In praise of the Little Red Men: cultural revolution in Perm

Marat Gelman is a well-known Moscow cultural figure. In 2008 he went to curate the Museum of Contemporary Art in provincial Perm, where his ideas for a cultural revolution have encountered considerable local opposition. Arguments about art soon developed into a fully-fledged political battle, recounts Elena Fedotova

Yelena Fedotova
5 August 2011

Modern art in Perm

When Marat Gelman arrived in Perm, the field of modern art soon became a battleground between conservatives and modernizers. Even in Moscow by no means everyone is able to appreciate the creative ideas of the contemporary art movement, and those of a more religious persuasion would like to bring a court action against organisers of artistic events that they consider provocative. The majority, however, were civilised enough not to make a public show of their philistinism. In the provinces, contemporary art is to this day still associated with heresy, and gallery owners and contemporary artists are looked upon as imposters seeking to dupe the gullible locals. 

Perm Logo


Perm’s new logo designed by Artyom Lebedyev outraged modernizers’ opponents.

In Perm opposition to Gelman was inevitable because modern art was not relegated to the margins, which is where it is usually placed in Russia, but was presented as official cultural policy enjoying the full support of the authorities. And this could only ever meet with resistance in Perm’s official cultural institutions whose positions in the cultural hierarchy had taken a hammering. The conflict initially started because of the way the federal budget was being ,allocated: the Artists’ Union and other well-established cultural organisations could only look on as money was poured into the development of the new Museum of Contemporary Art. An annual sum of 90 million roubles ($3,000,000) from the federal budget was set aside for the museum’s projects and acquisitions for its future collection. Acquisition, moreover, which were not from the collections of the local Artists’ Union, but instead from the "Varangians" or "vikings", a label given by the Perm residents to the new influx of artists whose exhibitions have been mounted at the new museum. As a result, locals have set up the ‘Committee of Perm Intellectuals’  and, together with the Artists’ Union, started a campaign of mass resistance to the newcomers by organising demonstrations and writing condemnations of them in the press.

Whose idea was it?

To begin with, Gelman’s invitation to Perm was thought to come from the Perm Regional Senator, Sergei Gordeyev. It is said that it was, in fact, the idea of the young senator himself to reinvent Perm, a nondescript provincial backwater, and make it into the new cultural capital of Russia no less. Then Gelman’s activities started being linked to regional governor Oleg Chirkunov, reputedly the most democratic of governors, who has not yet joined the pro-Putin party, ‘United Russia’, despite insistent requests to do so.

"In the provinces, contemporary art is to this day still associated with heresy, and gallery owners and contemporary artists are looked upon as imposters seeking to dupe the gullible locals."

In order to re-vamp Perm, Chirkunov put together a large team made up of both Perm residents and specialists brought in from Moscow. The well-known local theatre director, Boris Milgram, was made Perm Regional Minister of Culture (although he has been recently replaced by the political adviser, Nikolay Novichkov); the most fashionable and expensive designer in Moscow, Artyom Lebedyev, was brought in to upgrade the Design Centre as well as come up with a new logo for Perm; the avant-garde Moscow director, Eduard Boyakov, was for a long time in charge of Perm festivals. But Marat Gelman was the face of the new Perm cultural programme. To many he is a repugnant figure for his gallery projects dealing with both political and acute social issues, but probably more for his 1990s involvement in the art of political spin (Gelman managed the Union of Right Forces’ party election campaign offices and then the campaign of Sergey Kirienko, and, with Gleb Pavlovsky, he set up the ‘Fund for Effective Policy’). Gelman has long since distanced himself from the political advisers and spin doctors, but it is this part of his biography which continues even now to cause speculation about the way he operates. There is no doubting that Gelman is a master of PR, which is borne out by his popular blog on livejournal, where he writes several entries a day on events in Perm.

Rebranding a la Bilbao


Designed by a St Petersburg art collective, "Pproffessors", the Little Red Men first appeared in Perm in 2010. The sculptures have split local opinion

The liberal-minded authorities initially wanted to use the Spanish town of Bilbao as a prototype for their plans and Sergei Gordeyev even made a special visit there. Perm’s rebranding was to have taken shape along the same lines in the hope of boosting the town’s cultural-economic growth as well as developing its infrastructure. To begin with, in 2008, the authorities organised a design competition for the future Museum of Contemporary Art, in which even Zaha Hadid took part. However, the designs of the young Russian architect, Boris Bernasconi, and the Swiss, Valerio Olgiati, were selected over that of Hadid, which caused great consternation in the art and design world. Fairly soon the bright hopes that a museum of contemporary art would open in Russia quickly faded as not one of the design projects was carried out. This, in turn, gave the modernizers’ opponents the perfect opportunity to accuse them of squandering state funds. On the other hand, the competition was at the very least a great PR stunt - the changes in Perm were certainly beginning to be noticed. 

