Conference presentation

When making art means breaking law? Anthropological redefinitions of the 'art' at the margins of legality

Presented at16th Biennial Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), New anthropological horizons in and beyond Europe, Lisbon (online), 20-24 July 2020
Presentation date2020-07-21

When making art means breaking law? Anthropological redefinitions of the ‘art' at the margins of legality This paper examines a range of political performances, realized by Piotr Pavlenskiy (b.1984), a radical Russian artist. Since 2012, he has carried out seven highly controversial performances, based on a practice of unexpected and spectacular public interventions first in Russia, and later in France. They are, in chronological order, Stitch, Carcass, Fixation, Freedom, Segregation, Threat and Enlightenment (carried out in Paris, after his political emigration in 2017). All of those performances had direct legal consequences in both countries and led to formal accusations and carceral detentions. My analysis is based on my ethnographic work with the corpus of legal and criminological documents, produced around these performances between 2013 and 2019. However, there is a nuance to this methodological statement. In fact, Pavlenskiy's art comes very closely to what can be called experimental ethnography. It can be perceived as an artist-led ethnographic investigation, which has as its aim not anthropological theorization, but a production of an open-ended performance, bringing together all the elements of the legal chain. My question here is twofold: How do we incorporate the auto-ethnographic knowledge, produced by the artist to the disciplinary field of anthropology? How do the legal and criminological redefinitions of an artistic gesture, realized for political purposes, alter or contribute to the contemporary anthropological understanding of what is ‘art'? This paper is an exercise in multi-layered ethnography, composed of my (humble) anthropological analysis and his risky, courageous and sometimes self-sacrificial practice. Pavlenskiy's artistic method, that to a certain extent stands in line with the “iconoclast” tradition in modern art, combines highly provocative elements such as public self-mutilation, naked body exposure, and disturbing intrusions to public spaces. This latter includes the short-term setting on fire of symbolic architectural elements, such as the door leading to the building of the FSB (the Russian secret services) in Moscow, and later to the Banque de France (in Paris). His first intention is to create a powerful, disrupting image conveying an idea of a revolt (mediated, in his first performances, by his own body, and in the last - by the use of fire) within the architectural loci, representing power. As a result of each of his performances, Pavlensky has been subject to legal proceedings: he has been arrested onsite and medically examined, six times out of seven charges were filed against him, and his cases were subsequently heard in court. These legal encounters, however, were not an unexpected dramatic side-effect, but rather a well-targeted aim of his activities. What was first a performative reaction to injustice has gradually become, through his personal legal story, a real experimental engagement, implying a resistance to the authority of the law. Through a conscious intrusion and detailed exploration of the structures of law enforcement, which guided him through all the stages of criminal procedure in Russia (and later in France) Pavlensky engaged himself in a sort of a life-long counter-hegemonic performance, oscillating between art and law. Theoretically, my purpose here is to move away from the sociological model of the artistic process, a model focusing on the plurality of actors, involved in the artistic production (as it was imagined by Bourdieu, Becker and Latour), and get back to the primary focus of social research about art. That is the very definition of art by reflecting anthropologically on the question of what art is and does. This conceptual shifting is an interesting challenge for me as well, insofar as this question of what art is and does echoes the central concern of legal anthropology - that is, what law is and what it does. In this sense, my work with Pavlenskiy was an exercise in doing anthropology of art with law, or anthropology of law with art. Speaking as an anthropologist, constantly influenced and challenged by my encounters with artists and performers, I will try to reflect on the following question: how do we produce anthropological knowledge about artistic practices/with artists, when our main sources - our research objects - are, at the same time, research subjects on their own ? In other words, how do we produce ethnographic knowledge about and with those who are themselves “ethnographers”, involved with their own research experiments, strong argumentation and theorization going far beyond their artistic field?

  • Law
  • Art
  • Performance
  • Russia
  • Legality
Citation (ISO format)
TCHERMALYKH, Nataliya. When making art means breaking law? Anthropological redefinitions of the “art” at the margins of legality. In: 16th Biennial Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA). Lisbon (online). 2020.
Main files (1)
  • PID : unige:156066

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