oDR

At war with the Little Red Men: a contrarian view

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Former spin-doctor and gallery owner Marat Gelman has arrived in Perm with a plan to bring "cultural revolution" to the city. Not all locals are happy with the results of his endeavours, reports Roman Yushkov.

Roman Yushkov
5 August 2011

The hosts and the guests

I am no Slavophile, simply an attentive observer of Russian history who has come to the conclusion that over many centuries the Russian Empire has demonstrated some fairly eccentric traits. This is particularly true of the relations between the ruling centre and the ruled periphery of the Empire, though I can’t make myself call them the metropolis and the provinces in Western fashion. Of course there were periodic Cossack uprisings, which were put down, but the peripheral regions were never regarded as opportunities for merciless exploitation. On the contrary, having secured their loyalty, the centre immediately started pumping huge resources – material, financial and human – into the barren southern semi-desert areas, Siberia and our boundless, wild northern regions. 

Sometimes the old central regions were even short changed as a result of this. There were no holds barred in the development of provincial culture, art and education: money was no object, qualified specialists were sent there and an extensive cultural infrastructure set up: musical and artistic educational institutions, museums, exhibition and concert halls, artists’ studios and theatres….under the Soviet regime all this was delivered with no expense spared by the state. Which is doubtless why since then we provincial people in the Urals naively trust any cultural figure from the capital: how can we not, when he has sacrificed his comfort, left his sophisticated haute culture life and come to our particular part of the depths of Russia, a long way away and with a severe climate, bringing us the flame of enlightenment to give our provincial life more meaning and make it fuller and more wonderful….?

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Modernistic innovations such as the city's new П
("P") logo have caused huge controversy among
locals

So when Marat Gelman, the Moscow gallery owner who doubles up as a political spin doctor, arrived in Perm three years at the invitation of the governor, he was initially very well received.  Governor Chirkunov in tandem with Senator Gordeyev had, after all, outdone each other in their assurances that, with the help of Moscow art specialists, Perm could become the Mecca for modern art, that a cultural dawn of unheard of proportions lay ahead and that this would attract investment and crowds of tourists into the region.  Later on there was a strident statement to the effect that Perm could very well soon become the cultural capital of Europe. In spite of all this, when Gelman appeared on a wave of upbeat emotions, he rather surprised many people with his overweening self confidence, his instant familiarity with everyone from the governor to the gallery director and his way of clapping them on the shoulder in a patronising way. At first, it’s true, this was perceived as the behaviour of one who is versed in the ways of Moscow democratic chic.

It would be incorrect to say that the Perm Cultural Revolution, as it later came to be called, was carried out by the Varangians, or Vikings, alone.  Several years before Gelman arrived here, Governor Chirkunov invited the theatre director Boris Milgram, who had started his career in Perm, to come back as the head of the directorial staff at the Academic Theatre (link in Russian). His career in Moscow had not been very successful and he marked his second coming to Perm by ditching the theatre’s old-fashioned name and renaming it “Theatre-theatre” – original, but quite idiotic. His productions of Russian classics in the aforementioned theatre abounded with bare bottoms. When Gelman arrived in Perm, Milgram was not only the artistic director of the main theatre, but also the regional Minister of Culture. He is currently also the Deputy Chairman (Culture) of the regional government. 

Other new and progressive shoots were also put forth. Soulless modern architecture arrived in the city with its huge glass boxes, erected on the site of Perm’s historic one-storey merchants’ and small bourgeois houses, which had been mercilessly torn down. But before Gelman and his set arrived, all these things were balanced out by other manifestations of local artistic life, as it were: by the widespread sarcasm with which ridiculous things like Theatre-theatre were regarded and by the resistance on the part of many local sceptics and critics. Gelman’s appearance on the scene signalled the final victory of the ‘new’ over the traditional.  All the previously tentative initiatives e.g. Milgram’s received ringing endorsements and became completely acceptable. The small stage of that same Theatre-theatre was renamed Hammer Stage and put on a show called ‘Communicants’ which involved a group of stark naked men and women walking about the stage for 30 minutes and showering the spectators with choice swear words.

Talents and admirers

The avalanche of new art swept away everything in its path. Gelman brought his extended suite of retainers with him: they now work in Perm on a semi-permanent basis, enjoying Moscow comforts and making trips to Perm to try out their creative experiments. They include:

  • the theatre director and producer Eduard Boyakov, in charge of the Hammer Stage and organiser of shocking theatre and film festivals in Perm;
  • the economist and spin doctor Nikolai Novichkov, who became Minister of Culture when Boris Milgram moved on to higher things;
  • the fashionable Moscow designer Artyom Lebedev who suggested using the letter P as Perm’s main logo and soon covered the whole city with it, a cause of considerable local discontent;
  • a startling array of artists and sculptors whose work now stands at important points in the city centre: little red men, a huge apple with a bite out of it, a gigantic stool made of logs…
  • but the best known artist who has come to visit Gelman’s new Perm is the controversial Moscow performance artist Oleg Kulik, famous for reinventing himself as a dog at one point, running around on all fours, naked, biting members of the public and leaving obvious piles of droppings all around;
  • and finally a whole gaggle of art historians and gallery owners, who all travel to Perm at the expense of the city budget and spend their time hymning the ‘new image of backward industrial Perm’.

