Modern Dance and Art Bring a Burst of Color to a Gray City (The New York Times)
By SOPHIA KISHKOVSKY
PERM, Russia — By night, the disarmed intercontinental ballistic missiles arrayed outside the old Motovilikha factory museum evoke a cold war graveyard.
But the art curators from Moscow who have embraced this military-industrial city see the setting differently: as a quirky back for modern dance.
In a region once known best for producing rockets, petrochemicals and salt — and for incarcerating dissidents in Gulag prison camps — Perm is banking on contemporary art, architecture and theater to overcome its weighty past.
«Doing modern dance performances against the background of these rockets is very appropriate,» said Nikolai Palazhchenko, one of the founders of Winzavod, a trendy Soho-style Moscow arts center, and now one of the cultural trendsetters working on projects in Perm.
The city is still a disjointed mйlange of Soviet industry, the remains of stately pre-revolutionary mansions and tilted wooden houses scattered along the Kama River. But Mr. Palazhchenko, known as «Spider,» and his associates think Perm could become Russia’s Berlin. The Russian media are already calling it «Bilbao on the Kama,» a reference to the down-at-the heels Basque city transformed by a Guggenheim Museum there designed by Frank Gehry.
Perm’s old Motovilikha factory seems a particular fascination. After some of Russia’s best young playwrights gathered in Perm for the Novaya Drama contemporary drama festival in March, their workshops resulted in «Motovilikha Worker,» a documentary play based on interviews with factory workers.
Another landmark — the city’s former Stalin-era riverboat station — was reborn in March as the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art. Until recently, the region’s most internationally famous museum was Perm—36, a former Soviet prison camp exhibited as a warning to society.
Closed to foreigners until the late Soviet era, Perm has struggled since Communism’s fall, with factories like Motovilikha hit hard.
But Sergei Gordeev, a wealthy senator and patron of Soviet Modernist architecture, has been a driving force behind Perm’s current cultural ambitions. He and other philanthropists have committed to giving a total of about $3 million a year toward the new contemporary art museum’s collection. Donors include Lukoil and Viktor Vekselberg, the oil and aluminum magnate, while the regional government is financing the museum’s operating costs.
«I love it!» wrote Oleg Chirkunov, the region’s governor and an avid blogger, after visiting Russkoye Bednoye, an exhibition curated by Marat Guelman, Moscow’s most prominent and controversial art gallery owner, at the riverboat station late last year. «I think that Perm has the chance to have a world—class museum.»
Although isolated during Soviet times, Perm, a city of one million people about 700 miles east of Moscow, has a rich cultural tradition. The Stroganoff family was given control of the region by Ivan the Terrible and promoted the arts. The Kirov Ballet and Opera were evacuated here from Leningrad during World War II. Perm’s State Art Gallery has a hauntingly beautiful collection of wooden sculptures of Jesus carved by indigenous craftsmen in the 17th to early 20th centuries.
Sergei Diaghilev, creator of the legendary Ballets Russes, grew up in Perm, and a festival named after him began here in 2003. An operatic version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s «One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,» about the gulag, had its world premiere at the festival this month.
Now Mr. Chirkunov says Perm needs a new, post-Soviet identity.
«We have a clear goal, to try to turn Perm gradually from an industrial city into something different, into a place where it is comfortable for people to live, where there is some concentration of intellectual people,» he said.
«Russkoye Bednoye,» or «Russian Poor,» an exhibition at the contemporary art museum of found-object installations by some of Russia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, has become a catchphrase for the financial crisis. Bolshoi Gorod, a magazine that chronicles the cultural zeitgeist, called it one of 2008’s definitive new phrases. Another Moscow magazine, Afisha, named Perm «City of the Year.»
Boris Milgram, Perm regional culture minister, said the financial crisis had not seriously curtailed the ambitious cultural plans because «in a time of crisis, culture remains affordable.»
The city’s newfound cachet was underscored recently when Mr. Guelman announced that he had sold his stake in his Moscow gallery to focus on Perm, where he has been appointed the contemporary art museum’s director. Mr. Guelman, previously a Kremlin political strategist, said he and Mr. Gordeev had spent many late nights brainstorming about Perm’s future.
«In a year, Perm will be the cultural capital of Russia,» Mr. Guelman said at the Novaya Drama festival, which also migrated from Moscow. «A phenomenon is being created in Perm that will pull all of Russian art up to an international level.»
Some Perm residents are less than thrilled. Aleksei Bessonov, a local Communist activist, mirrors the criticisms of some Russian nationalists and religious leaders who say contemporary art is often pornographic and reflects a pseudo-liberal philosophy that is ruining the country.
«They want to appear as liberals in the West, as intellectuals,» he said of those promoting it. «In fact,» he added, «they are fascists, simply fascists. What they are doing is cultural fascism.»
While the city celebrates art, Mr. Bessonov says, the region is mired in poverty.
But Mr. Chirkunov, the governor, argues that culture can lift it from economic doldrums. Perm’s historic tolerance for gays and ethnic diversity has been credited for its creative energy. «People in Perm are quite tolerant of many things, including ethnic differences,» Mr. Chirkunov said. «I wouldn’t want to jinx this.»
Others speak of Perm’s mystical qualities.
«This city has a very beautiful aura, and the sky is incredible here, the river must create this amazing sense of air here,» said Novaya Drama’s founder, Eduard Boyakov, who plans to devote half his time to Perm over the next several years. «On the other hand there is the urbanistic, incredibly powerful energy of these factories here, the military complex, all these tanks and howitzers and cannons.»
Perm, he said, has neither St. Petersburg’s «imperial haughtiness» nor the «provincial lack of confidence» of smaller cities.
Mr. Gordeev has drawn some international attention to Perm, bringing Thomas Krens, then the Guggenheim Foundation director, here in 2007. He has also commissioned KCAP, a Dutch architectural firm working on London for the 2012 Olympics, to create a new master plan for Perm, which suffers, among other things, from severe traffic congestion, that post-Soviet urban bane.
Chekhov is said to have based the provincial ennui and cries of «To Moscow! To Moscow!» in «The Three Sisters» on Perm. But now weary Moscow cultural figures seem to be headed to Perm.
"Moscow is losing the attributes of a city and is a megapolis where people earn money during the day and spend it feverishly at night," said Vladimir Sorokin, Russia’s most famous contemporary writer, in Perm for a reading. He refuses to give them in Moscow. «People there are arrogant and irritable. Here in Perm audiences are absolutely healthy. They are like the Moscow public of the 1970s.»