Nearly five years ago Julia Gelman moved to Chicago from Moscow, where she and her former husband Marat ran Gelman (Guelman) Gallery, one of Russia’s first galleries devoted to contemporary art. In 2000 Marat published “Cultural Machine, Optimistic Manifesto.” By 2012, political and economic conditions cut short the gallery’s 22 year experiment as a hub for artists and intellectuals. I recently talked with Julia about Caution! Freedom–Contemporary Art from Russia, the exhibition she curated at One after 909 Gallery with Stano Grezdo, the gallery’s founder and director.
Lise: In preparation for our conversation, I read online about your Moscow gallery and how it was a target for harassment and violence. First of all, I’d like to say how much I admire your courage. Not a lot of people in the U.S. face such real-life danger for the cause of contemporary art.
Julia: My husband at the time, Marat Gelman, was the bravest in our family. He faced most of our conflicts and problems. I was his partner and we ran the gallery together, but nobody touched me the many times he was attacked many times. He was cruelly beaten in one of their attacks on the gallery. It was really scary. Somehow you adapt yourself to the circumstances. Life continues and every day is a new day. You cannot be in panic and scared every moment of your life.
Lise: Let’s go back to the more hopeful moment in 1990 when you and your husband opened your gallery. What were the circumstances that led you to do that? Were you artists and already in the art world?
Julia: We moved to Moscow from Moldova in 1988. And it was time of hope and big changes. The Soviet Union was already dying. We were young and open to all of these changes. It was an exciting time. Every day, there was something new and your horizon became more and more open. There was a feeling that we were moving in the same direction as our country. Everything was great, though difficult, and the mood was that something very good was coming.
Lise: So, the mood was positive and hopeful.
Julia: Very hopeful and extremely interesting.
Lise: Such a sense of possibility can unleash creativity too.
Julia: Yes. I have diploma in architecture and worked in construction and interior design. Then everything began to change. I met Marat at an exhibition of contemporary art, which he brought to Moldova from Moscow. The feeling was that something extremely interesting is beginning to happen. We married and moved to Moscow. As the center of Russian civilization, Moscow is the largest and most interesting cultural metropolis in the Soviet Union.
Lise: How did Marat become involved in organizing art exhibitions?
Julia: Marat didn’t have an art background. He studied electrical engineering in Moscow, but he loved theater and he was involved with a theater group for many years. He was very good at managing processes, something artists don’t do so well. He began organizing exhibitions in the mid-1980s and was already doing that when we moved to Moscow.
Lise: It sounds like he developed his abilities as a curator alongside his friends and circle of artists.
Julia: Yes, he was within a circle of artists. There were no contemporary art institutions in 1988 like they exist in America or Europe, because art institutions were state controlled. Literature, art, everything was state-controlled. There were no galleries, no art fairs, no collectors. There was no tradition of collectors buying art. There was no art market, or art auctions, or system of prices. Marat understood that it would be good to have an art fair. So that was the first project—even before the gallery. Eventually, it developed into a real art fair.
Lise: At that time had either of you traveled outside the Soviet Union? Were you familiar with the contemporary art world of Western Europe?
Julia: I traveled to East Germany in 1986. It felt very different from the Soviet Union, more European. But it was Communist country. Marat and I were from the south, Moldova and Ukraine. At the time we opened the Moscow gallery, there was a huge contemporary art movement in Ukraine and we wanted to show it. It was different from Moscow and not known in Moscow’s art scene. At that time conceptualism was very popular in Moscow. We brought something different to Moscow and it was interesting for people, for the public.
Lise: The work that you exhibited differed from what people in Moscow were used to seeing at the same time that it spoke to the times. Did the artists that you showed and others who were interested in new galleries have a traditional Soviet art education? I’ve met artists here who studied in Soviet art schools and often see in their work an exceptional command of technique, much stronger than is common among graduates of contemporary art programs in the US.
