by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
In April, Marat Guelman opened his new art gallery, Guelman und Unbekannt in downtown Berlin. The gallery positions itself as the world’s first to focus on showcasing art created with the assistance of AI. The inaugural exhibition, titled Penance, featured works by Ukrainian-German artist Arik Weissman. The just-finished second show was a monographic survey of the works of German media artist, Olaf Schirm. Guelman is a well-known Russian gallerist and the Soviet Union's first independent art dealer. In my video interview with Marat Guelman, we discussed his recent move to Berlin, the artistic role of AI, his mission as a producer and impresario, running his gallery in Moscow, trying but not succeeding in turning Perm into the new cultural capital of Russia, what should cities and museums be like, and the latest tendencies in Ukrainian art. Our conversation follows after a short introduction.
Marat Guelman (b. 1960) grew up in Chișinău, formerly Kishinev, the capital of Soviet Moldova. He organised his first art show in Kishinev in 1987, presenting Moscow artists; most works were sold. Capitalising on that success, he immediately moved to Moscow to become the first art dealer in the Soviet Union. In parallel to building his art collection, Guelman completed a two-year art program at the Central House of Artists in Moscow run by the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. His show Southern Wave at the Moscow Palace of Youth in 1990 turned out to be a major milestone in contemporary Russian culture and further cemented his reputation as a leading art dealer in Russia. The same year, Guelman opened the first eponymous private art gallery in Moscow. His initial focus was on young Ukrainian artists, including now such prominent figures as Boris Mikhailov and Arsen Savadov. He then expanded into working with artists from other regions. In the mid-90s, Guelman focused on Moscow performance artists such as Oleg Kulik, Anatoly Osmolovsky, and Alexander Brener, as well as those who were bringing social issues into their work, injecting new energy into art. By commissioning artists to create new works, Guelman Gallery became a true creative laboratory, representing the most relevant contemporary Russian artists. Since 1998, he worked predominantly with mature mainstream artists staging their exhibitions at the country’s top museums.
In 1999, Guelman donated 50 works by major contemporary Russian artists to the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. In 2008, he sold his gallery and became the founder and director of the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art, PERMM; he was dismissed in 2013. Guelman left Russia for Montenegro in 2014, following the annexation of Crimea. He has since created and still runs his art centre and art residence program in Budva, Montenegro, on the Adriatic coast. Guelman gifted six artworks to the Centre Pompidou in 2016. Since 2019, he presented exhibitions on the protest artists Pussy Riot, Pyotr Pavlensky, and the Voina street-art group at Moscow’s Art4 Museum. In 2020, the gallerist made a major donation of 72 works from his personal collection to the State Tretyakov Gallery. The gift includes works by Ilya and Emilia Kabakovs, the Blue Noses, Gosha Ostretsov, Vladimir Dubossarsky, Dmitry Gutov, Komar & Melamid, and others. In 2021, Guelman was designated as a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. He now resides with his family in Berlin.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Let’s start with your new gallery. Why did you decide to open it in Berlin and what will be its focus?
Marat Guelman: I moved my family to Berlin from Montenegro to be closer to many of the artists I know here. The gallery is focused on digital art and on art created with the assistance of AI, which is what’s hidden behind its name, Guelman und Unbekannt (Guelman and the Unknown). Just think about it, in the last 30 years, a lot more art was created by AI than in all the previous centuries of the production of traditional art combined. Yet, there are no critics, curators, or museums that specialise in this art form, no real reflection and scholarship, and no serious critical reviews.
Look at what has happened in the last two years of the Coronavirus pandemic—we all stared at our screens, all of us. During that time, we finally were able to realise that there is art on the screen as well. This new kind of art is coming. It has its own infrastructure, collectors, marketing rules, and so on. All of this makes an effect on the art world overall. We need to realise that AI may not create anything new but the way it manipulates the material that already exists is very effective and very fast. What’s critical is that we find artists who want to work with these new technologies and can do it well. Another factor is the current war that Russia unleashed against Ukraine, which means that ethics has displaced personal expression. The war pulled many artists out of their comfort zones both figuratively and literally, at least with many artists I work with. These factors contribute to a unique situation for creating something new. I want to play my own role in this. I have my own vision and strategy. My gallery plays the role of an instrument to realise this strategy.
