[artinfo] artist with balls on red square

Tjebbe van Tijen tjebbe at imaginarymuseum.org
Sat Nov 23 15:21:37 CET 2013

ARTIST WITH BALLS ON RED SQUARE: an attempt at understanding the 
self-mutilation protest of Pyotr Pavlensky


The tableau picture on which the text below is based can be seen at


an attempt at understanding the artistic protest of Pyotr Pavlensky 
on the Red Square in Moscow, who nailed his scrotum to the pavement 
in front of the Mausoleum of Lenin and the Kremlin walls, yesterday. 
Shortly after he was cut loose and arrested for his deed. Pavlensky 
said his action was to "protest against the Kremlin's crackdown on 
political rights." (1)

Self-mutilation in public has a long and varying history and a 
diverting set of meanings. The re-enactment of the crucifixion of 
Jesus Christ is performed in many places all over the world. The 
Islam knows the self-whipping men parading through the streets. 
Fakirs show their overcoming of the body by the mind by all kind of 
piercing actions. Piercing of body parts is of all times, often as an 
act of initiation or embellishments of the body. Modern art has a 
whole a whole score of body art, whereby some form of self-mutilation 
is performed, from the enactment of (self)castration by the Austrian 
artists Herman Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, to the suspending in 
space of his body through wires and hooks in his skin by the 
Cypriot-Australian artist Stelarc.

All these examples differ in meaning from the action of Pyotr 
Pavlensky yesterday on Red Square, in front of the walls of the 
Kremlin and the Mausoleum of Lenin. His action points to the 
self-mutilation of soldiers and prisoners who try to escape from 
their dire situation, who are so desperate to get out of their actual 
situation that they re willing to hurt themselves, even badly. 
Soldiers that shoot themselves in the hand or leg (a common 
occurrence during the long lasting trench warfare of World War I, 
prisoners that try to poison themselves, harm their body or twist 
their mind and behavior in such a way, that they may be transferred 
to a hospital or a mad house. In the case of the long history of the 
Russian deportation camps from the time of the Tzars to the Stalin 
period and even beyond that, an attempt to escape to some form of 
hospital was a desperate act indeed, as the medical facilities in 
most of the Gulag camps was below any standard and in some cases more 
hellish than the actual concentration camp itself.

Nailing down oneself with a pin through the scrotum, between the 
balls, has been registered by several witnesses, and such examples 
did appear again in recent anthology of testimonies on the Russian 
Gulag by Anne Applebaum, published in the year 2003:

"A prisoner tells the story of a thief who cut off four fingers of 
his left hand. Instead of being sent to a field as invalid, however, 
did sit invalid snow and seeing others work. Forbidden to leave, 
afraid of being shot for attempted escape, "he soon himself and asked 
for a shovel, using it as a crutch, with his hand survivor, put it in 
the frozen ground, weeping and cursing. " Still, many prisoners felt 
that the potential benefit they made was worth the risk. Some methods 
were rude. The criminals were particularly known for his simply cut 
three fingers intermediates with an ax, so that they could not cut 
more trees or hold a wheelbarrow in the mines. Others cut off a foot 
or a hand, or rubbing acid in his eyes. Others still, to leave for 
work, a wet cloth wrapped around the foot, at night, came back with 
frostbite of the third degree. The same method could be applied to 
the fingers.

In 1960, Anatoly Marchenko saw a man preaching his testicles in a 
bank in prison. It was not the first: Valerii Frid describes a man 
who preached his scrotum in a tree stump."

[Applebaum, Anne. 2003. Gulag: a history. New York: Doubleday; pafge 
445 in the eBook edition I used]

The use of the verb 'preached' is odd, and hardly used in English, as 
far as I could ascertain. I took the quotation on line, once more 
from Google Books and there another rendering of this sentence is 
"In the 1960s , Anatoly Marchenko watched a man nail his testicles to 
a prison bench. Nor was he the first  Valery Frid describes a man who 
nailed his scrotum to a tree stump." (2)

It seems that the action of Pyotr Pavlensky did find its inspiration 
source right there. Or, if not so, it is a way to read his action, as 
it is not only the actor who determines how others perceive his 

However gruesome the act - piercing a long nail through the tender 
skin of the scrotum straight between the most sensitive part of a 
man's body, his balls onto the cold pavement of a huge square - it is 
still a few steps away from the public sacrifice of one's life. 
Self-immolation is such a final act, being of another order. It can 
hardly be called an 'artistic act' when one drowns one's own cloths 
and body in an inflammable liquid and sets it afire. Examples galore 
with certain strains of Buddhism and Hinduism accepting this form of 
self-sacrificing acts. Russia has its own horrid history with the 
persecution of the 'old believers' in the 17th century, whereby whole 
villages in fear of a horrid end at the hands of their persecutors 
preferred to burn themselves to death, in what was called their 'fire 

The most recent political use of self-immolations were in Bulgaria in 
a protest against the against the Borisov government. The protest of 
a Tunisian street vendor, Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, against 
his maltreatment in December 2010 triggered in the end the Arab 
Spring movement and when we move back through time we meet Tibetans, 
Czechs and Vietnamese monks that use this form of ultimate protest.