Julia: Yes, many of the artists studied in Soviet art schools. Socialist realism was very important in Soviet art schools, especially the point of view of a worker. If you wanted to be an artist in the Soviet Union, you showed the life of simple people and workers and how they were building a new society. It’s good to know how to do it well. The problem with Soviet art education was that there was no thinking about the essence and philosophy of art and other art problems. The schools continue to be conservative with an emphasis on technique. In my opinion, contemporary art is visualized contemporary philosophy. The two are very connected.
Lise: I agree. Contemporary art participates in larger discussions about ideas and events, politics, society, and culture. Your comment relates to what I read on the digital archive for your Moscow gallery. It describes the gallery as not only an exhibition space, but also an intellectual workshop.
Julia: Especially in 1990, the gallery had to do everything in the absence of other art institutions. Our gallery soon became a center for writers, poets, video artists.
Lise: With Marat’s background in theater, was the gallery a performance space as well?
Julia: Yes, and we organized lectures and courses on contemporary art history because everybody wanted to learn.
Lise: What about the gallery’s location?
Julia: It was in the very center of Moscow. Maybe because Russia was an empire, it had to have a center—and Moscow is the center of Russia. There was the Kremlin from where the tsar ruled. He sent his out orders and received taxes. Moscow is concentric circles. The Kremlin is the center, then Boulevard Circle, Boulevard Ring, and Big Garden Ring. Moscow’s center is the most important area and everything should be there, as if there were no other good place. Plus, Moscow is so big that nobody would visit openings elsewhere. Galleries should be in the center of Boulevard Ring. That’s why we were in the very center near Kremlin. It’s not like in Chicago, where there are many centers.
Lise: If the center is so important, was it difficult or expensive to get space there? How did you manage to land such a desirable location?
Julia: At that time everything wasn’t private property. There were a lot of old buildings in such bad condition that people couldn’t live in them. Municipal officials of the district were very liberal and gave one block of old two-story houses for galleries and an art center. Seven art galleries and a contemporary art center were in those decrepit apartments. We painted the walls white, installed lights, and learned how to make exhibitions.
With the opening to the West, Moscow became an exciting and interesting place for foreign visitors, for those who interested in the new cultural activity. We had many visitors from Europe and America. People and foundations came to help and support Russians who wanted to learn. We made friends with people at foundations in New York. They helped us travel to America to study how the art market is operates and introduced us to galleries. We began building an international network from the beginning.
Lise: It sounds like your gallery attracted a lot of international attention from the start.
Julia: We were listed in the travel guides as one of the few contemporary art galleries. It was a desert and we were lucky to be an empty space that attracted many international visitors and collectors. Russian collectors were only beginning to learn about collecting contemporary art. It’s very specific. The most progressive collectors had stopped with surrealism. We began to open up contemporary art, which had been closed to the public for 70 years.
Lise: This time of opening brings to mind Russian constructivism, which emerged at another moment of upheaval and transformation. Since we’re here in the gallery surrounded by Caution! Freedom, let’s start talking specifically about the show and the works you selected for it.
Julia: Most of the works in the show are from my collection, which I brought here when I immigrated from Russia. Our gallery showed a lot of political art and we brought to Russia the artists emigrated from Soviet Union, most of them to New York. For example, we have in this show work by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who work together and became very well known in 1970s and 80s. They belong to Sots Art, a new art movement which they probably invented. It’s similar to Pop Art, but Sots Art combines Soviet ideological images and criticism. This work of Komar and Melamid takes a well-known painting, which was in every school with the slogan, “Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood, ” and changes the color of “happy” from white to black. Sots Art is part of the Moscow Conceptual School.
We also have work by Alexander Kosolapov. His paintings, My Body and My Blood were destroyed many times because the Russian Orthodox Church is a big power in contemporary Russia and people don’t want to joke about it. They decided the work critiques Jesus Christ. But it’s a critique of consumerism—the new religion, Coca Cola and McDonald’s. It was destroyed the first time it was exhibited in the Museum of Andrei Sakharov.
Lise: Was that the Caution! Religion show that inspired the title for this show?
Julia: Yes, Caution! Freedom comes from that.
Lise: And who came in and attacked it? Was it the police or vigilantes?
Julia: It was attacked by members of religious groups of Orthodox nationalists who everyone knows are non-officially supported by the authorities.
