A guide to the New East

Dmitri Prigov

How the Soviet Union produced a genre-defying artistic mystic

Ten years after his death, the time is ripe to revisit the work of Dmitri Prigov, one of Russia’s most prolific, playful and profound artists. Prigov was a figure whose endless creativity, when it came to the narratives and iconography of power, seems as relevant as ever in the age of fake news and other public mendacities. From 13 October, Calvert 22 Foundation will play host to Dmitri Prigov. Theatre of Revolutionary Action, the first posthumous solo exhibition in the UK dedicated to the artist.

Prigov’s career stretched almost equally across the late and post-Soviet periods and Theatre of Revolutionary Action is primarily focused on his work after the collapse of the USSR had opened him up to the world at large. But where did Prigov come from? How did his Soviet upbringing and artistic education influence his work? 

Born in 1940, Prigov was a member of the first generation to come of age after the war — one that would go on to define Soviet culture for an international audience (think of poet Joseph Brodsky (b. 1944), or director Kira Muratova (b. 1934)). It’s perhaps no coincidence that Prigov later claimed to have started writing poetry in 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” denouncing the personality cult of Stalin and kick-starting the period of relative cultural licentiousness known as the Thaw. The sense of an artistic generation coming of age is reflected in the fact that Prigov’s classmates at the Stroganov Industrial Art School included several other key figures of “non-conformist” art: Boris Orlov, Komar and Melamid, Leonid Sokov. 

The Thaw was a contradictory period, one of simultaneous possibility and disillusionment. Western and Russian avant-garde art was (re)discovered and punishments for creative heterodoxy were softened, but artists also began losing faith that the state might eventually support their work. So, rather than simply acquiescing to or opposing official demands, non-conformist artists began to ironise and re-appropriate the rhetoric and imagery of the state. 

Prigov was at the centre of Conceptualism and related non-conformist art movements from their emergence in the early 70s, alongside Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Komar and Melamid, Ivan Chuikov, the Collective Action group and others. At its heart, Russian Conceptualism was self-reflexive, ironic, fixated on verbal and visual “codes” and their subversion. Soviet slogans and imagery would be repeated and twisted until they lost all meaning, recreating for the audience their own experience of living with rules and received wisdom which they knew to be hollow. Bulatov recreated idyllic or pastoral scenes, then inserted disruptive blocks of colour or text; Komar and Melamid painted Stalin next to Hitler and E.T.. And Prigov, perhaps more than anyone else, took the verbal tics of official “Soviet-ese” and ran with them, creating something unnerving and invigorating. 

Prigov took the verbal tics of official “Soviet-ese” and ran with them, creating something unnerving and invigorating

The central concerns of Prigov’s career derive from his ideological and artistic education in 1970s and 80s Moscow. Like its Western counterpart, Russian Conceptualism wanted to break with and break down grand historical narratives — whether these were political or artistic. But in the late Soviet Union, artists were confronted with a very particular set of circumstances. A genuine state orthodoxy impinged on everyday life and could, if needed, be violently enforced; at the same time, many people knew it to be a hollow illusion. Mikhail Epstein, a theorist of late Soviet culture, once wrote that, “in the West, conceptualism substitutes “one thing for another” — a real object for its verbal description. But in Russia the object that should be replaced is simply absent.” 

This is why, when we look at Prigov’s works themselves, they strike us as simultaneously ironic and sincere, fun and austere. Playing with the emptiness at the heart of the Soviet “message” allows for an endlessly varied range of expressions. As Kabakov himself said, “this contiguity, closeness, contact with nothing […] is like something that hangs in the air, a self-reliant thing, like a fantastic construction, connected to nothing, with its roots in nothing.”