Gelman’s chief project in Perm is PERMM, the Museum of Modern Art.  It’s not that all the exhibits are completely devoid of any artistic merit, but the main impression created by the majority of objects on show there is of flamboyant pornography, because for obvious reasons these are what attract the most attention, especially from children and teenagers. Some of it is just nice to look at, amusing and raises a smile – as, for instance, a very carefully sculpted skull of Pinocchio. But most of it simply feels as though it’s second-hand, a contrived repetition of trends in Western Art of 20-30 years ago. If there were exhibits by the classic of pop art, Andy Warhol, then there would be no need to go to a Gelman exhibition called ‘Russian Misery.’

"Financial injections from the regional budget brought about a miracle: a whole range of central Moscow, and even foreign, publications (including the New York Times) suddenly noticed Perm for the first time"

We live in the age of information, where it’s not the event that is important, but the interpretation and the wrapping. Gelman explained to the authorities in Perm that they shouldn’t economise on PR, because it is today’s most important art form. Financial injections from the regional budget i.e. the Perm tax payers brought about a miracle: a whole range of central Moscow, and even foreign, publications (including the New York Times) suddenly noticed Perm for the first time, were impressed by what was going on there and started writing about the cultural revolution in the out of the way industrial city, which is still absolutely Soviet and not in any way remarkable. 

It was, of course, the culture vultures Gelman and Milgram who presented Perm with its revolution and its new life. They made it possible for the city to be like Bilbao with its world-famous Guggenheim Museum.  Independent expert opinions get drowned out by the chorus: the Deputy Director of Berkeley (California US) Expressions Gallery, well-known art critic Yulia Wolfson, came to Perm and expressed considerable scepticism. She noticed that PERMM is first and foremost a museum without a collection, so is really only an exhibition space. The works in PERMM that belong to it are no more than 2 years old, have been randomly collected and are all by artists known to Marat Gelman. None of them are of museum status or worth, according to the American art historian. “It's good that the regional authorities decided to establish a museum.  A good precedent,” said Yulia Wolfson. “But PERMM's reputation is so tarnished, the concept is so undeveloped that the institution is probably not viable in its present form.” But who will listen to that Yulia?  What a strange idea…that a Gelman institution might not be viable! We'll see who it is that isn't viable.

Ideas and money

How and why did Gelman and his project end up in Perm? There are various possible answers. One of them is that Governor Chirkunov was asked to work with Gelman by none other than the omnipotent deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Vladislav Surkov, who is a good friend of Gelman's. It's not difficult to imagine a request such as this coming from on high, any more than it is to see that today's governors, no longer elected but appointed by the Kremlin, will certainly give it their fullest attention. One way or another, whether sincerely or not, Chirkunov took on the extra work of giving Gelman his total ideological support.

"What actually brought Gelman here?  Was it self-interest, or was a profound psychological and metaphysical need to expand his sphere of influence and promote his values?  I personally incline towards the second."

The governor's approach would have been roughly the following: our regional economy is in a very bad way, if not in a deep hole out of which there appears to be no exit. So why should we not help with the development of modern art, guys? Because it will enable us to find a niche for ourselves and make Perm glorious among the progressive ranks of mankind. Something has to help us find the niche and do the glorifying, after all! It is symbolic that the PERMM Museum of Modern Art evicted the Perm River Boat Station from its building and has made itself comfortable there:  the Kama, the second Russian river after the Volga, has almost no steamers on it and the Kama Shipping Company is in ruins.

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Local authorities decided to enlist trendy Moscow designer Artyom Lebedev to redesign the city's bus stops at a cost of 350,000 roubles (£7500) each. Yet the new models proved completely unfit for use, and a new design competition is underway.

Discussion has raged fast and furious in Perm about what actually brought Gelman here. Was it self-interest (easy access to state funds which were generously handed out to him for the development of modern art), or was a profound psychological and metaphysical need to expand his sphere of influence and promote his values? I personally incline towards the second.  But whichever it is, the role played by money in his decision-making is not unimportant. The budget streams in support of the Gelman initiatives are really impressive. 120 million roubles were spent on the White Nights Festival at the beginning of the summer. This is a sum comparable to the amount recently spent by Petersburg on the World Figure Skating Championship. Nikolai Polissky's 'Gates of Perm' cost about 9 million and, as a wooden construction, they'll only be in place for 5 years.

