An Icon by Any Other Name

An Icon by Any Other Name

Marat Guelman speaks about the controversy over his exhibition ‘Icons’ and freedom of expression.

Published: March 27, 2013 (Issue # 1752)


Marat Guelman has been defending contemporary art in Russia for decades.

The enfant terrible of the Russian art world, gallery owner and curator Marat Guelman is renowned for organizing large-scale art exhibitions which challenge established notions of art in Russia.

Now Guelman, who opened Russia’s very first private contemporary art gallery in 1990 and also founded PERMM, Russia’s first museum of contemporary art outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, is throwing down yet another challenge to ignorance by bringing the exhibition “Icons” to St. Petersburg. The show, which attempts to engage viewers in a dialogue about art and the church, will finally open at the Tkachi gallery this Friday.

The exhibition was scheduled to open at the Rizzordi Art Foundation in October of last year but was abruptly cancelled by the curator in reaction to a request from the venue to put off the show’s opening because of what they saw as an “extremely unfavorable atmosphere” in the city.

On the eve of his second attempt to open “Icons” in St. Petersburg, Guelman spoke to The St. Petersburg Times about the new exhibition and about contemporary art in Russia.

“There are people in every city who can be called obscurantist, but in St. Petersburg they have received messages of support from power. It seems paradoxical because St. Petersburg is a cultural city, but it turns out that the image of the city is formed by people like [St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly] Milonov, rather than people like [cultural historian] Lev Lurie.”

People opposed to the increase and spread of knowledge may exist, but they shouldn’t be able to dictate what other people can do, thinks Guelman. And despite some people’s distaste for Guelman’s particular brand of provocation, it is Guelman who is having the last laugh, with support for some of his past exhibitions in the city coming from the Russian Museum.

“There are two reasons for these [regressive] people to be so active today,” explained Guelman. “One is a signal from Smolny and the other is connected with the Pussy Riot issue.”

Many priests oppose Guelman’s exhibition simply because he offered support for the three women who created such an uproar with their punk “performance” in Moscow’s main cathedral last year.

“I didn’t say that what they did in the cathedral was great, but I began to defend them once they were arrested because I think it was done unlawfully,” said Guelman. “But when the priests came to my exhibition in Krasnodar they said it was a ‘great exhibition.’”


Religious imagery often raises the ire of the Orthodox church in Russia.

The situation in St. Petersburg has changed since last October, according to Guelman. St. Petersburg’s arts community has recovered from the shock of the initial cancellation of his exhibition and the curator received invitations from several institutions to host the show, saying that if his “Icons” exhibition were not held in the city it would leave “a kind of open wound.” So the exhibition seems more important for the city and Tkachi, said Guelman, than for himself.

Speaking about drawing public attention to religious subject matter in contemporary art, Guelman noted the leading role of the mass media in the process: “Of approximately 20 exhibitions per year I only have two which may be contentious, and it seems that these are the only ones that ever capture the attention of the media, so that’s why people have an image of me as a scandalous gallerist.”

“Interest [in the subject of the exhibition] has indeed grown but it isn’t connected with Pussy Riot, rather with the increasing role of the church in our daily life. Art is a mirror and while it is perhaps a false one, it still reflects our life.”

Guelman also said there is a second, deeper reason for a religious theme to surface.

“The contemporary artist is constantly in dialogue with other artists, including artists from the past. And in Russia before the 16th century, all the art was religious, so by entering into a dialogue with art history, contemporary artists are bound to deal with religion.

“Then, when an artist enters into a dialogue with Leonardo da Vinci and makes a version of ‘The Last Supper,’ how does this concern the Russian Orthodox Church? It doesn’t – it doesn’t even concern the Gospel; it only concerns Leonardo da Vinci,” said Guelman.

Lectures and round tables to build a dialogue between contemporary art and the church will be held as part of the “Icons” exhibition.

“People who are against artists turning to religious themes seem to think that there are so-called canons that define the way in which religious art can be made. And that everything else should be disallowed. But in fact these canonical images have never existed. Before the revolution, devotional and secular art developed in tandem. Then, in the Soviet Union, religious art was forbidden and a new tradition of copying was born 20 years ago.”

“The concept of spirituality both in Russia and the wider world until the 19th century was associated with the concept of searching. The spiritual man is engaged in soul-searching – asking himself questions – and it is artists who create their own reality. Here in Russia it seems that spirituality must be something dead, and any living thing is blasphemy. To take things further, every sentence written in the Old Slavonic language is spiritual, but contemporary society’s search for, and sometimes even doubt in, faith is blasphemy. Everything has been turned on its head,” said Guelman.


Images like this one of Jesus form part of the ‘Icons’ exhibition at Tkachi.

At the same time, artists can often be found working with the church elsewhere in Europe. In Vienna, the Long Night of the Churches invites artists to create work within the context of devotional spaces. Meanwhile, countless houses of worship have been designed by contemporary architects, including Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Switzerland. Germany’s most important living artist, Gerhard Richter, has even designed a stained-glass window for Cologne Cathedral.

Guelman thinks his exhibition can be appreciated by everybody, labelling it “very democratic.”

“In contemporary culture, the artist is not on a pedestal. He reduces the distance [between the viewer and himself] — he is an ordinary man. It can be experienced at different levels of depth: For somebody who is deeply conversant with art, the exhibition is easily apprehended, while for others it may be read casually. The language spoken by contemporary art is the same as the language of life. There are many more barriers in place in classical art. People who say that they understand Rembrandt yet do not understand contemporary art are being cunning.”

One of the problems with contemporary art is that it is not considered to be art at all by the majority of people, as it doesn’t match people’s preconceptions about what art should be. There are numerous ways in which philistines deny a work of art its legitimacy.

“There is the argument that ‘it is not art because it can not be hung on the wall,’ which comes from an understanding that art is something that has weight and depends on a wall for support, and contemporary artists definitely want to get off the wall,” said Guelman.

“There is also the ‘I could do that’ school of criticism, which seems to hover around works of art like Malevich’s “Black Square” and other abstract art.” But the fact of the matter is that it is not the paint on the canvas that is so important, but rather the idea behind it. It took a visionary to even consider making “Black Square.”

“And even to make a halfway decent copy, a special talent is required, so that argument does not work either,” explained Guelman.

“The answer to the question ‘what is art?’ can only be found by looking at art,” said the curator. “Because the era of objective criteria is long past, the very process of determining what is and isn’t art has become part of the artistic dialogue itself.”

“Icons” will run from March 29 to April 21 at Tkachi, 60 Nab. Obvodnogo Kanala, Pyotr Anisimov Factory, Tel. 922 6642. M: Ligovsky Pr., Obvodny Kanal. Daily 12-8 pm.

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