Marat Guelman

The artist at the Art Riot exhibition is as important as the art. That is the distinguishing feature of the show. Art Riot is an exhibition dedicated to the artists who found themselves in certain situations and became heroes. Not so much because in Russia the authority of the writer, the poet, is so great that they are heard as if they were sages or rulers, but because the artistic performance is not only an artist’s gesture but also a citizen’s exploit. And then we, the public, forget about artistic criteria and aesthetic preferences and start feeling compassion for people involved. For weak heroes who have nothing but their own bodies, like Pyotr Pavlensky, but who are strong precisely because they have nothing to lose.

One more feature: this exhibition opens during the centennial of the Russian Revolution of 1917. One hundred years have passed since the revolutionary impulse brought my country through the terror and plunged it into dreary Soviet life. The Great Utopia of the Russian avant-garde led to the anti-utopia of Ilya Kabakov’s communal kitchen.

I started school when the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution was celebrated. Anniversary exhibitions became the major part of the country’s art life. We found it so false that we didn’t want to participate even as viewers. Today, on the brightly lit platform of this anniversary, we are showing artists whose statements are interesting here and now on the one hand and on the on the other hand correspond more or less with the revolution.

The correspondence is reflected in such words as ‘protest’, ‘action’, ‘deed’, and of course, ‘Russia’. These are artists whose lives are intertwined with our shared destiny, whose work we can call heroic.

However, their heroism is far from straight forward. The search for a hero in Soviet times was considered the main task of writers, artists and film directors. Soviet art spoke for so long about a ‘man with a capital M’ that it is hard to imagine a contemporary Russian artist with pretensions to heroism without irony.

The actionists who turn the most serious dramatic issues into buffoonery are in fact what Russian art is today. Bloody jokesters. Not-funny clowns that sometimes make your hair stand on end.

Here is a simple list. Oleg Kulik—the man-dog—runs around on all fours. Funny. He’s not always a dog. Sometimes he’s a ‘bird,’ banging on window panes, with a beak tied to his nose—a mummer. But he bangs until his nose bleeds, and he rubs his feet to the bone. Scary. Arsen Savadov dresses miners, those manly workers black with soot - those symbols of proletarian revolution - in white ballet tutus, or simply undresses them. Funny. Or he bribes Communists on their way to a rally and places them inside a gay parade. Real old men who can’t turn down the money and who pose in humiliation, without looking at one another. Scary or funny?

Pussy Riot—prison, confrontation with the authorities, a huge campaign supporting them, but also the colourful caps on their heads and clumsy movements as if they were on hinges. A circus. Laughter through tears.

Pavlensky, he sews up his lips, he nails his balls to the square. What kind of hero is that? A magician, a sword-swallower. Funny. But he also cut off his ear, wrapped himself in barbed wire—scary.

Siberian artists—Damir Muratov, Artem Loskutov, and Vasily Slonov—essentially falsified separatism. They made the secret service believe in the existence of political project to break up the country. They drew flags and coats of arms and declared that there was a special Siberian nation. It was a fake, but the results were real: surveillance, detention by police, and interrogations.

The Blue Noses truly are Russian yurodivye [holy fools].  For the sake of a joke they can do things to themselves that the Viennese Actionists did in order to terrify their viewers. There was a reason they all chose Red Square, at least once, for their actions. Red Square from the days of St. Basil’s has been turned into a brightly lit stage, like a museum painted by Ariadne Arendt.

The only truly not funny one was AES and their Islamic project, although they were making a joke at the beginning. They said: ‘Let’s imagine that the cultural expansion into the entire world came not from Europe but from the Near East. Let’s pretend that the Reichstag and Notre Dame were turned into super mosques.’ But then came 9/11 and the twin towers were destroyed in New York, as if following their project. Not funny.

And yet, they are heroes.

The Russian authorities worked very hard to determine this heroic role for Russian artists—they suppressed political opponents and the free press to such extent that only artists retained loud, independent voices. And the authorities defined artists as powerful enemies. So do not be deceived by their lightness and a tendency toward deviant behavior. Art Riot is an exhibition of the people who actually oppose the authoritarian system. This is an exhibition of free people who pay a high price for their art.