It was only the second attempt that met with success. The river boat station on the Kama River, an austere Stalinist Empire style building, was adapted to create a fashionable space for the new museum, following the current, now universal, trend of gentrification. The run-down building was quickly restored, graffiti by a well-known group appeared on its façade depicting classical gods chatting on mobile phones, and several works in the Public Art genre were set up outside the museum. One of the first of these works to appear in Perm was Boris Matrosov’s ‘Happiness is not far off’ – the huge letters on the banks of the Kama river seeming to mock the critics with their optimistic message.

Among Perm’s new eye-catching street art is a 3 metre half-eaten apple, installed in front of the city’s central library.

Public art in Perm

The genre of Public Art and its impact on Perm’s environment was soon to become a controversial issue. Tempers flared to such an extent that several works almost fell victim to vandalism. A particular source of irritation for the reactionaries was the ‘Rotunda’, a work by the artist and architect Aleksandr Brodsky, which Gelman’s opponents nicknamed the ‘public toilet’. Vandals twice tried to set fire to the ‘Rotunda’ and on the last occasion threw a can of petrol into it. The work of art was only saved from destruction by its fire-proof coating. In the autumn of 2010, Brodsky’s ‘Rotunda’ stood in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris during the International Contemporary Art Fair where it had been selected for the programme of Public Art by a jury and was enormously popular with visitors. Gelman himself commented on the dislike shown towards ‘Rotunda’: “They hate ‘Rotunda’ because to them it represents their own ignorance. Architects and art connoisseurs say it’s a work of genius, yet all they see is a toilet. They hate the fact that they can’t understand why it’s considered a work of genius.”

"The genre of Public Art and its impact on Perm’s environment was soon to become a controversial issue. Tempers flared to such an extent that several works almost fell victim to vandalism."

Another cause of dispute among the Perm locals was Zhanna Kadyrova’s sculpture ‘Apple’. Built from paving slabs, the sculpture was erected by the local library, where residents have taken to calling it ‘Apple Core’. Indeed, when a work of art appears that is such a free metaphor for the expression ‘to chew at the granite of science’ or to study hard, people who have never seen such contemporary monumental works and are used to the old familiar statues of, say, Dostoevsky or Gogol, are unable to recognize them as art. Culture, for the majority of the Perm citizens, and for Russian citizens too, is still considered an area that is ‘high brow’ or ‘spiritual’, not something modern, often mundane and frequently gross too. The huge arch composed of logs, devised by the artist Nikolay Polisky, forming the letter ‘P’, as if to represent Perm’s logo, suffered the same fate: people nicknamed it the ‘stool’.


The ambitious plan to transform an old port building into a
new museum was dropped in favour of an art centre

‘Little Red Men’, a design by the creative group the ‘Pproffessors’, were conceived as a way of brightening up the dreary provincial surroundings. The ‘Red Men’ even took up residence on the roof of the Legislative Assembly building where the deputies began to suspect that the figures were intended as caricatures of the politicians themselves. Many Perm residents were highly sceptical that this was actually art. The writer, Alexander Prokhanov, even went so far as to publish a fierce article in the ultra-right paper ‘Tomorrow’ which, given its bizarre content, could itself be considered a work of art: ‘From the moment that Gelman’s ‘Little Red Men’ began appearing in Perm, mental illness has escalated; miscarriages have become more common; inmates have escaped from prison; suicides have multiplied; cases of unmotivated crime have risen sharply; incidents of arson and rape have begun appearing; people gripped by fear have been throwing themselves off bridges into the  swollen Kama river; cases of cannibalism have been recorded.’

Exhibitions local and international

Marat Gelman’s exhibition programme has also been controversial and provoked violent reactions. With their provincial scepticism, local residents have the feeling that they are being short-changed: Moscow’s discarded hand-me-downs, so to speak, and the ‘West’s rejects’. In fact, Perm’s Museum of Contemporary Art has staged exhibitions which were successful in Moscow only after their Perm premiere. Marat Gelman’s most controversial project so far has been the ‘Russian Misery’ exhibition similar to that of the radical Italian ‘Arte Povera’ movement of the 1960s. Yet, unlike the Italian movement, ‘Russian Misery’ was an exhibition which was carefully put together by its curator: Gelman only brought in the work of artists, for the most part from Moscow, who fitted in with this trend. The exhibition, which opened at the height of the financial crisis, seemed to blend surprisingly well with the Perm cultural scene, by depicting the unique features of Russian art, which has yet to see millions of roubles thrown at it. After its premiere in Perm, ‘Russian Misery’ then went on tour to the Third Moscow Biennale in 2009 and is currently being shown at the Art Pavilion in Milan.


