Pyotr Pavlensky was born in 1984 in Leningrad. He studied monumental painting at the Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design. In 2012 he began making art that he defined as ‘political’. In 2019, however, the blurred boundaries of this term made Pavlensky consider redefining his artistic practice. Calling it ‘Subject-Object Art’, in 2021, he proceeded to articulate several basic notions and theoretical foundations, which he is currently combining into a forthcoming book, Subject-Object Art Theory. He has lived in Paris since 2017, having emigrated because of censorship and a constant threat of prosecution from the Russian authorities. Later, in France, he encountered censorship and a constant threat of prosecution from the French authorities.
How do you define your practice?
I make Subject-Object Art. Since I introduced this term, I think I should explain what it is. Subject-object art is based on the existence of the phenomenon of power. Power is control and governance. If power stops controlling and governing, it stops being power. Consequently, for power to exist, two components are necessary: those who govern and those who are governed. These two components are called the subject of power and the object of subordination. Every subject of power has powers of authority. The subject is obliged to exercise these powers; otherwise, they stop being a subject of power, and the power their person represents stops being actual. And it is this necessity for subjects of power to constantly exercise powers of authority that make possible the existence of Subject-Object Art. Essentially, it is about arranging a certain combination of circumstances to force officials to proceed to exercise their powers of authority and thus to realise the artist’s idea. In other words, it is simply about making power work for art. Through that, a subject of power becomes an object of art. And what turns them into an object is their own power of authority.
Portrait Of Pyotr Pavlensky: © Yann Merlin by Permission All other photos courtesy Pyotr Pavlensky
Which artists made you want to become an artist?
What made me want to become an artist was not some paintings I saw when I was young, but the fact that drawing was the only thing I had a need and ability for when I was a schoolboy. So, at the age of 19, when I wondered what I wanted to do with my life, the answer was evident because everything else was of no interest to me.
Then, when I studied at the Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, I started to look up to some artists who were – and still are – very important to me. Caravaggio, of course. He was and still is the most important painter for me. Three of my works – Freedom, Threat and Lighting are references to his historical legacy, to the method of Tenebrism, of which he is considered the initiator. This method consists in creating an image and its meaning through the sharp opposition of light and shadow. Each of Caravaggio’s paintings portrays the tragedy of darkness devoured by light. I think very few people can remain indifferent to that.
But there are also other artists whose works are significant to me – Edouard Manet, Vincent Van Gogh, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Lucian Freud. From the Italian Renaissance, it’s Michelangelo. From the Northern one, Jean Fouquet. Among contemporary artists – Richard Serra and Jeff Koons.
In your words, how have you evolved as an artist?
First was the decision I made at the age of 19 to become an artist. It was in 2003. Despite all the challenges I have met, I have always stuck to this decision. For almost ten years, I studied monumental painting at the Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design and I was trained in a school of contemporary art at the same time. Despite all the conflicts I had with the representatives of the education system, it’s during this period of my life that I built up a body of knowledge that has been very useful to me as an artist.
Another key moment was in 2012 when I realised my first event of Subject-Object Art, titled Seam. It was significant because, with this event, I made a transition from the closed public spaces of galleries and museums specially designed for art to the open public space of the city, its streets and squares.
Then, I must refer to the Threat event, in 2015. With Threat, I managed to abandon an outdated and overused form of expression, which also strongly resembled American and European performance art of the 1970s. A cardinal difference between the form I used in my early works and American and European performance was that those works were based on the artist/spectator dichotomy, while my art form was based on the artist/power dichotomy. Freedom (2014) was the first attempt to change this outdated form, or rather, it outlined possibilities of a new form, whereas Threat affirmed this new form unconditionally.
And then the next critical moment is my eighth event of Subject-Object Art, which is titled Pornopolitics (2020). This event is very significant because I successfully achieved a transition from a material public space to open cyberspace. This is a rare lucky turn for the artist! I mean, the laws of physics don’t apply in cyberspace. In cyberspace, you cannot use fire, metal or other substances capable of changing the shape of objects. The entire physics of cyberspace is a binary electrical signal and its only reality is the architecture of a software code. And that’s exactly what the difficulty with the transition was: an event of Subject-Object Art was not just represented in a digital space – it was realised in it. And the fact that I was able to successfully make this transition from material space to cyberspace while remaining within the logic of my art is certainly one of my most significant achievements to date.
How important is the judicial process in your artwork?
In my work, the judicial process is of fundamental importance because it’s only through the work of police officers, prosecutors, judges, psychiatrists, and other representatives of power that I can obtain what I call ‘precedents’ of Subject-Object Art. Precedents are images or texts produced by power mechanisms in the process of oppressing the artist and his art.