VB: What kind of exhibitions are you planning?
MG: We are just about to open our second show titled OLAF SCHIRM ‘MAIN WORKS’. Olaf Schirm is a German media artist and electronic musician. He is also a computer scientist and works with robots. He develops software and hardware to simulate real-time human motions. The show traces the artist's creative transformation. Any exhibition is a cocktail of content and entertainment. Olaf’s robots are very sensitive, fragile, and emotional. They are almost human-like. I think it will be entertainment for the public but also an opportunity to learn more about his thinking and concepts in his collaborations with AI.
VB: From 1977 to 1983 you studied at the Moscow Electrotechnical Institute of Communications while working as a machinist and a stage worker at some of the leading local theaters. What sparked your interest in art and were you ever dreaming of becoming an artist?
MG: That’s exactly when my interest in art started, simply because the people who worked with me were artists and art students. In fact, I was the only non-artist there. I was very proud of that. Was I dreaming of becoming an artist? Yes, I was. Well, my father, Alexander Guelman, was a notable writer and playwright, and, to tell you the truth, I wanted to become a writer. But my father was extremely critical of everything I attempted to write. He was quite specific about it. He would come across some text and tell me, “Take a look at this work, it is similar to your writing but it is ten times better.” [Laughs.] That experience led to a realisation that I did not have a talent. Instead, I learned to distinguish and value the talents of others.
In the late 1980s, I was living in Moscow, a city full of talented people coming from all over the Soviet Union to find their place in life. There were many of those. While I was all alone, the only person who knew that he had no talent. [Laughs.] I was unique, in a way. There were many talents but there was no one talentless who would be willing to help them to realise their dreams. So, the way I see myself is playing the role of a producer and impresario, but not an artist or creative. After all, to maintain good relationships with artists you need to have some distance, even though on more than one occasion I even helped to form some art groups. For example, The Blue Noses Group. But I think if I tried to identify myself with any particular art project other artists would stop trusting me.
VB: In 1987 you organised your very first art show, which was the first step towards becoming an art dealer, right?
MG: The idea of organising that show was to overcome boringness. I studied in Moscow and lived and worked in Chișinău, Moldova, which, in comparison, was a backwater town. In 1986, the Soviet authorities canceled criminal charges against so-called parasitism. From then on people were not obliged to maintain a job. At the time I worked at a state science institute. So, immediately, I resigned and since I lived in both cities, I decided to organise an exhibition of Moscow artists in Chișinău. It attracted attention and many works were sold. When I went back to Moscow to pay the artists, one of them congratulated me and encouraged me to move to Moscow permanently to become a full-time art dealer. He promised to help. I followed his advice, quite urgently. But once in Moscow, he was nowhere to be found. [Laughs.] Then it was too late to go back. Too many people in my hometown knew that I left for Moscow to build a serious career. [Laughs.] So, I was fooled, but never mind, I was happy I followed that advice.
Then I started getting to know artists and discussing art with art historians and critics to build my first collection, which I soon realised was quite shitty and I had to look for ways to get rid of it. [Laughs.] Then I worked on selling my collection. Luckily, not only I got my money back but I doubled my initial investment. That’s how I realised that I acquired a new profession and that I am interested in working with art and artists. So, I started working on my new collection, this time, a good one. [Laughs]
VB: After many years of running your gallery in Moscow you sold it in 2008 and became the founder and director of the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art, PERMM. There were big plans for that city. They did not come true. Why?
MG: I became the director following a very successful exhibition Russian Povera at the Perm River Terminal. It featured some of the most prominent Russian artists, including Yuri Albert, Vladimir Arkhipov, Alexander Brodsky, Dmitry Gutov, and Nikolay Polissky. The success of the show led to the idea that Perm could become the cultural capital of Russia. The same year, the Perm Museum of Modern Art, PERMM, which is a different museum, organised an international architectural competition chaired by Peter Zumthor to build a new building that was envisioned as Russian Bilbao. That was the competition in which Boris Bernaskoni and Valerio Olgiati shared the first prize, and Zaha Hadid came third. Anyways, that project was never realised. Apart from starting PERMM, I initiated a number of art festivals there. It was a kind of cultural revolution for the city but it was not meant to be. All those plans have collapsed.
