Russia Cancels Top Art Prize After Dissident Artist Pyotr Pavlensky Is Nominated

He was nominated for setting fire to a government building.

Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky, accused of vandalism after torching the doors to the headquarters of the FSB security service, stands inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow on November 10, 2015. Photo: DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky, accused of vandalism after torching the doors to the headquarters of the FSB security service, stands inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow on November 10, 2015.
Photo: Dmitry Serbryakov/AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s top art prize, the state-sponsored Innovatsiya (Innovation) Prize, has been canceled by the organizers after the nomination of political dissident performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been rejected.

The artist has been nominated in the visual art category for the performance piece Threat: Lubyanka’s Burning Door, reports the Art Newspaper. The artwork saw Pavlensky set fire to the entrance of the Federal Security Service (FSB—the successor of the KGB) building in Moscow in November 2015.

Art critic Anna Tolstova, who’s on the award’s advisory board, received Pavlensky’s approval before nominating his performance, and the work has in fact garnered most votes from jury members, AFP reports.

But the nomination didn’t sit right with the award organizers, the state-run National Centre for Contemporary Arts. The center’s director Mikhail Mindlin has released a statement explaining that Pavlensky’s nomination has been rejected as it involved “breaches of the law and caused material damage.”

He added that nominating this performance “to a competition which is held by a state organization and under the aegis and with the support of the culture ministry seems impermissible to us.”

Pavlenky’s removal from the shortlist, in turn, led to sweeping walkouts from the selection committee, with Dimitri Ozverkov, the head of the contemporary art department at St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, among the eight curators and critics to have withdrawn. Half of the committee then agreed to return on the condition that the art category be called off entirely.

Pyotr Pavlensky sewed his lips shut in protest at the prosecution of Pussy Riot in the summer of 2012 Photo: courtesy of Petr Pavlensky via The Quietus

Pyotr Pavlensky sewed his lips shut in protest at the prosecution of Pussy Riot in the summer of 2012.
Photo: Courtesy of Pyotr Pavlensky via The Quietus.

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!”

Other former and present jury members took to social media to express their criticism on the increase in state censorship. The Art Newspaper reports that Tolstova, who 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.”

After all, the prize has been awarded in the past to politically charged works. In 2011, the group Voina received Russia’s top art award for a piece titled A cock captured by the FSB, which involved a drawing of a penis on a drawbridge located across the FSB headquarters in St. Petersburg.

AFP reports that the culture ministry at the time called the work “disgusting” but said it would not interfere with the jury’s decision.

Pavlensky is currently detained in a Moscow psychiatric hospital, where he had been transferred to in January following his arrest in November, one day after carrying out the performance Threat. Police claimed he is being held there for an evaluation that could take as much as three weeks.

The 31-year-old political dissident could be facing up to three years in prison. 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.

Back then, he was taken away in an ambulance and underwent a psychiatric evaluation, which he passed. What’s more, after being charged with vandalism in 2014 for a tire-burning performance in St. Petersburg, in support of the Euromaidan protests, Pavlensky managed to make his interrogator flip and quit his job at Russia’s Investigative Committee to become a lawyer.


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