The artist takes no part in the precedent-making process itself; all the work is done by officials. This is what I call the ‘free-hands principle’. For power mechanisms to begin producing precedents, the artist only has to do two things: first, create circumstances that will force subjects of power to commence exercising their powers of authority, and secondly, at the end of the production process, select the best of their output. In the context of creating precedents, events, therefore, constitute premeditated and deliberately created circumstances.
Portrait Of Pyotr Pavlensky: © Yann Merlin by Permission All other photos courtesy Pyotr Pavlensky
What separates your new exposee website from tabloid publications?
The fact that tabloids don’t publish pornographic films. Pornopolitics was the world’s first porn website to involve politicians or elected and appointed government officials. I decided to create this resource when I realised that there were tens of thousands of porn sites in the world featuring animals, plants and corpses, etc., but there wasn’t a single one featuring politicians or elected and appointed government officials. With Pornopolitics, I managed to correct this shortcoming.
In addition, the design of the porn resource, which I considered with great attention, differs from that of the tabloids. Entering the website, you can see an image. It’s a composition featuring eleven naked women of all skin colours, each embodying different male ideas of female sexuality. They are pictured against a blue-sky background with symmetrically positioned clouds. The women are settled on the clouds in playful sexual poses as if inviting everyone to join them and enter this paradise of delights. A male paradise. The whole porn site was, by and large, graphically designed to embody the male idea of paradise. The azure sky and the clouds were the main graphic motif. The aesthetic feeling it created could most accurately be described as pleasure. Still, I do agree with you that the information content of the porn site was closest to that of tabloids. But I wanted the website to look like a typical product of the entertainment market. This is a consequence of the “recontextualisation method” that I use to create events of Subject-Object Art. I’ve been using this method to realise all of my eight events, but it’s a big theme so I can’t go into the details here.
Anyway, to be honest, I don’t think this porn resource is “exposing” anything other than a game with aesthetic styles. My only concern when creating the porn resource was to play with aesthetic categories with different styles. The high style was juxtaposed with the low style. Or rather, the vulgar style. Essentially, it was the same as taking a portrait of a politician, made according to the rules of the high style and displayed for everyone to see, and adding to it a drawing of male genitalia.
Do you feel empowered by biting the hand that feeds?
It is not a question of ‘power’ in terms of strength or weakness here. Rather, it is only about the stupidity of those who fail to understand that intimidation and encouragement are essentially the same. These are control levers. See, there are two components to dog training. Beating for disobedience and rewarding for obedience. Dogs are certainly good animals. They are loyal and devoted, and they have many other qualities… But I am a human being, and I should not liken myself to a dog.
Do you consider yourself an anarchist?
No, I am not an anarchist – never have been. The existence of states and their apparatus of power is absolutely necessary for me since Subject-Object Art could simply not exist without them.
Do you feel you sit within the mainstream art world or consider yourself an uncategorisable outsider?
I am not part of the mainstream art world. This is obvious considering the incredible censorship that I faced in Russia and I am now facing in France. But it is obvious that I am not an outsider either since I manage to maintain my presence in the art world, to the great displeasure of many people. This requires a lot of strength from me because there are a lot of people who want to destroy me, and among them, there are people who have fairly high positions in contemporary art institutions. I mean ‘destroy’ in the sense of making sure that the artist Pyotr Pavlensky no longer exists. Pyotr Pavlensky may exist somehow, but not as an artist. What helps me from not being destroyed is the existence of people who oppose this and, by virtue of their capabilities, support me. Among them are art historians, art critics and curators, as well as some people who hold high positions in museums.
As for the “classification” – this is another problem. There are always those people who try to stick labels simply by looking at pictures on the Internet and reading the headlines of influential media outlets. Such people sum up everything with one or two popular stereotypes. Let’s call them ‘classifiers of the 1st category. Among those fans of stereotypes, some of them will try to have the image of an informed person. Those ones do not simply read headlines, but also read the content of articles from media outlets to which they refer to know what they should think.
And this is where the ‘classifiers of the 2nd category’ come into play – these are those who deliberately misinform and distort reality. For instance, misinformation and distortion of reality happen when journalists, having to choose between the classification given to a work of art by a Doctor of Art History at the Courtauld Institute and the classification given by the public prosecutor of Paris High court, choose the classification given by the public prosecutor. Or another example – I know about one conversation that occurred between my beloved woman, Alexandra De Taddeo, and a journalist who works for the newspaper Libération, whose name is Quentin Girard. They talked about Pornopolitics and Quentin Girard argued that this event was not art, and I am not an artist. To Alexandra’s arguments that, apart from the artist himself, art historians, museums and art collectors recognise Pornopolitics as art, Quentin Girard, answered effortlessly – he said that he didn’t care about art historians, museums, and art collectors and that he was the only one to decide what is art and what is not. But once again, he lied. Because he doesn’t decide anything, his chief editor decides. So what the chief editor says to speak and write, the journalist will speak and write. Otherwise, the journalist will fail to make a career in a prestigious media outlet. And the chief editor knows what should be said and written because he receives orders from higher authorities. And even if they call these orders by a harmless word such as ‘recommendations’, he has no choice but to fulfil them. After all, he is interested in keeping a high position.
