Culture shock: When art and madness take centre stage
On the surface it was an act of self-harm, but Pyotr Pavlensky, a performance artist of growing renown, presented himself as a metaphor
Artist Pyotr Pavlensky sits on the wall enclosing the Serbsky State Scientific Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry after cutting off part of his earlobe as part of his performance/protest action. Photograph: Reuters
It was a bright day two weeks ago in Moscow, with the temperature just above freezing, when Pyotr Pavlensky stripped naked and climbed the forbidding grey wall of the Serbsky psychiatry centre, holding a kitchen knife. To the passerby, this might have seemed like a cry for help, a protest, or the beginning of a piece of performance art. In some way, it was all three.
Pavlensky used the knife to slice off his right earlobe, then sat still, silent and bleeding for two hours. Finally he was forcibly removed and taken to hospital. On the surface it was an act of self-harm, but Pavlensky, a performance artist, presented himself as a metaphor. “A knife separates the earlobe from the body,” began his statement, carried on his wife’s Facebook page. “A concrete psychiatric wall separates reasonable society from insane patients . . . Armed with psychiatric diagnoses, the bureaucrat in a white lab coat cuts off from society those pieces that prevent him from establishing a monolithic dictate of a single, mandatory norm for everyone.”
Pavlensky’s protest was against the abuse of psychiatry for political purposes, something long synonymous with the Serbsky institute. In the Soviet years, political dissidents were often declared mentally ill, diagnosed with a condition called “sluggish schizophrenia” and incarcerated with a rationale as airtight as it was cynical: “Most frequently, ideas about struggle for truth and justice are formed by personalities with a paranoid structure.” To question the state was a form of madness.
Pavlensky has recently been subject to directly similar treatment. Following an earlier action, in support of the Independence Square protests in Kiev, the artist was charged with vandalism – for burning tyres on a bridge – and prosecutors pressed for a psychiatric evaluation. (Three efforts to have him committed have been defeated.) His performance art, which frequently involves self-harm and mutilation, makes him easy prey for such efforts. In support of Pussy Riot, he sewed his lips shut; last year, he nailed his scrotum to the cobbles of Red Square.
The extremes of those actions are, paradoxically, as sensational as they are dismissed; another entry in the legacy of self-endangering performance art from Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic or Franco B, or a wince-inducing gesture more easily considered deranged than a coherent protest. Such is the consequence of Pavlensky’s real performance platform – the media – which disseminates his actions, with little context, far and wide. But the stakes are high for a disruptive performance artist railing against political abuses in Putin’s Russia. In April, one of the “Bolotnaya 3” protesters, already incarcerated for a year, was sentenced to indefinite psychiatric treatment, an action denounced by Amnesty International. To be labelled outside the “norm” in Russia puts you in an incredibly vulnerable position. Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
Mental health, as Pavlensky saw it, is a battleground, where psychiatric terms – schizophrenic, depressive, paranoid – can be used to censor, constrain and confine. “My objective is to make people question the psychiatric institution and the definition of the norm,” he said afterwards. “If the definition of the norm is questioned, then it can no longer wield power over the people.” Unfortunately, he didn’t acknowledge mental health as anything more than an instrument of control or a political metaphor. But it’s a timely juncture to think about how art and mental health can find a more sympathetic relationship.
A new book, Performance, Madness and Psychiatry, edited by Anna Harpin and Juliet Foster, collects a series of essays about “madness” and performance. (“Madness”, they argue, is the least-loaded term in a contested vocabulary when considering its portrayal in performance history, and avoids a distrusted “medical model” of diagnosis.) One included essay, Start Making Sense by the Irish performer, musician and theatre maker Dylan Tighe, discusses his autobiographical 2012 project Record in detail.
Tighe was treated for bipolar affective disorder and subsequently searched for an alternative method of recovery. Record was made in response to his medical history and tried to challenge the discourse around mental health. “Much drama has focused on a description of what ‘mental illness’ looks and feels like rather than what it actually is,” he writes. Record, which began as a performance and a music album, but developed into a series of public discussions, essays and concerts, instead became a wide-ranging conversation. Tighe could consider a politics of control in psychiatry and medicalised language in ways comparable to Pavlensky (he compared the troika’s economic recovery plans to the powers of psychiatrists, “imposing measures on the individual which are clearly the result of collective failures”). But his consideration for recognising and understanding real suffering is more humane, engaging more with “experts-by-experience” in mental distress than experts.
Something similar is at work in a fascinating recent production from London-based Ridiculusmus, The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland, which played out like an unsettling audio hallucination, and was inspired in part by the experiences of one of its makers, Jon Haynes. (Among his inspirations was reading RD Laing “and finding the idea of madness quite attractive”, then spending six months committed to a psychiatric hospital “and finding madness wasn’t so attractive after all”.)
Eradication and Record took formally challenging approaches to represent something beyond a medical condition, instead using lived experience, artistically transformed, to arouse confusion, identification, compassion and something closer to understanding. When “madness” is too often depicted in classical theatre as a plot device or a put on, and too often deployed in society to stigmatise or straitjacket, such bold approaches to art might have a more radical effect – to make us question the “norm”, and to feel madness from the inside.