This is one of five works in Tate’s collection from a much larger group of Little Coffins (Grobiki), the title that Dmitri Prigov, a poet as well as an artist, gave to a collection of paper ‘books’ that he composed from his discarded poems. Typed on a whole sheet of paper or on thin strips, the poems were gathered together into packages, placed under a hand-typed cover and stapled on all sides so that they could no longer be read. Prigov produced an unspecified amount of these works – although the total number is in the thousands – in 1977 and in the mid-1980s. Some of the Little Coffins have been lost and not all of them can be dated. In most cases the title of the piece is a description of its contents. The letters ‘ABC’ are in the title of two of the works in Tate’s collection (Coffin for the Fifty First Discarded ABC, Tate T14439, and Coffin for the Fifty Fourth Discarded ABC, Tate T14440), and this refers to a series of conceptual texts that Prigov began to produce in 1980.
In the 1970s and 1980s Prigov was one of the core group of first-generation nonconformist artists in Soviet Russia. He was a pioneer of Russian performance art and a cult figure in Moscow’s underground art community. Although trained as a sculptor, he was also a prolific poet, novelist and playwright. The intricate relationship between image and text that is a key feature of Moscow conceptualism is especially prevalent in Prigov’s work. He referred to himself as ‘a worker, a labourer … both in the literary realm and that of visual art, on the border between them’, and explained: ‘In my works I attempt to unite these two realms’ (quoted in Günter Hirt and Sascha Wonders, ‘Dmitri A. Prigov: Textual Manipulator’, in Degot 2008, p.142). Prior to the increased openness and transparency in Russian institutions resulting from the policy of glasnost (openness) in the late 1980s, Prigov’s poems were circulated as samizdat – hand-produced copies of censored publications passed secretly from reader to reader. From 1971 he also gave ‘performance-readings’ at unofficial exhibitions held in the private apartments and studios of artists including Ilya Kabakov and Andrei Monastyrski. In 1986, after his performances came to the attention of the Russian security services, the KGB, Prigov was briefly sectioned in a psychiatric hospital. A vocal campaign by artists and literary figures both in the Soviet Union and abroad secured his release. In 1988 Prigov held his first personal exhibition jointly with Boris Orlov in Chicago. The following year his work began to be officially published and exhibited in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Prigov lived and worked between London and Moscow until his death in 2007.
The ephemeral appearance of the Little Coffins, as well as the large number produced for the series, parody the exuberant textual excessiveness of samizdat culture, a critical move made explicit by the concealment of the texts in their staple-sealed coffins. When Prigov began to produce this collection in the second half of the 1970s, the works suggested the burial of Russian culture by Soviet censorship, while after the start of perestroika (literally, renovation from within) in the mid-1980s they came to stand for the burial of Soviet culture by President Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalisations. The transformation of Prigov’s manuscripts and typewritten texts into art objects is a defining characteristic of his practice, reflecting his dual role as an artist and a poet. After perestroika the second life of Prigov’s poems as artworks also commented on their higher exchange value following the entry of the Soviet Union into a globalised art market. The Little Coffins can be displayed unframed on the wall or in a case.
Alla Rosenfeld and Norton T. Dodge (eds.), Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience, 1956–1986, New York 1995.
Ekaterina Degot (ed.), Citizens! Please Mind Yourselves!, exhibition catalogue, Moscow Museum of Modern Art 2008, reproduced pp.216–7.
Kirill Svetlyakov (ed.), Dmitri Prigov: From Renaissance to Conceptualism and Beyond, exhibition catalogue, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow 2014.
Julia Tatiana Bailey and Antonio Geusa
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