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How Art Became Politicised

A conversation with Marat Guelman, an owner and director of Guelman’s Contemporary Art Gallery, ex-owner of the Foundation for Effective Politics, and the former assistant director of Channel One in Russia.

July 30, 2013 - Ola Cichowlas - Articles and Commentary



On the border of Europe and Asia, in the industrial heart of the Ural mountains, lies the city of Perm. Off limits to foreigners until 1991 due to its huge munitions factories and large number of Soviet labour camps, Perm is today home to the only modern art gallery outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg and hosts an impressive international White Nights festival.

Marat Guelman is a Muscovite art curator and the Soviet Union’s first art dealer. In 2008 he was invited by local authorities in the Ural city of Perm to co-operate on a unique cultural project: to remodel the post-industrial city, ravaged by the chaotic 1990s and lost in the post-Soviet reality, using culture. He thus opened provincial Russia’s first – and only – modern art gallery called PERMM in an abandoned Stalinist ferry station on the banks of the Kama River. The gallery was a huge success and a symbol of the aimed transformation of a post-industrial city lost in the post-Soviet Russian reality. Inventive and colourful street art lit up the city’s run-down, grey appearance. Guelman’s annual White Nights festival introduced a liberal atmosphere, felt from the top down.

The dream proved to be short-lived, however. The change in regional leadership from a relatively open administration to an ardent pro-Kremlin governor, meant Guelman was increasingly seen as an obstacle and was frequently accused of trying to create a “free political territory” in the Perm region. During this year’s White Nights festival, Guelman staged a controversial exhibitions entitled “Welcome to Sochi 2014” by Siberian artist Vasily Slonov which was banned and eventually resulted in his Guelman being fired.

Marat Guelman leaving Perm is symbolic. An era of greyness has arrived, in politics and in culture. Since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in December last year, social and political tensions are intensifying. Intolerance and twisted historical narratives prevail, as does the praise of traditional values. After a year of disillusionment and stagnation, many liberals in Russia are wondering whether the cultural elite is able to maintain and propagate the freedom of creativity. Guelman shows me a cubic sculpture in an empty square.

MARAT GUELMAN: This is radical for Russia. During the whole Soviet period, sculpture could only exist on one condition – if it commemorated somebody. Cities gradually turned into graveyards. There wasn’t any sculpture which was just a shape. And here we have a pure shape. It does not mean anything. It just fills up the square. It changes so much.

OLA CICHOWLAS: You have been accused of trying to create a “free political territory” in the Perm Region and that you aim to realise the demands heard at the Moscow protests of the opposition on Bolotnaya Square. How would you respond?

That’s all not true. I starting working in art through working in politics. I worked with Dmitry Medvedev, and until they locked up Pussy Riot, people even criticised me for being too loyal to the Kremlin.

However, politics came to art. In December 2011, when the protests against election fraud started, the artistic community realised that they ceased being the avant-garde of society. That whilst they were busy working on museum projects and opening exhibitions abroad – society overtook art and became more radical. This was a wake-up call, and why today the whole artistic scene is politicised. In the past, they criticised me for working on social projects, rather than concentrating on pure art. Today, it is the opposite – artists who don’t have a social project, or who don’t have a social aspect to their art, aren’t so important.

Occasionally, some people stand against me; and sometimes these are very strong attacks. There was a whole film on NTV, in connection to Pussy Riot, as I’m the only person from the cultural bureaucracy to openly stand in their defence.

Did you attend the Bolotnaya Square protests?

Only the last time. I am not part of the opposition. I don’t fight. But when I heard that Vladislav Surkov (seen as the Kremlin’s former main ideologist- editor’s note) has said that “the government has won”, I thought: “Of course they did; they locked everyone up”. And I went.

You claim that: “Art will always push Russia towards Europe.” What do you mean?

We are the only ones who will push Russia towards Europe. Because even the opposition – no matter what shape or form it takes – it is forced to look at the electorate. They have need to go through the system, they need more people to vote for them. But the artist can step aside and say that nobody is right.

But isn’t it hard to do this in the current political climate in Russia?

On the one hand it is difficult; but on the other hand, it is not as if culture is still at the forefront of events. Yes, they criticise us, but they hear us. My colleagues in Europe tell me: “We only dream of these kind of conflicts, they don’t notice us at all here.”

Russia’s economic and political power is centralised in Moscow. Do the regions continue to act as “Moscow’s colonies”?

This centralisation from above goes back to Peter the Great. People are saying: “Our opposition is so weak,” and “There is nobody to replace Putin.” But actually, it will all turn out differently. Putin’s replacement will have strong regional control and weak central power. And this is good for Russia. We don’t need mother Moscow who “looks after everyone” anymore. And this will mean that, at last, there will be some real competition between the regions. Because currently, how does it work? Kaluga region, for instance, became rich due to its effective local leadership – and what do the authorities do? They took it away from them and gave it to those who are poorer. There is no competition at all.

There will be a difference in quality of life when more things depend on regional authorities. There should be a difference between Kirov and Perm.

