Dmitri Prigov

5 November 1940, Moscow—16 July 2007, Moscow

Dmitri Prigov, who died in 2007, is esteemed equally by Slavic scholars and by artists of various generations, from the founding Moscow Conceptualists to the very youngest. A few days before his death he was to participate in a performance dedicated to him by the ultra-radical group Voina (War), whose members were arrested after the action in St. Petersburg.

Prigov himself had been thrown into a psychiatric clinic in 1986 for a street performance. He pasted up absurdist messages on street lamp posts addressed to his fellow citizens and signed “Dmitri Alexandrovich,” his artistic pseudonym.

Prigov started out as an artist, elaborating the ideas of Sots Art in the early 1970s with his fellow students at the Stroganov School, including Leonid Sokov and Boris Orlov. But he soon discovered that in the Russian literature-centric context, it is much more important to be a poet than an artist. After a while, Prigov returned, of course, to visual practices. It must be understood that the genre definitions of “poet,” “painter” or “graphic artist” basically do not apply to him—the forms flow into one an other in his art; the writer Victor Erofeyev described his activity as “Prigov as a work of art.”  One day Prigov announced that he had to write 24,000 poems, “a poem for every month of the last two thousand years.” Researchers have not yet agreed on how much more Prigov wrote than required by his plan, which resembles a medieval monk’s vow. Dmitri Alexandrovich approached his work in visual arts with the same stubborn diligence, having chosen to emulate the workaholic Dali rather than the idler Duchamp.

“For the Poor Cleaning Woman” is one of the “phantom installations,” a series of several hundred drawings. According to Prigov, they “reveal an ideal, heavenly world of the existence of angel’s bodies in numerous installations—that is the virtual country with its pure inhabitants.” These are projects not intended for immediate realization in real space, even though for the most part they do not provide any particular difficulties in execution. However, it is hard to imagine a museum that would want to create the entire cycle, just as there are not many people in this world who could read all 36,000 poems that Dmitri Alexandrovich actually wrote.

The protagonists of the “phantom installations” that appear throughout the entire cycle are The Cleaning Woman and the Plumber. On one hand, these characters bear a metaphorical burden—their task is paradoxically spiritual, to cleanse the world of dirt and filth. On the other hand, this social choice goes back to Nikolai Gogol’s call to forget the powerful of the world and pay attention to the “little people.”  Let us recall that the teaching of the great nineteenth-century Russian writer had an enormous influence on the “Communal Series” of Ilya Kabakov, Prigov’s friend and colleague. Prigov’s work is imbued with direct metaphysics, the Cleaning Woman is on her knees before an enormous eye, which can be interpreted as the unsleeping eye of the totalitarian state (in a variant with similar composition, the Cleaning Woman beseeches the imperial double-headed eagle). Another way of understanding this metaphor is that it is the Eye of God; in the text Prigov says this Installation is a “mystery that is performed by the concentrated contemplative efforts of the Cleaning Woman.”

For all its metaphysical saturation, many of Prigov’s works in this series are a kind of “art about art.” For example, “Black Square” is an open window giving on to a view of the black emptiness beyond a wall. This “open picture” also depicts a real painting, with approach to it blocked off, as in a museum.

That is to say, we will never enter that metaphysical space. Here Prigov recalls the discussions of the 1960s and 1970s in the nonconformist circle about Malevich, his metaphysics, and the inhumanity of his Suprematist spaces.  In great part, the result of these discussions is Vladimir Veisberg’s geometrical reality vanishing into a white haze or the spatial and color mysteries of the early works of Bulatov and Vassiliev.  Prigov himself was not distant from similar tendencies. There is a line in one of his poems: “However, at least we can live in a square. Ah, and where don’t people live nowadays.” Here and in the works on the cusp of the 1980s and 1990s, Prigov appeared as the metaphysical analytic, giving us a compendium of the ended era, its arguments and hopes. He even knew the way to move painlessly into the new world. Most of his installations are a closed theater proscenium that the viewer can never enter. But in his installation “Sky,” we are invited to take a sip of wine from the glass for the road and independently start climbing up the rope dangling from a black hatch in the ceiling. There is nothing to fear anymore; everything that had been complicated is now simple. You just have to make a real effort.

Andrei Kovalev