Pyotr Pavlensky has been Pulled from the Running for Innovatsiya Prize

February 17, 2016

Few weeks ago, we wrote about Pyotr Pavlensky, a controversial Russian performance artist. He was transferred to a psychiatrical hospital where he’ll likely be diagnosed with “insanity”. Before that, he was arrested (in November 2015) for setting the headquarters of the Federal Security Service in Moscow on fire. For years, Pavlensky’s art has been provoking a lot of controversies in Russia. Now, his name has been removed from the shortlist for the state-sponsored Innovatsiya (Innovation) Prize, an equivalent of Russia’s Turner Prize. The reason for such a radical decision is breaking the law and “material damage” of Pavlensky’s political work. However, this decision has sparked a storm of criticism about growing censorship, while several curators resigned from the selection committee. Without Pyotr Pavlensky, it’s a big question will the prize be awarded at all.

Pyotr Pavlensky Prize
Police Intervention during Pyotr Pavlensky Performance

Pyotr Pavlensky Nomination for Innovatsiya Prize

Pyotr Pavlensky was nominated for the visual art category for his performance Threat: Lubyanka’s Burning Door, in which he set fire to the entrance of the Federal Security Service (FSB) building in Moscow in November 2015. Anna Tolstova, the former committee member who initially nominated Pavlensky, wrote on her Facebook page: The Innovatsiya Prize is awarded not by a prosecutor but by the expert community, and I don’t feel obligated to agree with censorship and become part of the repressive machinery of the state. AFP reports that art critic Tolstova, who's on the award's advisory board, received Pavlensky's approval before nominating his performance, and that the work has in fact garnered most votes from jury members. However, it seems that the organizer - the state-run National Centre for Contemporary Arts was not satisfied with such a decision. The center's director Mikhail Mindlin released a statement explaining that Pavlensky's nomination has been rejected as it involved breaches of the law and caused material damage.

Pyotr Pavlensky Prize
Pyotr Pavlensky during The Burning Door of the Lubyanka Performance, a controversial piece that led him being pulled of from the award

Curators Resigning from the Selection Committee

This controversial decision by the Innovatsiya Prize organizers sparked a lot of criticism. As we already mentioned, several curators resigned from the selection committee. Among the eight curators and critics to have withdrawn is also Dimitri Ozverkov, the head of the contemporary art department at St Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum. Half of the committee then agreed to return on the condition that the art category be called off entirely. Following the cancellation of the visual arts category of the prize, Pavlensky's partner, Oksana Shalygina, commented on Facebook: Pavlensky has triumphed and forced the state machine to creak and collapse. The only way is ahead!. In addition, a number of former members of selection committee have expressed their outrage via social media.

Pyotr Pavlensky Prize
Pyotr Pavlensky’s most famous piece is entitled Fixation, and it involved the artist sitting naked in front of the Lenin Mausoleum on the Red Square in Moscow, when he nailed his scrotum to the cobblestone pavement. Photo via REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

What Will Happen with the Prize?

It seems that the prize will not be awarded at all. Nailya Allakhverdieva, one of the curators who agreed to return to the committee, wrote: If this tendency continues, it’s not clear that the prize will survive under such policies of censorship. In 2011, the prize was awarded to politically engaged artists - artist collective Voina won the Innovatsiya visual art award in 2011 for their work A Dick Captured by the FSB. So, what is the problem with Pavlensky’s art? His previous performances were just as radical, and resulted in arrests and hospitalization. Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to the Red Square; cut off his earlobe in 2014; and sewed his lips together in 2012 to protest at the prosecution of the punk-rock activists Pussy Riot. Maybe, the circumstances in Russia have changed. Let’s just remind that Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling Pavlensky’s confinement in the hospital a sinister reminder of the Soviet legacy of punitive psychiatry, and the abuse of psychiatry to silence critics.

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Featured Images: Pyotr Pavlensky (courtesy of; Pyotr Pavlensky (Image via RT). All Images used for illustrative purposes only.

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