Could Shia LaBeouf Become the American Petr Pavlensky?
Borg/McEnroe, a biographical film based on the rivalry between tennis players competing in the 1980 Wimbledon World Championship, opens the Toronto Film Festival tonight, Sept. 7. It stars Shia LaBeouf as the young American tennis pro John McEnroe, known for his volatility and courtside outbursts, and Sverrir Gudnason as Björn Borg, the calm, cool and collected Swedish player.
Directed by Janus Metz Pedersen, the film depicts the famed match between Borg and McEnroe, whose years-long rivalry was described as “fire and ice,” owing to their severely contrasting personalities.
As Borg/McEnroe rolls for the first time in Toronto, let’s take a minute to reflect on another matchup — one involving LeBeouf. Instead of tennis, this one takes place in the realm of politics and performance art.
Since 2014, LaBeouf has been creating performance art with Nastja Säde Rönkkö of Finland and Luke Turner of England. They go by LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner and mainly create work involving viewer participation. Typically, the artists themselves become the art.
In 2014, for instance, LaBeouf wore a mask made out of a paper bag emblazoned with the words, all in caps, “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.”
A year later, the trio operated a phone line within a gallery in Liverpool, England, and invited “the public to pick up their telephones and touch their soul.”
As the project came to an end, Rönkkö tattooed the words “You. Now. Wow.” onto LaBeouf’s arm, echoing a phrase one of the callers had used.
More recently, the trio’s work has famously touched on politics. After Donald Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20 of this year, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner initiated “He Will Not Divide Us,” which invited the public to articulate those words into a camera mounted on a wall outside of NYC’s Museum of the Moving Image.
Running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the camera was announced as a live-stream for the duration of Trump’s presidency. In February, however, the museum withdrew from the project, citing activities by local hate groups congregating around the camera and the need for an elevated police presence. The camera was then moved to a wall outside the El Rey Theater in Albuquerque, NM. In March, again the project was moved, this time to an unspecified location before being adopted by the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) in Liverpool.
Each time, but particularly when he was in NYC, LaBeouf created a media flurry for the wrong reasons. He was arrested when he became involved in an altercation with a man who appeared on the live-stream chanting “Hitler did nothing wrong.” TMZ reported that LaBeouf allegedly grabbed the man by his scarf, scratching him in the process.
Around this same time, but some 4,000 miles away, another performance artist fled his homeland.
Petr Pavlensky has been protesting the government of his native Russia, in particular his country’s president, Vladimir Putin, through various performance art pieces for the past several years. His art almost always involves his body. When the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot was jailed, he sewed his lips shut to represent the suppression of free speech. The artwork, made in 2012, was titled “Stitch.”
Later, in another act of protest against the Russian government, Pavlensky wrapped his naked body in barbed wire, like a spiky metal cocoon, and laid himself before the main entrance of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg. The artwork was titled “Carcass.”
Perhaps his most two compelling works were “Fixation,” when Pavlensky nailed his scrotum in the middle of Red Square, in front of the Kremlin wall; and “Segregation,” in which he chopped off his earlobe.
Pavlensky’s art has landed him in jail on multiple occasions. In January 2017, though, while facing charges of sexual assault — which he denies — Pavlensky fled to France to seek asylum.
What LaBeouf is doing is interesting and inspiring in its own way, but let’s face it — it doesn’t possess the same provocative power as Pavlensky. And every country should have a Pavlensky.