For example, it was Pavlensky who proved to Russian society, which had fallen into apathy and did not believe in its own strength, that only the weak can be strong: the one who does not fear prison and has nothing to lose. He proved that a warrior is alone in the field and that civil resistance is based on individuals, that a man who uses prison practices (nailing his testicles, sewing up his mouth, instruments of torture) cannot be intimidated.

 The main achievement of the Pussy Riot was drawing juxtapositions along the ‘art—politics’ line, the ‘Putin—Pussy Riot’ line.  Putin is grey and they are colorful. Putin is a man and they are young women. Putin is old, they are young. Putin is free, they are in prison. He is boring, they are funny. They created an ideal ‘anti-Putin’ out of themselves, and they performed a great feat in maturing civil society in Russia. They also showed artists that solidarity of people in the arts is a powerful weapon.

Arsen Savadov performed a revealing and very risky social experiment in Deep Inside. What would people without any means of support, lost in the new capitalist reality, do for money? Marx said that a capitalist would do anything at all for profit, but it turns out that impoverished people are ready to do even more. Savadov explored the depths of society with various experiments (miners in tutus was just the beginning) and at the end, when the artist was allowed (after paying a certain fee) to re-create a Giotto’s composition using corpses in the morgue, his art became a condemnation of the authorities that drove people to the point where they could no longer distinguish what was acceptable and what was not.

The Blue Noses started out playing the role of the yurodivye, who by tradition had the right to mock the authorities. At the very moment when society began to roll back in time, seriously speaking about Stalin as a ‘good manager and ruler,’ about holy tsars, they instituted a major revision of first the Soviet and then the post-Soviet cultural space. Playing on very thin ice against the authorities, they paint the portrait of the authorities at the same time. A very insulting grotesquery.

The reaction of the secret service to ‘Siberian separatism,’ the arrests of the participants in the merry Monstration, the surveillance of the artists and curators of the United States of Siberia exhibition created tension out of nothing. Although art historians long ago came to the conclusion that art cannot change society, but only reflect or comment on its condition, I am beginning to have doubts in the case of Loskutov, Slonov, and Muratov: the idea of Siberia’s independence jumped out of artistic space into the public mind.

In other words, they are true heroes. I am fortunate that my life as gallerist in the 1990s and later as curator and museum director, has been connected with these artists. My entire life. Thus in 1989 Arsen Savadov and his co-author Yuri Senchenko proved to be the absolute leaders of the new Ukrainian art, and my first successful show in Moscow, in 1990, was of Ukrainian (then southern Russian) art.

After Oleg Kulik’s action at the Guelman Gallery, the gallery became famous for radical events. It was an important moment in the history of Russian art and, of course, in my life.

The Blue Noses (Alexander Shaburov and Viacheslav Mizin) met at an exhibition of regional artists which I curated. They became the symbol of contemporary art beyond the capital cities and I began traveling around the country bringing Russian cities with populations over a million into the Cultural Alliance.

Pussy Riot set me at variance with important authorities. I was a member of the Public Chamber and entered the open government under Medvedev. But as soon as I supported the young women, all my romances with the authorities came to an end. And thank God for that.

Finally, Slonov’s show was the last on my watch at PERMM, the museum I created and headed. As a result, I was fired. Before 2012 there were three taboo themes, sacred cows, so to speak: Church, Chechnia and Putin. Slonov found the fourth: the Sochi Olympics. It was an excellent, angry exhibition, and the last one for me in Perm.

One last feature of the Art Riot project is that for most of its participants it is the summary, the final show.  Final, despite their youth, energy, and creative potential. This is worrying. What will happen to them tomorrow? Pussy Riot is no longer an anonymous movement and has broken up into several projects—now they are the heirs to what we are showing in London. Pyotr Pavlensky is in France, and all his art was made in close contact with the Russian authorities, you could say, with the hands of the authorities, and now he is beyond their reach.  Oleg Kulik long ago became a thorough scholar of his own ‘stormy past,’ and with enormous distance, as if it was not even his own past.

The exhibition includes films about the artists, and I hope they will help viewers to understand how, why, and under what circumstances these people became heroes. They are worthy of public admiration. And of course, worthy of the scrutiny of the art community.