Is performance art becoming too extreme?

ARTIST WITH BALLS ON RED SQUARE: an attempt at understanding the self-mutilation protest of Pyotr Pavlens By: Imaginary Museum Projects: News Tableaus (flickr)
ARTIST WITH BALLS ON RED SQUARE: an attempt at understanding the self-mutilation protest of Pyotr Pavlens By: Imaginary Museum Projects: News Tableaus (flickr)

“A naked artist, looking at his balls nailed to the Kremlin pavement, is a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of contemporary Russian society.”

Or so says performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky on hammering a nail through his own scrotum to the floor of Red Square in his latest performance. He sat for two hours before police arrested him. Pavlensky now faces a possible five years in prison after being charged with hooliganism. Coincidentally this is the same charge that led to the imprisonment of the protest group Pussy Riot, whom Pavlensky previously supported by performing a piece in which he sewed his own mouth shut.

Last week’s piece, entitled Nail, may have achieved part of its goal and made headlines around the world but, more likely than not, in most cases it is not the artist’s ideologies being discussed but simply the fact that some Russian guy nailed his ballsack to the floor. A similar case is that of 19 year-old Clayton Pettet, whose latest planned performance deals with sexuality and the negative connotations that surround the concept of virginity. He says that his intention is to open a public dialogue centred around these ideas, but this might be wishful thinking on his part considering that piece in question consists entirely of the young artist having anal sex in front of an audience.
One of the problems with performances like these are that they are almost always less likely to draw attention to the intended causes and more likely to raise questions about the act itself. Many at this point might ask the question: is performance art becoming too extreme?
The answer is not a simple yes or no. When performance art becomes extreme, the often noble intentions of the artist become overshadowed and the message is lost amid the furore, and in some cases such as this one the artist is even arrested. However, perhaps the consequences could be thought of as a necessary evil; If Pyotr Pavlensky had chosen to express his views in a less brutal way he would not have been arrested, but he would almost certainly have remained a complete unknown. In this particular case the fact that the artist was arrested was probably the most important aspect in Pavlensky’s attempt to show Russia as a police state. His political views may be playing second fiddle to his genitals at the moment for most of the world but there are always those willing to listen, and somebody is always better than nobody.

Of course, Pavlensky is by no means the first to take his art to this level. Performance art has always been extreme and many artists were doing similar performances as early as the 1960s. Marina Abramovich, to take just one example, is no stranger to bleeding in front of an audience. In fact, many of the earliest of these types of self-punishing performance art were feminist. Perhaps this goes to show that if the message is important enough, only taking things to the extreme will suffice.

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