As an art student, Pavlensky encountered the work of the Moscow Actionists. One, Oleg Kulik, pretended to be a dog: naked, chained, he barked at passers-by in a reminder of the animality beneath our civilizational veneer. Another, Alexander Brener, stood in boxing shorts and gloves in Red Square, demanding that President Boris Yeltsin, who had just started the First Chechen War to prevent the republic from gaining independence, come out and fight him.
The Moscow Actionists, with their guerrilla happenings in unsanctioned public spaces, insisted on a kind of art that couldn’t be bought. Pavlensky operates with a similar ethic, always choosing sites under high police surveillance. “If there is a scale of expression, with opera at one end and terrorism at the other,” he told me, “political art is closer on the scale to terrorism than to opera.”
For Pavlensky, the initial action is just the beginning of a larger process. Even as every element is precisely calculated — “I have to practice each gesture carefully, where I’m going to put my foot, my hand, because once I’m there, everything moves very quickly and there are so many unforeseeables,” he told me — what interests him is the state’s involuntary collaboration in his work. A recent exhibition at Milan’s Galleria Pack included photos of his Russian police dossier: grainy close-ups of embossed lettering on a gas canister, CCTV shots of a hooded figure on a wintry street corner — images that, as he points out, anonymous Interior Ministry employees have cropped, edited and laid out with deliberate artistry. “What I’m doing is turning the tables, drawing the government into the process of making art,” he said. “The power relations shift, the state enters into the work of art and becomes an object, an actor.”
In 2014, Pavlensky embarked on a more direct confrontation with the state. It was the year Putin began a war in Ukraine, cracking down on Ukrainian activists opposed to the invasion by imprisoning them on trumped-up terrorism charges. The filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was convicted of supposedly plotting to bomb a series of buildings and monuments and is now serving a 20-year sentence in the Russian Far North.
Pavlensky was an active supporter of the protesters gathering in Ukraine’s Maidan, and in what now seems a precursor to his Banque de France action, he set ablaze the doors of the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Russian security service, then waited for the police to arrive, gas canister in hand. The “action,” which Pavlensky titled “Threat,” referenced Sentsov’s supposed plot. Pavlensky was arrested, sent to a psychiatric ward for a few weeks and then imprisoned for seven months, awaiting trial. In solidarity with Sentsov and other incarcerated activists, he demanded to be charged with terrorism. Instead, he was convicted of vandalism and let off with a fine, which he refused to pay.
The incident that would drive him into exile occurred just a few months after his release. An actress named Anastasia Slonina, associated with the Moscow theater group Teatr.doc, filed charges against Pavlensky and Shalygina. She claimed the couple assaulted her with a knife when she resisted their sexual advances. Pavlensky and Shalygina, who had an open relationship, denied the charges. “There was no violence, no knife,” Pavlensky says. (Anastasia Slonina did not respond to requests for comment.)