Dmitri Prigov: “great Russian poet”, postmodern artist, incarcerated “madman”

From self-styled “great Russian poet” to conceptual performance artist, Dmitri Prigov (1940 – 2007) was a nonconformist Renaissance man who survived institutionalisation in a Soviet asylum and died on the day he was due to collaborate with the Voina collective, enfants terribles of the new generation. As an exhibition in Venice showcases his work this summer, Yelena Fedotova explores why Prigov is a rare Soviet-era artist whose reputation is continuing to grow.

Yelena Fedotova
8 July 2011

On 1 June, a solo exhibition of Dmitri Prigov’s work, organised by the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, opened at the Venetian Ca’ Foscari Palazzo, the local university's current exhibition hall. Prigov was not only a visual artist but also a poet, a performance artist, and one of the key figures of the non-conformist and dissident generation of the 1970s forming part of the USSR’s artistic underground. The quirky interior of the Venetian palazzo has proved a surprisingly conducive setting for the Russian artist's work.

The exhibition is titled Dmitri Prigov: Dmitri Prigov, which may sound confusing, but captures the fact that the artist Dmitri Prigov devoted his entire life to “Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov”, the art project. In a concession to the Western audience, the difficult patronymic “Aleksandrovich” was removed from the title, somewhat distorting the essence of the character Prigov had invented – in the Russian language, using a poet's full name marks him out as a “classic”.

Prigov carefully cultivated the persona of "Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov". (Photo: prigov.com)

Prigov quite consciously worked for eternity, creating his CV in the image of a particular character – a great Russian poet. In one of his articles, which can also be regarded as being part of his performance art canon, he even demanded to be recognised as Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin, since to Russians “Pushkin is our everything” and “Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov” also aspired to be “our everything.”

In Japan I would be Catullus
And in Rome I would be Hokusai
And in Russia I am the same guy
Who would have been
Catallus in Japan
And in Rome, Hokusai.

Dmitri Prigov, translation by Philip Metres

The act of including himself in the pantheon of the great was part of his pose. Many people disliked him on account of this, most were capable of appreciating his postmodern playing with the classics. The classics are also at the centre of an installation in one of the rooms at the Ca' Foscari. Above a set of black, hole-like doors are suspended black clouds featuring the names Malevich, Leonardo, and Rembrandt.  In front of each door is a chair.  The whole set-up seems like a tongue-in-cheek invitation to the viewer to enter into a dialogue with the geniuses, as if saying: take a seat, have a chat, but you won't understand anything anyway.

How can you distinguish a madman or a
dissident from an artist? One story has Prigov, on
his release from a mental asylum, replying that
the only difference is the artist is famous.
(Photo: prigov.com)

Prigov was someone whose energy radiated into many areas of art, drawing as many creative people as possible into its orbit. In terms of productivity, he was a true Renaissance man, setting himself the personal goal of a certain number of poems to be written and drawings to be made each day, or to be precise, each night. Prigov's legacy includes over 35,000 poems and a number of prints and installations. There's certainly enough material for several major exhibitions. A few years ago Prigov had a big retrospective exhibition in Moscow, which turned out to be very impressive. However, the exhibition at the Ca' Foscari is quite extraordinary, mainly because in Venice the theatrical element that is present in all of Prigov's work matches the theatricality of the exhibition site itself.

Immediately on entering, visitors find themselves in a dark palazzo gallery, divided by curtains on to which video films are projected. Passing through the curtains, you have the feeling that you are entering and becoming immersed in Prigov’s world, making you feel like Alice in the world behind the looking glass. The first video shows Prigov, dressed in a black monk's habit and mumbling “Once, once, once...”, while in the second Prigov's son Andrei, also an artist, addresses his father saying: “Father, take this cup away from me...” To the sound of this mumbling you enter the third room, where the actual installation begins with an enormous eye painted on the wall, and a glass filled with some red liquid standing next to it on the floor – apparently the same cup as the one the son was asking his father to take away. But while this glass may clearly be interpreted as a symbol of great significance, an uninitiated visitor may well “mistake” this mystical cup for an ordinary glass of wine. Prigov has an uncanny ability to turn a trivial profane object into something sacred.

Prigov's "Bulatov" from his "Bestiary" series
(1996), part of the exhibition in Venice.
© The State Hermitage Museum,
St. Petersburg / Yuri Molodkovets

Some might find this degree of intentional theatricality, staging an entire spectacle, rather anachronistic. They might have a point. But it does not fail to impress, especially if you understand the nature of this theatricality, whose roots go back to Prigov's early days in the 1970s.

