Russia Cancels Top Art Prize After Dissident Artist Nominated

Judges walk out in support of the provocative performance artist

Pyotr Pavlensky
Dissident artist Pyotr Pavlensky appears at Moscow's Tagansky District Court on suspicion of vandalism. Mikhail Japaridze/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

Pyotr Pavlensky is no stranger to controversy. For years, the performance artist has needled the Russian government with his radical, politically charged pieces. Pavlensky was recently nominated for Russia’s top art prize, the state-sponsored Innovatsiya (Innovation) Prize, but was removed from the shortlist by the prize’s organizers. Amidst furious criticism over government censorship of the prize, the organizers canceled the visual arts category entirely, and several members of the selection committee resigned.

Pavlensky uses extreme performances to draw attention to the Russian government’s censorship. In 2012, Pavlensky sewed his lips shut to protest the jailing of members of the punk band Pussy Riot. His past performances have involved nailing his scrotum to Red Square to protest Russia's "police state," as well as cutting off a piece of his earlobe to draw attention to the forced psychiatric treatment of dissidents, Hili Perlson reports for artnet News. In 2015, Pavlensky was arrested and institutionalized in a psychiatric ward for setting fire to the front door of the Federal Security Bureau (the agency that succeeded the KGB) for his latest performance, “Threat. Lubyanka’s Burning Door."

Art critic Anna Tolstova nominated “Threat” for this year’s visual arts category. Tolstova, who was a member of the prize’s selection committee, says that the piece won the most votes from the committee members and blasts the prize’s organizers for banning Pavlensky, Sophia Kishkovsky reports for the Art Newspaper.

“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,” Tolstova tells Kishkovsky.

Tolstova and several other members of the selection committee resigned their positions in protest. Meanwhile, the general director of the National Center for Contemporary Arts, which sponsors the prize, defended the decision to reject Pavlensky’s nomination, Perlson reports.

“In this particular case, it concerns a work that was created during action that has clear signs of violating the law, and caused material damage,” general director Mikhail Mindlin said in a statement.

Controversial pieces of protest art have won the Innovatsiya Prize in the past. In 2011, the 400,000-ruble prize (then worth approximately $14,000) was awarded to the art collective Voina (Russian for "War") for its painting of a phallus on a drawbridge across from the Federal Security Bureau’s Saint Petersburg headquarters, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports. At the time, the culture ministry called the work “disgusting,” but did not intervene with the selection committee’s choice.

Pavlensky has been undergoing a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation, which officials say could take several weeks. He has also been charged with vandalism for "Threat," and faces up to three years in prison if convicted. For now, his supporters are calling the prize's cancellation a victory. As Pavlensky's partner, Oksana Shalygina, wrote on Facebook, "Pavlensky has triumphed and forced the state machine to creak and collapse. The only way is ahead!"