I am sure you’ve seen this in the news. A lone naked man is sitting on the cold cobbles of the Red Square. He is then approached by a policeman who urges him to stand up. The camera shows the naked man can’t do it, because his scrotum is nailed down to the stones.
The video link is here: http://www.rucrash.com/play/?v=2386
The man was then taken to a hospital where doctors classified his art as a suicide attempt. It is very likely the man would be sentenced today to psychiatric treatment. Most Russians would support this decision, at least this is the impression you get when you read through online commentary.
The artist’s intentions are clear: this Action is a metaphor illustrating that the fatalist, passive, subjugated Russian public has been reduced to a system slave in Putin’s Russia.
It is the third time the artist harms himself to send out a politically charged message.
He first became known when he sewed up his mouth protesting against the imprisonment of Pussy Riot girls, as a symbol of the muffling of free speech in today’s Russia.
His next metaphor was putting himself naked inside a roll of barbed wire and revealing the resulting installation on the steps of St.Petersburg legislature office. It was meant to show that an artist in today’s Russia is not free; each time he tries to move the system punishes him by a cut.
And now, this, done in the heart of Russia, the soul of Moscow, on the cobbles of the Red Square that have seen centuries of bloodshed, executions, and victory parades. It is, perhaps, the only public square in Russia where smoking is not allowed. Mummified Lenin is still there in the Mausoleum, and Stalin’s grave is just slightly off to the right from it. And from now on tourists would be taking photographs of themselves standing on the “Scrotum Spot”.
Is this art?
Why I think it is not.
All the metaphors are weak, because they are way too obvious, and don’t add anything new to what we already know. They do not delve into the problems they are highlighting at a level deeper than just stating the problems exist. A newspaper cartoonist could do it (and some of them do it very creatively and artfully).
Imagine a life-like mannequin instead of the living person. It would be the same metaphor, same message, but less impact because people are not interested to know how a dummy wriggles itself out of the barbed wire roll, or gets unnailed.
With a dummy, it would be a cute (but not exciting) installation exhibited in galleries (for a short time), travelling around the world (once) and promoting discussions (among people who like chewing on the obvious).
With a live man being a part of it, it becomes a performance that makes the system – against which it is directed – jump with joy. It is easy to present the guy as a lunatic, and thus show that anyone who is against the system is a similar whacko. This performance does the opposite of what the artist intended.
As my readers are probably aware, I believe the act of Pussy Riot was great art. I explained why, here. Their message was multi-layered and it sent ripples around the globe. For instance, Pussy Riot girls didn’t just state the problem of the Church being a perfect lover for a Police State. Their art has shown that when Christian values get in a contradiction with the Police State objectives, the former are easily betrayed by the Church for the greater good which the Church sees in continuing governmental support of its institutions. They made it crystal clear that the Russian Orthodox Church was always ready to betray its Christian principles, and that it was not good for you (not Christianity itself, though!)
The scrotum act is solely interesting from the art history point of view because it is an unusual mix of installation and performance.
It is widely known that when you do a poo on your neighbour’s porch and then press the door bell button, it is an installation. If you press the bell button first, and then do a poo, it is called a “performance“.
When this artist reveals himself, he is an installation. When the police covers him with a blanket, and takes him to hospital, it becomes a performance. Is body mutilation in a public place worth making a statement that belongs solely to the domain of art criticism? I am not sure.
I am pretty sure though that I won’t want children witnessing this. I don’t know if that’s a good thing for children to see. I could live with that were it done inside a gallery space, but not in a public square.
It is political protest in the form of body mutilation, but it is not art.
UPDATE of Novermber, 12th: The guy pierced his scrotum in advance, waited until it healed and then just inserted the nail through an already safely existing hole. Good for him. The idea of his “action” was offered to him by his cellmate the last time he was locked up by the police. It is what prisoners do when they protests against unfair treatment.
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