Lise: In that case, the authorities allowed it to happen.
Julia: Yes. These people came and destroyed the exhibition at Sakharov Center. The curators and artists called the police. The police identified the attackers and opened a case against them. After a few days, the police made the case against the artists and curators, claiming they shouldn’t show this work. That’s how it works.
Lise: What about these works with the dog and dog-man?
Julia: Oleg Kulik, is an artist who lives with a dog and who acts as a dog. Kulik became well known, and not only in Russia. Our gallery organized his first appearance and exhibition performance as a dog. It was funny. He had to drink a glass of water. He was afraid to go out at night and to bite.
Oleg had the idea that humans are the same as animals and wanted to show himself as a wild artist, in a wild country, who doesn’t live according to the rules of civilization. He lived in a cage in a New York gallery for a month. He did a lot of interesting things andhas a philosophy behind them. He began this work in 1993 and it’s the inspiration for the character of Oleg who behaves like an ape in the 2017 film Square.
Lise: What about any women artists? Have you included any in the show?
Julia: At that time the majority of contemporary artists in Russia were men, but now there’s a lot of women artists. Tatiana Lieberman is the only woman in this show. She’s a wonderful photographer and we have her photos from the 1990s. They’re not political but they give the feeling of Moscow. Stalin built huge skyscrapers in Moscow after sending a delegation of architects to Chicago in the 1930s. Stalin wanted a huge empire style to show the power of the Soviet Union.
Lise: That explains when I thought of the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower when I was looking at Lieberman’s photographs.
Julia: These silkscreen prints are by a group of artists from Siberia called Blues Noses Group. These two photos are part of their series, Era of Mercy, from the Bible when lion and sheep drink water together. The first in the series is the one of two policemen kissing each other. In such a homophobic and cruel society, the title was very ironic. There was such a scandal around this photo.
Lise: What happened? Was the work attacked?
Julia: Era of Mercy was chosen by a French curator for an exhibition of Russian contemporary art in Paris in 2006. Our gallery helped to organize the exhibition. At the border, it was stopped by Customs. The Minister of Culture said, “This is shameful for Russia. We cannot allow foreigners to see this art. I forbid it.” Why is the Minister of Culture deciding what to show instead of the French curator? Of course, we sent the digital file and they printed it.
Lise: This work, State Symbol I, is spectacular, as is the way it’s installed. Plus, its totemic quality plays nicely with the iconic sensibility of other works in the show.
Julia: It was the artist, Dmitry Tsvetkov’s idea to make the red background. He made a series of state emblems. Each one was different. This was about beauty of militarism. Everything is very beautiful and handmade, but there are grenades and the meaning is terrifying. The subject is not soft, only the materials.
Lise: I read this work as implicitly critical of state violence. Do you think the juxtaposition of the handmade quality and beauty with the cold steel of militarism also makes it ironic or witty? Once I edited an article by a Russian scholar about the centrality of humor and jokes to popular cultural in the Soviet Union and how it operated as a mode of political critique.
Julia: You’re right, contemporary art in the Soviet Union and Russia has humor and irony as a language, as a form of reflection, because you cannot be sincere. You cannot openly say what you want. The situation is often so terrible that you need humor to not become mad or lose consciousness. It’s a war between you and reality. Humor was the most common tool for artists and writers to show their critique, to describe reality, to tell what you think. It also comes from history, in the middle ages the king had jesters, who were people who could tell the truth in humorous form. Jesters were funny and ugly. The king wouldn’t kill them because they were so funny. Sometimes they also had the ability to tell the truth.
Lise: At the time of Russia’s opening up to the West, there was already a long practice of humor lurking under the surface that ridicules and critiques the Soviet system. As the Soviet system starts to fade, does it become less of a target? Is it then the the conjunction of the capitalist system with the Soviet system? Or the Orthodox Church? What’s becoming the target of this humorous sensibility? Or did it become less necessary?
Julia: It wasn’t as necessary because there were more possibilities for making art. But at the same time, Russia adopted a lot of systems from Soviet Union and is still a heavily censored state, with a lot of taboos and dead zones where artists don’t go and don’t criticize.