VB: You have said, “What I do is the development of cities through culture.” Any particular examples of this approach?
MG: My experiments in Perm transformed people’s understanding of what role culture could play in the development of cities. More importantly, politicians all over the country became interested in culture. What they saw in Perm was incredible. Before my cultural projects, the city was quite depressed; every year 50,000 people were leaving for other cities. Just one and a half years later the total population started growing for the first time in years. There were other positive signs. Analysing the situation experts realised that those changes were connected directly to art. That’s when I started receiving proposals from mayors, governors, and businessmen all over the country, in total from 11 cities, including St. Petersburg, Samara, Tver, Voronezh, Krasnodar, and Yekaterinburg, among others. They asked me to develop similar concepts and strategies for their regions. I was even invited to places outside of Russia, including Odesa, Kazakhstan, Berlin, and Montenegro, where I ended up moving and where I still run my art center and art residence program.
The key defining principle of these strategies was the fact that time is more important than place. Contemporary cities have a lot in common. I would say more than two-thirds of what cities offer is universal and one-third is unique. The main lesson is in the realisation that it is possible to have something unique in provincial cities, not only in the capitals. Unfortunately, many of these ideas were thrown out of the window. They were developed under the slogan of modernisation. But in 2012, when Putin resumed his power, the word modernisation became scolded. He reversed the developments championed by Medvedev during his four years as President. That’s when I fully understood that Putin is the biggest enemy of the state. Then it became clear that everything I was working on in terms of decentralisation was no longer possible. I spent another year fighting. But one by one all my business partners were pressed by the President’s administration to break all ties with me. After that, I had no choice but to leave the country.
VB: I like your phrase, “Museums are corporations for the formation of a unique.”
MG: I keep these images in my mind—universal and unique, 20th century and the 21st. In other words, the 20th century is the century of the universal, the century of science and corporations. There are thinkers who come up with ideas and there are companies that build these ideas to make them universal. These companies compete to perfect their universal services and products. But in the 21st century, competition is among territories and cities. And these territories are competing not for the universal but for the unique. Things that are unique could be either nature or art, and the art could be either traditional or contemporary. The places people decide to travel to attract by their unique qualities. Hotels are universal but local attractions are unique. Overall, work and homes are universal. The unique starts when we go out into the city. So, the point is that in the 21st century, an artist will have a similar role as a scientist in the 20th. We compete to experience something unique which is what artists offer. Therefore, museums serve as corporations for the formation of a unique. There is a tendency in building cities as unique places.
VB: Your position as an opponent of the war in Ukraine is widely known. Do you work on any art projects that speak out against the war?
MG: I would support such ideas but not directly. I understand that ethics plays an important role in art. But I don’t focus on this as a gallerist. I look at art overall and I try to see how it has been transformed by AI. Apart from art, I am a member of the Russian Anti-War Committee. I organised SlovoNovo in Montenegro, a forum for free culture, which I run since 2018. I give interviews to political media just about daily and appear on Ukrainian TV often. But that’s a separate activity. Art is different from politics. I don’t think it is effective to protest against the war with the help of art. That’s not enough.
VB: What are some of the latest tendencies in Ukrainian art?
MG: To me the most interesting development today is diary projects. I particularly would highlight the works of Igor Gusev and Boris Mikhailov. Here is the thing. There is a war going on. So, purely emotionally, any child with a camera will eclipse anything produced by an artist. Any documentary will be more effective than art. For example, the new film Eastern Front by Vitaly Mansky and Yehven Titarenko features a scene in which a brigade of soldiers pulls the wounded from the battlefield. These soldiers were given cameras attached to their foreheads. The footage is all rough and real. No art can compete with the brutality of documentary footage. Another work, is Ukrainian Guernica, a collective art project by the Pinchuk Art Center. It is a photo series produced by hundreds of authors. It aims to draw the attention of the whole world to the atrocities and war crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine. It documents the overwhelming humanitarian crisis in the 21st Century Europe. I think this depiction is important. When an artist is following these events as a diary, depicting the banality of evil and how we get accustomed to it day by day, it becomes very powerful.