In 1986, the writer and artist Dmitri Prigov was arrested for posting ‘Appeals to Citizens’ – parodies of the Soviet regime’s official exhortations to zeal and productivity – on the streets of Moscow. He was briefly detained in a psychiatric hospital before student demonstrations and an international outcry secured his release. Twenty-six years later, and five years after Prigov’s death, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg inaugurated the newest extension to its contemporary wing – a gleaming complex of galleries across the square from the Winter Palace – with an exhibition by this erstwhile dissident and member of the Sots Art generation (the Postmodern milieu which flowered in the 1970s, characterized by precisely this kind of subversive usurpation of the clichés of Socialist Realism and state propaganda), enshrining him in Russia’s cultural establishment.
The quirky, iconoclastic humour that presumably made Prigov intolerable to the Soviet authorities was evident throughout this assortment of his installations, drawings and collaboratively produced videos. Often, it was the officialdom of the art museum, whether in Russia or further afield, that he targeted – its imposition of structures and strictures – and political subtexts are never hard to discern. The exhibition opened with the room-sized Installation with Artists’ Names, constructed in 2012 after a design sketched by Prigov in the mid-1990s, which will remain on permanent display. It is a pseudo-gallery within the gallery, in which black banners traverse the white floor and walls to form Malevich-style black crosses, with chairs and pointless cordons littering the space. Virtually concealed behind the crosses are blank canvases accompanied by labels resembling oversize speech bubbles: ‘There is Malevich’, ‘There is Rembrandt’, ‘There is Leonardo’, they proclaim – except that there is nothing on the canvases. The museum signs have taken centre stage and their purported objects have all but vanished. This tableau caricatures the art-historical shibboleth of the paradigm shift – Malevich’s iconic Black Cross literally blots out the Old Masters. It also, self-defeatingly, occludes Malevich (an apt metaphor for Rodchenko’s declaration of the ‘end of art’). In a similar installation Leonardo (2012), a sprawling black blot on the floor branded ‘LEONARDO’ has been daintily roped off: the name alone has become an object of pious veneration.
Both installations are posthumous creations based on Prigov’s drawings from the 1990s, Sketches for an installation, in which the black cross more overtly assumes the functional status of a drape or runner. The cartoonish tables and wine glasses that orbit the naively-sketched gallery seem to intimate the inevitable, dreary proximity of the art world’s parties and ‘personalities’ to art per se, which has become a carpet to be walked on, or a series
of names writ large.
In a group of miniature landscape prints reproduced from wall calendars (‘Untitled’, 1990–2000s), Prigov appropriated Socialist Realist imagery just as his writing absorbed its genres and the slogans of ‘Soviet Speak’. Each is a stereotypical rural locus amoenus into which he has drawn a densely hatched cloud containing the name of an icon of the avant-garde – Ilya Chashnik or Wassily Kandinsky or Vladimir Tatlin. In Untitled (Rodchenko), from the mid-1990s, the name hovers above treetops beside the onion domes of a church. Paradigm shifts are again allegorized here, but the import is unclear; has the avant-garde, as betokened by these famous names, been reduced to an ethereal airborne hypothesis, or does it hover as a recriminatory black cloud over the idyll of Socialist Realist naiveté? Perhaps, in the end, both elements speak of a moribund Utopianism.
Prigov seems to have been wary of myth-producing systems of all kinds. In a series of drawings from 1998 titled ‘BESTIARUM’, he conjures a tribe of Gothic-style monsters, each interwoven with floral or Masonic motifs to suggest arcane emblems. Their titles reveal that these are ‘portraits’ of prominent cultural figures, whether the artist Andrei Monastyrsky or theorist Boris Groys (re-imagined as a winged gnome). Prigov’s faux-mythological portraits speak wryly of the tendency of celebrated personae to become distortedly idolized. A similar desire to strip away illusions was at work in the video Triptych (2007), made with composer Iraida Yusupova and artist Alexander Dolgin. Here, the camera surveys a disembodied doll’s head against a background of black fabric. At the end, Prigov’s face – in an expression of profound shock, that of a disillusioned Geppetto or baffled Pygmalion – is revealed (the effect, however, is nothing but comic).
Prigov is best remembered as a poet (his poems numbered around 36,000 at his death and in 1993 he was awarded the Pushkin Prize with Timur Kibirov). Even if the work at the Hermitage could seem too relentlessly an art-about-art, this concise retrospective channelled Prigov’s humour and reminded us of the breadth of his activities. It constituted the culmination of a long process of his cultural canonization (part of a wider recuperation of Sots Art and its nonconformist offshoots), recently reflected in a solo exhibition at the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art (2008) and a display by the Hermitage at the Venice Biennale (2011). Everywhere in this show, however, we saw Prigov pricking the very idea of the canonical figure – and this is perhaps its ultimate irony.