Our ‘Action Was Visionary’: Sentenced to Prison, the Estranged Russian Art Duo That Set a French Bank on Fire Is Unrepentant

Shalygina says that the political performance anticipated the yellow-vest protesters who are now threatening a run on France's banks.

Pyotr Pavlensky and Oksana Shalygina in 2017 in Paris. Photo by Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images.

The Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky and activist Oksana Shalygina were sentenced yesterday, January 10, in Paris for setting fire to the Bank of France. The now-estranged duo called the symbolic act a performance piece aimed at bankers. Shalygina told artnet News that their action in October 2017 anticipated the ongoing gilets jaunes demonstrations in Paris and across France.  

Their action, which they called Lighting, saw Shalygina and Pavlensky set alight two windows of the bank’s central branch on the Place de la Bastille, the birthplace of the French Revolution. At the time Pavlensky said the artistic message was a protest at the bankers who had taken “the place of the monarchs.”

The pair were charged with dangerous destruction of property and faced up to ten years in prison. Yesterday, January 10, the court gave Shalygina a 16-month suspended sentence, and five months imprisonment with penalty adjustment, which is to say that she does not have to go to prison immediately to serve her sentence.

The judge issued Pavlensky a two-year suspended sentence and one year of jail time. However, as he already served 11 months in pretrial detention because he was deemed a flight risk, he will not spend further time behind bars. He was also able to walk free after the trial.

In addition, the pair must pay a fine of €21,678 (around $25,000) in damages to the Bank of France, a penalty Shalygina told artnet News they do not intend to pay.


Speaking to artnet News through a translator after the verdict was handed down, Shalygina said that the trial “was very tense,” but that she is doing “fine.”

At the trial, a blind man appeared as a witness to speak in defence of the artistic value of their act. He spoke about light and darkness as poetic symbols, Shalygina explained. She added that the defence was a formality, and that the main interaction at the trial was “a clash between political art and the power.” For her, the reaction of the state to a provocative artistic action is “a symptom for the diagnosis of society.”

Anticipating the Yellow Vest Protests

France is braced for more civil unrest as yellow vest (or “gilets jaunes”) activists prepare for “Act 9” this Saturday, continuing an eight-week series of protests against the state that have at times turned violent.

Asked about the ongoing demonstrations, Shalygina said: “The manifestations of the gilets jaunes confirmed our statement. Everything was different in the moment when we were performing our action,” she explained. “At the time, it was a look into the future, an anticipation. The action was visionary because it was predicting the future, to an extent, predicting this revolution. What we were discussing a year ago is happening now in France.”

A Yellow Vest brandishes a Franch flag in Toulouse. Photo by Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Indeed, French banks have been a target of the more recent protests. A faction of yellow vests set a fire at the gates of a Bank of France branch in Rouen shortly after Christmas. There have also been reports that the protesters are planning to empty their bank accounts this weekend in order to put pressure on the institutions.“Our symbolic gesture was confirmed and continued in the actual struggle and the actual rebellion,” Shalygina said, adding, “I hope that it’s just the beginning.”

The yellow vest protesters have won some concessions from the French government. However, Shalygina said the most important result has been “the rising of the political consciousness of people, who are starting to see themselves as political subjects who can make change. When people feel like they are in charge of their country, they take responsibility for their country, unlike slaves of the state.”

Shalygina said she could not speak to Pavlensky’s feelings about the verdict as they are no longer in a relationship. The former couple fled Russia in January 2017 with their two children and were granted political asylum in France five months later.

They headed for France after Pavlensky was charged by the Russian government with the sexual assault of an actress, Anastasia Slonina, charges he denies, calling them a fabrication. This is not the first time one of Pavlensky’s provocative performances has left him on the wrong side of the law. The action at the Bank of France mirrored another incident when he set fire to the doors of the former Lubyanka Prison, now the headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service, in 2016 (he spent six months in pretrial detention and was fined around $8,000). Previous performances have seen him nail his scrotum to the pavement of Red Square. He also sewed his lips together in protest of the jailing members of the protest group Pussy Riot.

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