- Versographies by Dmitri PrigovIntroduction
Artists’ books are nothing new, nor is the use of text as visual performance. From Apollinaire’s Calligrams to Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky’s gallery installations, the West has examined and reexamined literary culture as a visual object through publishing houses, performances pieces, and galleries. Perhaps at the head of this list of craftsmen and poets belongs Dmitri Prigov, Russian author, artist, and purveyor of the perplexing. Prigov began his career as a sculptor, quickly adopting text as an essential medium to his work. An early poet and public art promoter, Prigov belongs to that generation of Russian artists who emerged in the 1970s to challenge the restrictive environment of the late Soviet period. Prigov’s printable work, like that of many of his contemporaries, was disseminated through underground and overseas publishing; it continued to flourish abroad after perestroika and into the twenty-first century.
The actual arc of Prigov’s career is difficult to summarize. His performances vary in tone and content, and his sculptural and visual pieces gamble with diverse aesthetics, resisting any trademark or signature element. He has glutted galleries across the West with massive piles of newspapers, toyed with artists’ names and religious imagery in pen-and-ink sketches, even performed Pushkin’s [End Page 183] Evgenii Onegin as Muslim, Buddhist, Orthodox, and Gregorian liturgical chants. Prigov broke the apparent boundary between an individual artist’s capabilities and the production models of late-industrial capitalism by producing twenty-four thousand poems in the span of one year; his complete collected works are estimated at forty thousand.1 At the time of his death in 2007 the Moscow Times reported that Prigov had plans to “ride a wardrobe up 22 flights of stairs at Moscow State University, reading poems all the way to the top.”2
Prigov recognized no line between biography and performance. He fully embraced the erasure of boundaries between person and creation, life and work. In her study of poetry and romanticism, Svetlana Boym describes a term used by the Russian symbolists to denote the extent to which the poetic persona dictated personal action and presence: zhiznotvorchestvo in Russian, life-creation in English. As Boym describes it, life-creation is “usually understood as an imposition of an ideal or idealized grid upon everyday behavior in an attempt to achieve a perfect aesthetic organization of life.”3 Prigov sought out this collapse, arguing that art is
more than [a mask]. An image is a kind of existence. I must, first, understand it, then enter into it and live. A mask, generally speaking, implies that another person exists behind it. But I, as a person, cannot exist. . . . I am by way of virtual expression. . . . I am the play. I am the structure.4
Prigov bound himself intimately to his work, using that work to explore the problem of self-expression in a world where the same language used to express beauty could be contorted to meet the needs of the state. For Prigov, as for many of his generation, the bridge between meaning and language was collapsing, leaving the speaker to look out over a precipice: “I see this fundamental conflict—of speech devoid of meaning and of meaning not given form by speech—in everything which surrounds me, and above all in myself.”5 Just as this conflict saturated his environment, so too does it saturate his work, where the conflict is played out repeatedly through a variety of media and methods. [End Page 184]
Prigov’s most famous works are his installations and performances. They are works so public that they have perhaps overshadowed the print pieces I would like to present to you here. The small volume of art poems from which these texts were translated was published in 1985 through A-Я, a Parisian group dedicated to promoting contemporary and conceptual Russian artists. This collection itself is, at first, somewhat unassuming. These are poems, but they are also images, created on a typewriter with a keen sense of text as visual artifact. They are tactile, performative, and deeply aware of the process of creation. These works are necessarily created “by hand,” though equally dependent on...