Theater of Cruelty

Power and resistance

Pavlensky – Man and Might
Regissør: Irene Langemann

Irene Langemann's documentary on Pjotr ​​Pavlenskij poses the question: Faced with extreme repression by the state, what can an individual do, other than resort to extreme actions?


What should an individual do when he sees things moving in a downward spiral? When an ongoing or upcoming disaster (political, social, technological) is not averted, but instead strengthened and promoted by organized forces, by rules and laws that declare any resistance as criminal or scandalous? That was the question Ted Kaczynski, otherwise known as the "Una bomber," posed, and his radical answer was to attack leading problematic characters, as portrayed in the film Das Netz (Nettet) from 2003 by Lutz Dammbeck.

Death for convictions. In a crucial moment in ancient Greek philosophy, Socrates chose not to fight his own execution, but instead to accept the city's laws. He did so even though the crime he was charged with, the moral corruption of the youth (by encouraging them to question the authorities), was a simple but effective attempt to challenge the leading forces. Socrates was killed for being a philosopher. In an astonishing devotion to his convictions, he remained in prison and refused to take the opportunity of escape he was offered. At that point in history, law and order outweighed the ability to practice philosophy.

Not even a confinement in a closed psychiatric ward for a month broke him.

Since then, territorial powers, called "states," have had plenty of time to perfect their capacity for control. Today, residents are monitored down to the smallest detail using the Internet. Their possibilities for action are limited and restructured through prefabricated patterns, as shown in Stare Into The Light My Pretties, Jordan Brown's 2017 film. The invention of "terrorism" was, and still is, one of the most effective tools to concentrate and apply control, surveillance and domination as a growing, infallible pattern that characterizes today's society.

So what can an individual do? Join a political party, convince others to win a majority in elections and then stand face to face with the tremendous influence of established governing powers and multinational organizations?

Radical. Russian Pyotr Pavlenskij, portrayed in Irene Langemann's documentary Pavlensky – Man and Might (Man and power), puts its answer to life through action. His way of fighting back, which he carries out on his own terms and in his own decisions, is to protest against the progressive integration and transformation of art into obedient tools for the state. His political performance art is demonstrations against oppression and "state terror". The turning point for his work came in connection with the lawsuit against the Russian feminist-punk group Pussy Riot and the gaggle of artists by the authorities. His work has evolved, raising awareness of the profound changes in Russian society, the suppression of political opposition, freedom of speech and human rights through threats, imprisonment and torture.

He appeared in the square in front of the Kazan Cathedral with his mouth physically sewn back together ("Stitch", 2012), an indictment of the state for forcibly silencing and manipulating people. In 2015, he set fire to the front door of Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Russian secret services FSB (formerly KGB), where hundreds of thousands of opponents of the state have been tortured and killed ("Lubyanka's burning door", 2015). In solidarity with people protesting against the government in Ukraine, Pavlensky reconstructed some of the events of the Maidan Revolution. He set fire to a pile of car tires and drummed on metal plates near the Malo-Kalinkin Bridge and the Church of the Resurrection in St. Petersburg, the place where Tsar Aleksander II, who brutally cracked down on all opposition, was assassinated in 1881 ("Freedom", 2014).

On Russian police day in 2013, he sat naked on the pavement at the famous Red Square. There he had nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones, as prisoners had previously done in prison camps ("Fixation", 2013). He appeared wrapped in barbed wire, lying on the ground in front of a public building, to remind the crowd that power is an instrument of violence ("Carcass", 2013). In his "Segregation" (2014), he sat on the kneeling wall of the Serbian Institute, the Center for Forensic Psychiatry, and cut off his earlobe with a knife. The fate of many dissidents had been settled within these four walls. But instead of being imprisoned, they were simply declared insane and placed in institutions.

Pavlensky combines a radical form of self-harm with performance art that has existed since the 1960s, as in works by Rudolf Schwarzkogler of the Viennese actionism movement. Pavlensky, however, places his art in a clear political context. He includes police, legal and administrative procedures, the national intelligence service and the psychiatric system in his actions to raise awareness of (and perhaps the collapse of) the hypocrisy of the system. The Stalinist era of prison, psychiatry and torture is alive and well today.

Pavlensky secretly recorded the interrogations he went through, even during a lie detector test, which Langemann uses for reconstructions. The lawsuit against him and the jail is an integral part of his actions – he doesn't care what it can cause. The fact that he is beaten and injured is only mentioned in the context of everyday events that also apply to other prisoners.

When he failed to get him convicted as a criminal (Pavlensky's symbolic acts are not covered by the criminal law), the new political strategy became to declare him mentally "sick" or "insane". In light of this, Pavlensky insisted on being accused of terrorism. In doing so, he risked the strictest possible punishment, to uncover the mechanisms of the judicial procedure. By doing so, he seized power and decision-making from the state and applied them himself. He can no longer lose, punishment is turned into self-declaration.

The different levels of reflection and representation balance the shocking extreme of his actions.

Curved, but not jacked. Not even a confinement in a closed psychiatric ward for a month broke him. On the contrary, we experience gestures and actions that show solidarity, sensitivity and magnanimity from the other inmates. His concepts and thoughts also spread during the time he spent as a prisoner. His fellow inmate activists started their "art work" by sending art letters to each other. Finally, there was an independent psychologist who refused to declare Pavlensky as "provably insane" or "psychologically confused". In the documentary, Langemann gives room to explain his reasoning. The case takes a surprising turn as the first in charge of interrogating Pavlensky chooses to quit his job after talking to him. He works today as a lawyer in his defense team.

Langemann followed Pavlensky's actions for a long time. She contacted artists who showed solidarity in her work, such as Lena Hades, who painted with her own blood, and Oleg Kulik, who transformed Pavlensky's actions into sculptures. Kulik simply states: “Pavlensky is completely alone in what he does. If an institutional power or organization had supported him, he would have been dead already. ” The documentary is composed of an astonishing blend of Pavlensky's reflections in situ, reporting material, meetings of solidarity, interviews, staged scenes and reconstructions based on texts and recordings. The different levels of reflection and representation balance the shocking extreme of his actions.

There is no difference between art and reality. Pavlensky's spouse, partner and mother of the couple's two daughters, Oksana Shalygina, declares: "We believe that with every intention and action, every spoken word, we either reject, repeat or continue the existing order that is imposed on us."

What can an individual do? Pavlensky's answer is challenging: create awareness, take responsibility for your actions, do not pass it on to others or share it with the authorities.

Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a critic living in Paris.

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