Prigov worked in poetry, graphic art, sculpture, installation and performance art, cultural theory, film, TV and music. He adopted a similarly broad range of characters or “personages”, insisting on the importance of the figure performing the words rather than the content of the words themselves. He once said of his method: “I take a certain image of writing and collide it with another image.” As befits a trained sculptor, he cited Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti among his formative influences (along with Warhol, Beuys and Fluxus), and he was forever concerned with the question of monumentalisation: how the artist and their work become set in stone through public appreciation. 

Playing with the emptiness at the heart of the Soviet “message” allows for an endlessly varied range of expressions

The “collision” between image and writing is there in Prigov’s “stikhograms”, reminiscent of earlier 20th-century typographical experiments by the likes of Guillaume Apollinaire. Prigov takes fragments of recognisably “Soviet” speech (one example: “Comrade, I cannot abandon my squadron!”), replicating and manipulating them on the page, divesting these weighty pronouncements of their power. Prigov is a fundamentally democratic artist, unconcerned with “creative genius”. He once described postmodernism as “an exploration of the possibility of individual expression”; his installation in the Hermitage in St Petersburg invites the viewer to take a seat alongside empty frames labelled “Malevich”, “Rembrandt”, “Leonardo”: here, these lofty names are simply convenient labels onto which we project our own interpretations.

In common with many Conceptualists, Prigov concentrated on the mundane, seemingly trivial aspects of Soviet life — another democratic gesture. Many of the “heroes” of art are everyday workers, and he described himself as a labourer, more concerned with the quantity of words he produced than their quality (late in his life he claimed to have a quota of 2,000 poems a year). But this was also another part of his spoofing of Soviet power: his everyday heroes become mystical figures, inhabiting a phantasmagorical version of the Soviet world. One recurring character in his Soviet-era poems is the Policeman, who becomes, in the words of Yelena Fedetova, “a kind of ideal embodiment or avatar of the Soviet power structure”:

The policeman looks to the West, to the East —
And the empty space beyond lies open
And the centre where stands the policeman —
He can be seen from every side
Look from anywhere, and there is the policeman...

Uncovering the uncanny nature of Soviet life also meant exposing its ritualistic, quasi-religious underpinnings. Prigov has been described as a kind of holy fool or shaman. Performing his poetry he would often adopt a growling, hooting, musical tone, like an unhinged monk — as in his famous Alphabet series, an extended deconstruction of the Russian alphabet into something nonsensical and unsettling. It was perhaps inevitable that Prigov would himself would fall foul of the Soviet policy of sticking recalcitrant “subversives” in the madhouse; the most surprising thing is that he took so long to end up there, finally being sectioned in 1985 after years of close surveillance. 

Performing his poetry he would often adopt a growling, hooting, musical tone, like an unhinged monk

Of course, Prigov was never officially exhibited in the Soviet Union. His reputation, fostered in émigré journals before perestroika, went from strength to strength once he was able to travel and perform for foreign and domestic audiences in the 90s. But the formative experiences of the stagnating USSR cannot be forgotten. 

For Prigov, the philosopher and art theorist Boris Groys wrote earlier this year, “Perestroika opened the Soviet Cosmos to Chaos [...] the best way to protect himself was not self-isolation but communication. He wanted to be able to address Chaos, to name it, to let it speak—to involve Chaos in a dialogue […] Prigov’s images are haunted by Chaos—but do not manifest it. Chaos conceals itself in dark corners, in abandoned, empty spaces—but then suddenly erupts inside the image, leaving a black stain on it.”

In the works on display at Calvert 22 Space, then, we see an artist coming to terms with the death of the system against which he had set himself, and abandoning the idea of identity altogether. Peter Metres once asked Prigov whether his art was a “mask” behind which he hid. “An image is a kind of existence,” Prigov replied. “A mask, generally speaking, implies that another person exists behind it. But I, as a person, cannot exist.”

Dmitri Prigov. Theatre of Revolutionary Action is at the Calvert 22 Space from 13 October — 17 December. Find out more here

Text: Samuel Goff

Top portraits courtesy of the Prigov estate

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