Prigov's poetry and visual art was a spoof of Soviet power, revealing its ritualistic and religious nature. His plays depict life in the Soviet Union as something phantasmagorical, and much of this absurdity, combined with a sense of mystical horror, also apparent in his visual work, survived the collapse of the USSR.  His heroes – individuals doing the most banal jobs – possessed truly mystical strength.  For example sportsmen, who in the Soviet Union were seen as carrying out a special mission as conduits of the worldwide victory of socialism, are in Prigov’s work equated with angels. One of his most striking characters – the Policeman – a kind of ideal embodiment or avatar of the Soviet power structure, was possessed of truly god-given strength, in fact, he was probably a Soviet god, perhaps not the greatest but certainly a mighty one.

Женщина в метро меня лягнула
Ну, пихаться - там куда ни шло
Здесь же она явно перегнула
Палку, и все дело перешло
В ранг ненужно личных отношений
Я, естественно, в ответ лягнул
Но и тут же попросил прощенья -
Просто я как личность выше был

So a woman kicked me in the subway
Well, a little jostling's not so bad
This woman, though, did it six ways from Sunday
She went too far, and so the whole thing had
To sink to the level of the unnecessarily
Personal - of course I kicked her back
But right away I told her I was sorry -
You see, I as a person am above all that

Dmitri Prigov, translation by LanguageHat

The nature of power and personal responsibility, as well as the difficulty of choice, were key themes for Prigov and these did not lose their relevance after the fall of Soviet power. The enormous black eye on the wall is, of course, the eye of the “Big Brother”, who is constantly watching you. At the same time, it is a kind of celestial eye and a third eye, a symbol of the superego. In a word, Prigov's work inundates you with endless interpretations piled up on top of one another, creating a multi-storeyed sensual edifice. 

Dmitri Prigov, Korruptsia / Corruption, 1987,
Ink on newspaper. Private Collection
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2008,
© Krings-Ernst Galerie

Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov cultivated the image of a madman – he would read his poetry in the manner of a shamanistic ritual, while in his most impressive performances he howled like a kikimora, a character from Russian folklore with a scary voice, deep in a bog. Unfortunately, in real life Prigov did not manage to escape the lunatic asylum. Under close surveillance by the Soviet law enforcement agencies throughout the 1970s, he ended up in a mental hospital in the mid-1980s, at a time when people were supposedly no longer put away for being freethinking. Yet Prigov ended up locked in a psikhushka as a result of a performance. He had posted on trees, lamp posts and bus stops quotations from the New Testament in the form of announcements. Legend has it that as Prigov was being released, he was asked how an artist could be distinguished from a madman or a dissident. He replied that an artist really was both a madman and a dissident and that the only way you could tell whether someone was an artist was that he was famous. And indeed, how could anyone have been a poet and conceptual artist in the USSR without being a madman?

Prigov as policeman

Prigov inhabiting one of his most enduring
charactures, the Policeman - a kind of ideal
embodiment or avatar of the Soviet power

While maintaining familial ties with artists representing “SotsArt”, with their ironic commentary on the organization of the Soviet universe, Prigov in fact belonged to the Moscow conceptualist circle. As a member of this extremely closed society -- virtually a sect -- he would spend a lot of time in Ilya Kabakov's workshop and he attended meetings at the flat of Andrei Monastyrski, the other father of Russian conceptualism, a place where poets used to gather and where readings for the initiated were held. One of the exhibits at Ca' Foscari, the print series “Bestiary”, includes portraits of many of his personal friends as well as his “eternal interlocutors” – poets and artists of the past, every one of them a beast or perhaps even a demon as splendid as Prigov himself. 

In a remarkable twist, Prigov has become part of contemporary history, coming full circle in his career. On the day he died, 16 July 2007, he was due to take part in a performance by the Voina art collective, the most scandal-prone group of young Russian performance artists, who in 2010 organised the most notorious event of recent years: they had drawn a 62-metre-long penis on the Liteiny Bridge pointing directly at the FSB building in St. Petersburg.  Prigov, sitting in a wardrobe, was to be carried by members of Voina up to the 22nd floor of a high-rise building: the artist was to play the role of the “man-sitting-in-the-wardrobe”, an underground resident (incidentally, Ilya Kabakov also had a character like this), in order to receive his due reward and ascend to the “heights” for his suffering. And so it happened, that by descending to his grave, Prigov gave his blessing to the young action artists, thus remaining among us forever.

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