an erect penis on 14 June 2010. The performance ‘Dick Captured by FSB’ was done in front of the FSB headquarters in Saint Petersburg.

Some bridges in the city are raised at night to allow boats to pass through. Artists waited until the bridge was closed and rushed in to paint the massive penis. Although guards stopped some of the activists, others managed to paint the bridge in under a minute. Passersby were amused by the scenery and the internet was later flooded with various videos and images of the performance. Here is how they did it:

The Kremlin didn’t respond to most of the provocations, Voina was even elegantly trolled by the government when their penis performance won Russia’s top contemporary art award along with 400,000 rubles (10,000 US dollars) in the 2011 Innovation competition.

However, mere months before, Voina founders Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev were arrested and charged with “aggravated hooliganism” for an action that involved turning over police cars. The artists were threatened with psychiatric tests and remained in prison until British street artist Banksy posted bail for them.

In July 2014, Vorotnikov was again arrested in Venice after a violent dispute with local anarchists, and is facing extradition to Russia, which has an interpol warrant out for his arrest.

Timofey Radya: Sochi and ‘Stability’
Conceptual artist Timofey Radya, from Yekaterinburg critiqued the reliance of Putin’s ‘stability’ on monolithic power and state-sanctioned violence with an installation piece called ‘Stability’, presented in 2012. Radya staged his work one year after the massive protests on Moscow’s Bolotnaya square. He placed a throne atop a house of cards built out of 55 police riot shields, in a snowy deserted landscape, to demonstrate that the Russian regime is built on brute force, and although it appears stable it can all collapse like a house of cards.

In 2014, Radya presented another provocative work, critiquing the government’s lavish spending on the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He prepared 300 kilos of Russian banknotes worth 2 billion rubles (48 million US dollars), loaded them in metal Olympic rings, and blew them in the wind over the endless Russian winter landscape.

“A couple of years ago I drank half a cup of coffee and understood the way it should be: money down the drain. I went to Sochi beforehand to see a place for the project, but I realized that this was not necessary. Snowy field seemed like the ideal space to me, it is clean and it is very Russian… Interestingly enough, this neutrality is visually similar to the sterile environments of art galleries and museums. But genetically they are different – the field is not sterile, it is filled with wind, light and myths,” Radya wrote in an article.

Although Radya has never faced pushback from the law and his Sochi piece went over peacefully, other artists critiquing the Sochi Olympics have not been so lucky.

After Tolokonnikova and Alekhina, were freed from prison, they went to the Sochi Olympics in order to stage another performance, this one a song titled “Putin will teach you to love the motherland.” They barely began when they were brutally attacked by uniformed Cossack militia members and plainclothes security.

Artists respond to conflict in Ukraine
In a departure from his body-focused work, Pavlensky and some fellow activists burned tires in a public square in Saint Petersburg as a sign of solidarity with the Euro Maidan protesters in Ukraine, who burned tires to create a smoke shield behind which they could hide from riot police.

“The Maidan [spirit] spreads irreversibly and penetrates to the heart of the Empire. The fight with imperial chauvinism continues. We fight for our and your freedom. On a day when the government invites people to celebrate protectors of the fatherland, we invite everyone to celebrate Maidan and the protection of your freedom,” Pavlensky told Argumenty and Fakty.

The performance lasted 20 minutes before firefighters arrived. Pavlensky and the others were arrested. A court in Saint Petersburg opened a criminal case against them. and authorities used this incident to pursue punitive psychiatric measures against Pavlensky, which may have inspired his subsequent anti-psychiatry action.

“The Investigative Committee has tried to get three separate courts to condemn me as insane (for burning the tires in the Red Square), but they just can’t find a judge who would,” Pavlensky told Dazed Digital.

On 20 August 2014, a Ukrainian roofer going by the nickname of Mustang Wanted climbed one of the iconic Soviet-era buildings in Moscow’s Kotelnicheskaya Embankment and hung a Ukrainian flag from its steeple. He also painted the star on top of the building with blue paint, thus making it look like a Ukrainian flag. He came forward after four other suspects were taken in and placed under house arrest.

Although the execution was rather artful, Mustang does not call himself an artist – instead, he acknowledged himself guilty of “hooliganism” and offered to turn himself in, in exchange for the release of pilot Nadiya Savchenko.

Although artists are still being persecuted and receiving little international hype, Tolokonnikova thinks protest artists are gaining important ground, at least in the arena of public rhetoric:

“Pavlensky’s biggest victory? Russia Today and Vesti called him an artist. An artist! Not a hooligan. Not a crazy person. Not a disrupter of the peace!,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Life has gotten better, comrades!”

This story was commissioned by Freemuse, the leading defender of musicians worldwide and Global Voices for It was funded by a grant from CKU. The article may be republished by non-commercial media, crediting the author Masha Egupova, Freemuse and Global Voices and linking to the origin.


» Dazed – 23 October 2014:
Earlobe-slicing artist Petr Pavlensky: ‘I feel excellent’
The Russian artist talks about getting sent to the psych ward for his ear-chopping protest against state psychiatry

» Moscow Times – 19 October 2014:
Russian Artist Cuts Off Part of Ear in Act of Protest

» Global Voices – 22 August 2014:
Ukrainian Daredevil Climber Admits to Painting the Moscow Star in Ukraine’s Colors

» ArtNet – 6 August 2014:
Activist Artist Faces Extradition to Russia

» New York Times – 8 April 2014:
Radical Art Group Wins Russian Ministry Prize

» The Guardian – 19 February 2014:
Pussy Riot attacked with whips by Cossack militia at Sochi Olympics

» Interpol – 2013:
Warrant against Oleg Vorotnikov

» – 20 August 2013:
Ukrainian flag on top of building triggers criminal case

» BBC – 5 March 2011:
How Banksy Bailed Out Russian graffiti artists Voina

In Russian language

» – 19 October 2014:
Artist Pavlensky cut off his ear lobe at the institute named after Serbian

» – 23 March 2014:
Timothy Radya – The other side of the coin

» – 21 March 2014:
Artist Pavlenksy faces charges for burning tires

» – 23 February 2014:
Artist Pavlensky and co carry out “Maidan” in the center of St. Petersburg

» – 23 February 2014:
Peter Pavlensky lit tires in support of Maidan

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