Mess, confusion, endless conflicts and contradictions arise because of these two categories of ‘classifiers’. However, outside the activities of these two categories of “classifiers”, there is no difficulty in classifying my art practice. What should be questioned when we talk about classification is: Who classifies? And on which area of knowledge this classification is based? That’s it.
Have you taken your art as far as it can go? If not, where would you like to take it?
I do not think I have taken my art that far. After all, I have been developing art theory and practice for only ten years. This is not much. The first years were spent on resolving the question of form because, as I told you earlier, despite the fact I introduced the artist/power dichotomy, several of my early events were outwardly formally similar to American and European performances of the 70s. But we live in the 21st century. 50 years have already passed since the 70s! It’s almost archaic. Then, in 2015, with the Threat event, I managed to renew and establish a new expressive form. But I didn’t stop there. With the Pornopolitics event, I could go even further in this direction.
But there was still a big problem related to the definition of my art practice. In 2012, I considered ‘political art’ to be the most appropriate term to describe the art that I made. But this term has become very problematic for me because ‘political art’ turned out to be stretched to such an extent that everything somehow associated with politics is now labelled as such. Everything from political cartoons to government propaganda. And some people use this term to refer to oppositional agitation. So, in 2019, I began to think about a new term that could clearly and accurately define the type of art that I make. That’s how I came up with the term Subject-Object Art. But to coin a name and formulate categories is certainly not enough, and therefore I have been writing the Theory of Subject-Object Art for two years now, articulating basic notions and theoretical foundations that are based on my practical experience as an artist. This theoretical work will put everything in its place.
How important is the process of documentation in your practice?
It’s fundamentally important. It’s important when it comes to photo and video records of the event, especially the moment of the arrest, which is often exceptionally aesthetically saturated, but also when the event ends and the apparatus of power get deeply involved in the Subject-Object Art process. Here, I should clarify that the Subject-Object Art process for the artist corresponds to a mere criminal procedure for the representatives of power. During such a procedure, they produce text and image documentation. At the end of this procedure, the artist selects the aesthetically valuable products of their work. Images thus produced by officials and selected by the artist become ‘precedents’ that are exhibited in art spaces. Similarly, texts produced by officials can also become ‘precedents’ published as narrative books.
As for precedents of Subject-Object Art, those taking the form of texts include the published drama Dialogues On Art. Later, it served as a script for several theatre productions, a short film and episodes in two feature-length films. I should also mention Collision, a book published in Russia in 2021 and France in 2022. This book discusses one episode in the perennial collision between artists and power. It was written without a single word from me. The entire text of this novel was written by officials working in judicial, psychiatric and penitentiary systems. In Russia, it was nominated for the National Bestseller literary award. As for the precedents that take the form of images, some of them were exhibited at Art Riot, a 2017 show at the Saatchi Gallery. Fourteen precedents of Subject-Object Art were on display there. And new ones will be presented at a/political in London from October 11th to December 16th.
Tell us about your upcoming exhibition in London.
As I just told you, the exhibition will be held at a/political – a new art space in London which opens on the same day as my exhibition. I am pleased that the a/political team has chosen my exhibition to open their new space. I have collaborated with them on several projects before, and they proved to be very professional and worthy people.
As for what you should expect from this exhibition… This exhibition comprises ten precedents. Each precedent is an image. It is an image created by judicial power mechanisms and has a clear aesthetic value. Can any image created by prosecutors, investigators or judges be called a precedent? No. What constitutes a precedent are only the aesthetically valuable products of their work that they create in the process of judicially oppressing an artist and his art. To make a precedent happen, however, the artist should turn this oppression against power itself. For that is when the artist effects a turn-around so much needed by art. The artist turns upside down the perennial disposition between art and power, making power work for art. In the process, everyone remains where they belong. Power remains power, and art remains art. The only thing that changes is who works for whom. Art no longer serves the interests of power: it is power that begins to serve the interests of art. All the artist has to do is create circumstances that would force power to commence work. And then select the best of the products of this labour.
Top Portrait Of Pyotr Pavlensky: © Yann Merlin by Permission All other photos courtesy Pyotr Pavlensky
Pyotr Pavlensky ‘Pornopolitics and Other Precedents’ 12 October-16 December