Back to the action on the Red Square and the intent and effect of 
such actions. It was not Pavlensky 's first radical action. Another 
one was preceding it. As is explained on a Wikipedia page about this 

"By suturing my mouth on the background of the Kazan Cathedral, I 
wanted to show the position of the artist in contemporary Russia: a 
ban on publicity. I am sickened by intimidation of society, mass 
paranoia, manifestations of which I see everywhere." While commenting 
on the questionable originality of his action in one of the later 
interviews, Pavlensky mentioned: "Such practice has occurred among 
artists and prisoners, but for me it did not matter. The question of 
primacy and originality here for me does not exist. There was no goal 
to surprise anyone or come up with something unusual. Rather, I felt 
the necessity to make a gesture that would accurately reflects my 
situation."[Wikipedia Petr Pavlensky ]"

Does nailing your balls to the pavement of the most central and 
symbolic square of Russia "reflects accurately" the situation in 
Russia in general, or does the desperate act only reflect the state 
of mind of the artist? As a non-Russian it is impossible to come up 
with an answer, still there is no doubt that Russia of today is a 
society which carries it's repressive and violent past with it, like 
all powerful nations do. When reading the nailing action from the 
perspective of the Gulag history, the artist is willing to risk - at 
least - parts of his body, in order to escape from what he feels to 
be his imprisonment within the confines of a society full of 
paranoia. Self-mutilation was seen as a crime within the Gulag 
system. It could be heavily punished. Refusal to fit as an 
exploitable part within the Gulag (production system), could lead to 
a death sentence, however paradoxical that may seem. Pavlensky has 
already been arrested and examined to see if he would not better fit 
in the infamous Russian classification system of those who are 
mentally ill. After his action with sewing his lips, he did get out, 
and was declared sane. The question is if he will be so 'lucky' next 

One may also question whether the need for dramatic acts, grandiose 
symbolic performances that aim at the heart of the power system, is 
what will change the system. Grotesque gestures seem to me - as an 
outsider - an expression of the bombast of power as displayed by 
Tzars, Party Secretaries and other 'great leaders', a cultural 
phenomenon that has been aptly named in new-speak of the last 
century: 'Palast-Kult'. The artist as martyr for the great cause of 
the Great Russia... I see analogies with the the style of the 
National Bolshevik Party of Eduard Limonov and their need and ways to 
produce martyrdom (like the recent case of the bad luck of Alexander 
Dolmatov asking for political asylum in the Netherlands, that treated 
him so badly that he ends up committing suicide in a Dutch prison 

Can the opponents of a power system be more than a reaction movement, 
mirroring in their actions and gestures the system they are fighting? 
One needs a lot of imagination to see any relationship between the 
'nailed down balls' of the artist Pyotr Pavlensky and the 'free 
roaming big balls' of the ruler Vladimir Putin. The fragility of the 
male apparatus may do the trick: that is what the ruler and those who 
are overruled do have in common. We know that one day - at a moment 
least expected - the fragility of yet another 'big ball system' will 
come to the fore and what seemed most strong proves to be weak.

Maybe there is yet another association: what seems to be omnipotent 
is nailed down so much to the all those strata of society that try to 
secure their interest and to extend their control with such a force 
that it there remains no more free roaming, no more potent policy. 
'The potentate' is constantly pulled from one side to the other, 
until his scrotum can not withstand the contradicting forces exerted 
on it and it tears apart... leading to a collapse of what once was 
the towering pride of the ruler.

(1) There are several video versions on YouTube, comparing them I 
choose this (sensational kind of web site) but good version of a 
video registration, without initial advertisement and so on. One has 
to click first to agree not to be younger than 18 years. This is the 

"Guy nails his scrotum to the ground as protest against police 
brutality Artist Peter Pavlensky nailed his testicles to a nail on 
the cobblestones of Red Square, the correspondent of "Fringe."The 
action is timed to the Day of Police, which is celebrated on November 
10. The action began at 13:00. Around 14:30 the artist was taken by 
ambulance to the First City Hospital. After going to the hospital to 
deliver him to the police station, "China Town". In a statement about 
the artist's action, called "Freeze", it is noted that it can be 
regarded as a "metaphor of apathy and political indifference and 
fatalism of the modern Russian society." Pavlensky known for other 
high-profile protests. May 3 this year, he went to the building of 
the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg naked and wrapped with 
barbed wire. Campaign "Carcass" symbolized "man's existence in a 
repressive legal system, where any movement causes severe reaction of 
the law, bites into the body of an individual." In July last year 
Pavlensky held a rally in support of prisoners participating Pussy 
Riot. He sewed his mouth and stood at the Kazan Cathedral with a 
placard "Speech Pussy Riot has been famous action replay of Jesus 
Christ (mf.21 :12-13)."http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=777_1384084283"

(2) Anne Applebaum cites Anatoly Marchenko's book "MY Testimony" 
(trad. Michael Scammel, London, 1969). I see that the eBook edition 
(what a shame does have neither page numbers nor foot- or end notes, 
so I can not give here the right page number.) Let me give at least a 
link to worldcat.org, as many libraries in the world do stock this 
book in one of the many editions that 

Tjebbe van Tijen
Imaginary Museum Projects
dramatising historical information
web-blog: The Limping Messenger
Flickr: Swift News Tableaus by Tjebbe van Tijen

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