But there are even stranger and more short-term projects like the illuminated bus stops designed by Artyom Lebedev. There are several hundred of them throughout the city, erected at a cost of 350,000 roubles [£7500] each. The much-lauded designer bus stops are quite bizarre:  they are not vandal-proof, so their plastic parts quickly disintegrated; they have domestic light bulbs in them, which are not intendend for use out of doors; they are installed in such a way that they only illuminate a narrow strip of the roof. But the main absurdity is that these bulbs will never light up anyway, because the installation was not properly thought through and they are not hooked up to the street lighting system. The upshot of all this is that, having spent many millions, the local administration has now had to announce a new design competition and find another contractor to put up the new stops.

One more curious detail: immediately after the launch of Gelman's cultural revolution the cost of drawing lessons for gifted children increased from 100 to 1500 roubles per month. We know that modern art is expensive and understand that it requires considerably more funds than the money paid by these parents, but it's still very indicative. One way and another the traditional relationship between the centre and the periphery which we described at the beginning of this article seems to have changed by 180° in Perm today. The city has become the bread basket for shrewd Moscow art contractors.

Break-ups and collisions

We should emphasise that the special and almost universal hatred educated people in Perm feel for Marat Gelman's cultural innovations stems from the way he behaves. His offensive behaviour to his opponents in public, his unbelievable self-confidence and messianic certainty that he is right, the overt or covert mockery of the aboriginal culture and the aboriginals themselves have all contributed to a sense of outrage and increasingly vitriolic protests from those same aboriginals. 

It should inter alia be said that the Slavs and Finno-Ugrians who have lived for many centuries in the Perm Region have a rich cultural heritage.  Today's creative artists are not lacking in talent either. Here in Perm we avoid using the hackneyed term 'modern art', so I will only say cautiously that some of these artists are extremely innovatory: the sculptor Ravil Ismagilov, the poet Yuriy Belikov and the prose writer Aleksey Ivanov, to name but a few. These three are all fiercely opposed to the Gelman project. As are the regional trade union for employees of cultural organisations, the Perm Artists' Union, Writers' Union, many musical and theatrical groups, the Cossacks and the opposition deputies in the Legislative Assembly. At the end of June there was a big protest rally in Perm: the names of Gelman, Milgram and Chirkunov were to be heard regularly from the podium and the crowd chanted “It's our city!” Those attending the rally (many of whom work in cultural organisations) were partly motivated by ordinary outrage at the present method of allocating funds from the 'cultural' budget, but it's not just the financial aspect that infuriates the locals.

"The conflict surrounding the cultural situation in Perm has already become so heated that the cultural split has become political as well: on Gelman's side are the liberal-cosmopolitans and radical left-wingers, on the other side the traditionalists, conservatives and moderate left-wingers. All the pro-governor forces are on the side of the cultural revolution, whereas the other side is supported by opponents of the Kremlin-appointed regional head."

Gelman's party continues to find ever more arguments to defend its position, creating and launching myths to support it. For example, when Gelman was taking part in a chat show on the central TV, he declared without batting an eyelid that the Moscow post-modernist art expansion into Perm had stopped the exit of Perm residents from the city.  Apparently the locals have put aside any thought of leaving. Gelman produced statistics to show that last year for the first time there was a positive migration balance in Perm. But this positive balance can be explained another way. If you study the figures carefully, it is clear that there has been some juggling: economically disadvantaged residents do leave in their thousands to go to other regions and countries, whereas people from the region's villages and towns, which have completely ground to a halt, flock to live in the regional capital. 

Interestingly, the conflict surrounding the cultural situation in Perm has already become so heated that the cultural split has become political as well: on Gelman's side are the liberal-cosmopolitans and radical left-wingers, on the other side the traditionalists, conservatives and moderate left-wingers. All the pro-governor forces are on the side of the cultural revolution, whereas the other side is supported by opponents of the Kremlin-appointed regional head.

The Perm cultural heritage contains one jewel that has gained general recognition: our collection of wooden sculpture. The most precious section of the Perm Picture Gallery contains crucifixions, Christs, bystanders, mothers of God and even the Lord God of Hosts carved in a special local fashion in the 17th-18th centuries by craftsmen. The biblical heroes have local Komi-Perm and Tatar features. 

In a prose poem on the subject, the well-known [nationalist] Russian writer and publicist Aleksandr Prokhanov, who was recently in Perm, has captured a resonant Perm note in the dramatic standoff. He foretells the coming titanic battle between the wooden gods of Perm, who have come down off the museum walls, and Gelman's little red men that occupy the city. This battle will decide once and for all the fate of Perm and its residents. And of course in this great and terrible night battle, the powerful and fearless Perm gods will triumph over the lowly, stupid and headless little red men. How we wish the time will come for this fateful battle to begin!

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