Lise: On the gallery’s digital archive, it named Chechnya, the president, and the Orthodox Church, as the three taboos.
Julia: Chechnya not now. Chechnya is such complicated question. Like, what’s going on now in Syria. There are so many sides that you cannot have one answer, one critique. When we started the Moscow Biennial, a lot of contemporary artists from different countries came to make their projects and there were foreign curators. It was total freedom.
But unofficially, we were told, “You can do whatever you want, but there are some taboos.” The war with Chechnya was going on at that time. And the Russian Orthodox Church has such a power and it’s so merged with the state. At the same time there is such corruption. So many Russians believe in God, so it’s very complicated a matter. It was one of the taboos. It still is.
In the beginning the state didn’t care so much about contemporary art and didn’t give money for it. Now they give money, but they care. The state puts their own curators with their own understanding of contemporary art and who is allowed to represent Russia. It’s becoming very strange.
Lise: I’d like to follow up on something you mentioned earlier about the international interest in the emerging contemporary art scene in Russia, and particularly Moscow. It seems that contemporary Russian art doesn’t have much of a presence in the US? You have a lot expertise from your gallery experience, other than Stano here at One after 909, have American curators or collectors reached out to you now that you’re living in the US?
Julia:It’s true. There is not a big interest in Russian art as there was in the mid-1980s and 1990s when it was a new thing. Maybe Russia was not ready to develop the necessary infrastructure. There were not enough collectors in Russia. If a country wants to be successful in the international art market, it needs to have collectors inside the country who support their own artists as they grow. There still aren’t many collectors in Russia. In 2011 and 2012, when Putin returned to power and there was a huge economic crisis, a lot of collectors emigrated. We had to close the gallery in 2012 for political reasons and because the gallery’s financial situation.
This lack of money in Russia supporting contemporary art and lack of collectors prevents Russian galleries from taking part in art fairs, where they could communicate with curators. Something went the wrong direction in Russian and we need more time, because art needs freedom and openness. Now it’s this very strange hybrid situation.
Lise: Were the most of artists that you were showing at your gallery living in Russia?
Julia: Many but not all of them.
Lise: Are you saying that this current hybrid situation has resulted in their work becoming more constrained? If the art market has not developed, what’s happened to the artists?
Julia: They continue to work, but the situation has become more local. Not so many people are interested in coming to Russia from abroad. Not many international galleries take part in the Russian art fair and Russian galleries don’t participate in international art fairs because they’re too expensive. We don’t have the exchange that happens when people move very freely. Many Russians speak English but many artists don’t know English and they need somebody to interpret for them. The younger generation knows English better. But I hope the barriers come down. I believe in progress.
Lise: You said that you closed your gallery in 2012 and left Moscow. But why come to Chicago? At least we know that if you lived all those years in Moscow, you can handle the Chicago winter.
Julia: I moved to Chicago because my parents and my sister live here. And year, winter isn’t so terrible. The difficulty is that Chicago is sitting in the middle of the country. It feels good here, but it’s not as international and cosmopolitan as New York.
Lise: Are you curating any other shows with Russian artists in the upcoming year?
Julia: I plan to take part in an exhibition in the University of Illinois next winter and will work with a Russian woman who manages an art space in the suburbs on an exhibition of limited edition prints.
Lise: What about writing? Do you have a lot of documentation about your gallery and the artists and events it featured?
Julia: I’m thinking very seriously about doing that. I would love to use my archive to write a book about this period of time— the beginning of the art market and the contemporary art scene in Moscow.
Lise: Thinking and writing about that period nearly 10 years later from the vantage point of living Chicago could add a fascinating perspective. And you’ll have plenty of visual material to work with as well. It’s unfortunate for the period of openness and hope to be over, but from the point of view of a writing or documentation project, it’s helpful to have a well-defined period of time.
Julia: Yes, it was a very specific period. When Putin returned to power in 2012, something closed. Now it’s a different time. I would like to write about those 25 years, about our hopes, and about why it ended so disappointingly. We thought that something big was developing and it would be a different. Maybe it will, but not now.
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