I think we have to develop the cities now. There are real problems here. And the governors and mayors are under pressure from these problems – it’s not the same atmosphere as at the federal level. The situation in Perm is very interesting. When I first came here they were saying: “What do we need this cultural project for? We should focus on agriculture.” But then they saw what the situation really looked like and that our cultural programme was actually hopeful.

Do you have a some set replies for those people who are critical or skeptical of your cultural project in Perm and who claim that the money would be better spent elsewhere?

Yes, I have a few. Firstly, what is a city today? The city used to be walls which protected you from the enemy. In every city, these walls protected you from intrusion. Afterwards, they invented weapons and the walls stopped protecting you – the city became a place of trade. It became a place where man would sell the fruit of his labour and would buy what he needed. Then came industrialisation. The city became a place where man went to work.

Today, the city is where you spend your free time. You are not so attached to work, many people work through the internet. You don’t need to protect yourself from enemies and industry is dying. The city is a place to sell free time. If you like a city or not depends on how you spend your free time. Over the last 100 years, there has been a huge increase in this free time. People work less – not 16 hours but 8, not one day off but two, not from 13 years of age but from 21. So free time has become a huge market. According to Karl Marx, people are categorised by their relationship to labour. A worker, a capitalist, the petty bourgeoisie. And today there is all this talk of “hipsters”. This isn’t related to how a person works, but how he spends his free time. You don’t even know where he works. You only know how he spends his free time.

So the task of providing people with a rich cultural life is no less important than building roads or providing electricity. If this doesn’t exist, than people will simply leave. According to a study, two out of every three people who want to leave Perm, want to leave in search of a more interesting life. Only one wants to leave in pursuit of a better life. This doesn’t only relate to Perm, of course.

This especially true for Russia, where work conditions are pretty much the same everywhere. Teachers, doctors – wherever they live their salary is the same. Therefore, quality of life depends on whether your free time is spent in an interesting way or not.

My first answer, above, relates to any city, not only Perm. But my second answer is specific to Perm. This was an industrial city, a closed city, and it suddenly lost its industrial identity. This meant that the task it previously had disappeared. Even those elements that remain take up much less space. The munitions factory remains – it is a large, powerful factory. They didn’t reduce their output, but because of new technology reduced the space they occupied. And what about with what remains? We need to use it somehow, otherwise the city will become a corpse. The city will either die or it will be reconstructed. The main tax-payers of the region are Lukoil and Uralkali. They only need 40,000 people. Three million people live in the Perm Region. They need to find a new life, new interests, new tasks.

The situation is worsened by the fact that there are other cites like this and there will be competition. It is said that Russia has too many cities. In 15 years, there will only be half the number of cities there are now, so we can’t afford to just leave Perm as it is.

Starting from culture is the quickest way. I’m not saying it’s the only cure, but, firstly, it is less prone to conflict. Artists haven’t killed anyone. Conflicts related to business are a lot more dangerous. And secondly, it is very fast – three years and already such results.

Regional Russian politics – and Vladimir Putin’s politics – is directed towards and focuses on the poor section of society. Does Perm leave any hope for its growing middle-class?

Oleg Chirkunov (the former governor of Perm) spoke clearly about this. And here, I will quote him: “Whoever you help, you multiply.” So if you help poor people, you increase the number of poor people; if you help entrepreneurs, you increase the number of entrepreneurs. This is why Perm was interesting – the governor, unlike others, had a support programme to help not only the weak, but the poor too.

You once claimed that your cultural projects for Perm are based on Glasgow’s remarkable transformation and the Edinburgh Festival. How much influence from these two Scottish capitals do you retain in your vision for Perm?

Glasgow was our case point for the development of Perm. In the 1990s, it lost its industrial identity and moved on with the help of culture and the local economy. And the Edinburgh Festival was our inspiration for Perm’s White Night Festival – in which I participated 20 years ago with my father, a famous Soviet playwright. This inspired us that it is possible and realistic – a relatively small city like Edinburgh suddenly turns into the centre of the artistic world.

How does the cultural elite differ in Russia’s regions, compared to Moscow and Saint Petersburg?

Firstly, the Soviet cultural authorities are still alive here. They don’t exist in Moscow anymore as they disappeared into the modern world. But here, they exist. In Moscow, they don’t even know that such an organisation left over from Soviet times still exists. But in any provincial city it exists and tries to boss you around. Secondly, it’s the young people who really want to leave. Their activities and energy is felt at the top. Thirdly, it’s the technological intelligentsia. Provincial Russia is at its strongest not in the creative and artist class but the technical one. These are engineers and scientists etc. It’s interesting because many artists have developed alongside them. And lastly, Perm is a unique place. There were many Gulags here, and many creative people were imprisoned here. And once they had been released, many of them settled in Perm.

Marat Guelman is an owner and director of Guelman’s Contemporary Art Gallery, ex-owner of the Foundation for Effective Politics, and the former assistant director of Channel One in Russia.

Ola Cichowlas is a British-Polish freelance journalist, living between London, Warsaw and Perm. She covers Russian regional politics and the arts in provincial Russia.



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