Opponents of Perm's cultural revolution are particularly unhappy about Aleksandr Brodsky's work “Rotonda”, which at the 2010 Paris Art Fair attracted enthusiastic reviews

Gelman clearly does not shy away from the importance of local context - he puts on exhibitions with a social edge which reflect Perm’s particular problems. Dmitri Vrubel and Viktoria Timofeyeva’s ‘Evangelical Project’ was a critique of the undesirable aspects of Russian society, which are even more manifest in Perm than, for example, in Moscow. Kiril Shamanov’s ‘Gop [Yob] Art’ was dedicated to the so-called ‘Gopniki’ [Yobs], young people from run-down working-class areas, the idea being that the exhibition would be visited by the very people it was about. The museum’s current exhibition is that of the most sought-after Russian critic and curator, Ekaterina Dyogot, who has set up a retrospective of the work of Subbotin-Permyak, the long-forgotten avant-garde Perm artist of the 1920s and1930s. As someone who has actually visited this exhibition, I have to say that it was first-rate. Last year in Perm, Dyogot organised a major exhibition of Ukrainian contemporary art, "ЯКЩО/ЕСЛИ/IF" which received the state ‘Innovation’ prize.

Over the past three years in Perm there have been a great deal of individual and group shows, all worthy of note, even by Moscow standards. Most have probably had more of an educational slant than an experimental one, such as the "Vision" exhibition which showcased video and performance art works by world-famous artists from Marina Abramović to Matthew Barney. The museum has been visited by nearly all of the major Moscow art critics and artists who have held master classes and given lectures there. Gelman often invites leading cultural figures to Perm – poets, writers, artists, sometimes shocking and controversial luminaries, such as opposition leader and writer Eduard Limonov, and the well-known journalist Oleg Kashin who became a popular hero after the incident a year ago when he was beaten up, allegedly for his journalistic activities.  

It seems that the new cultural scene is branching out to other areas, not just art. In Perm several festivals have been organised: ‘Live Perm’ and the month-long festival ‘White Nights’; there has been a book fair, and Perm has seen the opening of a new theatre called ‘The Hammer Stage’ [Perm was called Molotov for a time, after Stalin's foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, and molot is Russian for hammer, ed]. 

There were also plans to build a film studio. However, the scale of the changes undertaken by the cultural modernizers has not always been sustainable. Comments from various cultural figures point to the fact that the quantity is not always matched by quality, that certain events have failed due to bad organisation, and that the organisers themselves are finding it hard to keep up with such a pace.



The initiators of the Perm cultural revolution:
senator Sergei Gordeyev (left) and art promoter
Marat Gelman (right).

Modernization is achieved by means of trial and error. But the Perm project, hitherto unseen in Russia, is unparalleled – as if a propaganda plan from the early days of the October Revolution has been unleashed where demonstrations in Red Square are embellished with supremacist compositions. The fact that the modernization project has met with widespread disapproval and suffered teething problems only goes to show that the process is ongoing and real. Another matter is whether the modernizers, encountering such disapproval and resistance to change, should not ask themselves if what they are doing is justified: is it right to impose a new culture on those for whom it is clearly alien? And is the new wave of culture just another form of colonialism?

The Perm intellectuals’ most recent protest meeting was in June with the slogans: “We’re not ‘P’! We’re Perm!”- a disparaging reference to the town’s logo devised by the designer, Artyom Lebedyev,  “Perm is not a dumping ground for pseudo-culture!” and “Perm cannot be considered the European capital of culture without us, the Perm locals!” Quite clearly the "Viking" incomers are being accused of snubbing local cultural public figures.

"The fact that the modernization project has met with widespread disapproval and suffered teething problems only goes to show that the process is ongoing and real."

However, after recent political attacks on Governor Chirkunov, including a dedicated PR campaign against him in the media and even on state TV channels - usually a sign that a resignation is forthcoming - the future of the cultural revolution is not looking quite so rosy. But, responding to his critics, Gelman quotes this statistic: fewer young people have been leaving Perm. When questioned previously about whether they wished to leave the town, 60% of young Perm residents would answer ‘Yes’. Now that figure is no more than 10%. If, in three years there has been a reduction in the brain drain, then maybe there is a case for continuing the cultural revolution. At least while the chance is still there. 

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