In a protest against Russian apathy, political indifference, and police brutality, performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky stripped nude yesterday in Moscow’s cobblestone Red Square, sat down, and nailed his scrotum to the ground.
Pavlensky’s act kicked gossip rags the world over into high gear, but amid all of the salacious chatter and gawking at the “freak in the square,” the poignancy of the performance is getting lost.
Following on the heels of Pussy Riot and announcements that social media will be banned at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Pavlensky’s incredible piece (no pun intended) shines a spotlight on Putin’s desperate but heavy-handed efforts at silencing not only dissent, but any form of expression deemed potentially threatening to the state.
We should all take heed that when a state-ordered gag has been in place for as long as Russia’s, people on the street begin to forget what unsanctioned language sounds or looks like. Which, of course, is what the State wants: to make the unsanctioned literally unthinkable, in every sense of the term.
Watch the reactions of crowds to Pussy Riot, and of the police to Pyotr. Onlookers don’t just seem surprised; they look positively bewildered, like natives witnessing the sudden arrival of an interloper whose culture is so foreign, so unimagined, and so dangerously unpredictable, that they can’t, at first, move. Even after getting their bearings, the spectators remain reluctant to approach the message-bringers; even the politsiya sniffing around Pyotr are careful not to get too close.
This reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian story, “The Concentration City,” in which a student named Franz journeys into unmapped territories of the City despite the State’s bureaucratic claims that the metropolitan space extends infinitely in all directions and contains no unmappable areas; the existence of anything that has not been characterized officially by the State is denied.
Pussy Riot and Pyotr are effective precisely because they show up at officially mapped locales, but then present language that falls outside of what has been deemed possible by the State. Their messages can’t be contained because they’re already on the other side of the State’s hegemonic fence upon arrival; how does one rein/reign in something that’s not even supposed to be possible? (Answer: you send her to Siberia, then pray). Riot and Pyotr are liberating because they call into question the way space and power have been parceled—they prove, in a glint of hope, that not everything has been mapped, which is poison to a totalitarian state.
*** UPDATE: An interview with Pyotr has been posted here.