This work in ink on paper is from a larger group of works known as Poetrygrams (in Russian stikhogrammi), the name Dmitri Prigov gave to his visual poems. Each poetrygram is a single piece of paper bearing hand-typed text that functions as both a visual and literary work. Some of the pieces have been additionally marked up with correction fluid and ink from a felt-tip marker or ballpoint pen. In each poetrygram the typed words and lines of text are repeated numerous times and organised so as to create a visual image and plays on words, many of which are alluded to in the works’ titles. Prigov also regarded the process of their production, which involved the repetitious, monotonous typing of words and phrases on a typewriter, as a performance. He started making his poetrygrams in Moscow in 1975, taking inspiration from the futurist poems of Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930) and his concern with breaking the rules of the printed page. The exact number and date of Prigov’s poetrygrams is unknown, with most made in the second half of the 1970s and in the 1980s.
Around this time 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 his 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 (freedom of speech) in the late 1980s, Prigov’s poems were circulated as samizdat – hand-produced copies of censored publications which 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, and the following year his work began to be officially published and exhibited in Russia.
The poetrygrams visually reference the typewritten texts of samizdat and have their aesthetic precedents in the concrete poetry movement of the 1950s and 1960s. However, Prigov’s visual poems would be better described as post-concrete as they subvert the intentions of those earlier works. Whereas in concrete poetry text is arranged in grid-like patterns to single out words as units of meaning, the poetrygrams consist of repeated lines of text that are often disrupted to such an extent that in places the words become illegible. The text of the poetrygrams incorporates political slogans, acronyms and clichés that were a common feature of Soviet life. The repetition of these phrases is suggestive of the monotony and prevalence of state rhetoric, so much so that it takes on its own architecture.
Tate’s collection includes a group of sixteen poetrygrams, a selection from the larger series. They can be displayed individually or in groups. A number of them appropriate popular patriotic songs and poems from the Soviet Union. The text in Wherever the Motherland May Send Us 1978 (Tate T14416) is written in transliterated form from the original Cyrillic and reads: ‘Wherever the Motherland may send us / Proudly, we’ll keep our word’. The first line is from poet Mikhail Isakovsky’s popular war song of 1948 entitled Song of the Labour Reserves. The words in Stalin Raised Us for the Joy of the People... (Tate T14417) are from the national anthem of the Soviet Union between 1944 and 1977. The full sentence from which the quote is taken reads: ‘Stalin raised for the joy of the people / He inspired us to labour and heroic deeds’. In 1977 the opening three words were removed and substituted with ‘immortal ideas of Communism’, as part of the long process of ‘de-Stalinisation’ in the Soviet Union in the years after the leader’s death in 1953. The works He Who Does Not Sing with Us Is Against Us... (Tate T14425) and And Life is Good and To Live is Good… (Tate T14426), were inspired by the revolutionary poems of Vladimir Mayakovsky. The first is a slogan based on his writings, and reads ‘He who does not sing with us is against us. He will be destroyed’. And Life is Good and To Live is Good… contains two verses from Good! The Revolution Poem, written by Mayakovsky in 1927. They translate as: ‘And life is good and to live is good, and it is even better for us fully charged and ready to fight’.
Common political slogans also appear in the poetrygrams. Our Cause is Just – We Will Win! (Tate T14418) takes its title from a phrase from a 1941 speech by Vyacelav Molotov, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs. The words were engraved around Stalin’s portrait on medals which were conferred to Soviet soldiers who had fought in Germany during the Second World War. To these words Prigov has added the phrase, ‘Hooray! Comrades!’. In the centre of the poetrygram Prigov’s signature is repeated three times next to the titles Secretary of the Communist Party, Secretary of the VLKSM (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) and Chairman of the Trade Union. A Spectre is Haunting Europe… (Tate T14422) consists of two sentences which translate as: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe, comrades, the spectre of Communism’ and ‘Dark and sad spectre, you roam here until morning’. The first is the opening sentence of the Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in 1848, to which Prigov added the word ‘comrades’. The second sentence in the poetrygram is of Prigov’s invention and loosely refers to the ghost of the king in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The work Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin... (Tate T14427) is constructed through the repetition of the names of the principal ideologues and leaders of the Communist Party given in its title. The repetition of these four names is disrupted in the fortieth line where the names are muddled to read ‘Karl Engels, Friedrich Lenin, Vladimir Marx, Joseph Stalin’, and in the fiftieth where all the surnames are changed to Marx.
Other works refer to the state-controlled media through which written propaganda was disseminated to the Soviet people, such as Party Life (Tate T14419). The words Partiinaia zhizn (‘Party Life’) are repeated on the original headed notepaper of the Soviet magazine of the same name. Published fortnightly from 1919 to 1990, Partiinaia zhizn was an official publication of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and at its peak in the 1970s had a circulation of over one million copies. In the top left corner Prigov has twice amended the date of the letter with a blue ballpoint pen. ‘12 Feb 1977’ and ‘13 Feb 1977’ are crossed out, leaving ‘14 Feb 1977’. The Fifth of May Has Long and Deservedly Counted Among the Stellar Days... (Tate T14424) refers to a long text about the foundation and the importance of Pravda (which translates as truth), the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1912 to 1991. The text was first published on 5 May 1912 to coincide with Karl Marx’s birthday (22 April) according to the Russian calendar in use at that time. The biblical rhetoric of the Russian Orthodox Church provides further source material for the poetrygrams. Trampling down death by death… (Tate T14421) is titled according to a quote from the Easter mass spoken by priests celebrating Jesus’s defeat of death through his resurrection, while And Then They Will All Rise from Their Graves and Summon Us All to Account (Tate T14430) is an apocalyptic reference.
Other poetrygrams contain wordplay with more explicitly nihilistic or insidious allusions. In Nothingness (Tate T14420), the word is repeated in an elaborate pattern. Be Prepared… (Tate T14423) consists of three intersecting sentences which translate as, ‘Be prepared for this idea’, ‘I am not ready for this idea’ and ‘I am ready for this idea’. Please Vacate the Carriages. The Train Goes No Further (Tate T14429) and The Train Goes No Further! Please Vacate the Carriages… (Tate T14428) share the same textual material. In the first, the sentences ‘Please vacate the carriages’ and ‘The train goes no further’ are repeated until they cross and swap position. In the latter, the sentence ‘The train goes no further! Please vacate the carriages!’ gradually alters to become ‘The enemy won’t pass. We won’t step back.’ The triumphant language in Times Heroic In Lived We (Tate T14431) refers to the patriotic slogans that followed Soviet sacrifices in the Second World War. However, the phrase ‘We lived in heroic times. Posterity, you must envy us!’ has been reordered to read ‘Times Heroic in Lived We. Envy Us, Posterity’. As a series the Poetrygrams document the artist’s experience and disruption of the institutional rhetoric of the Soviet Union.
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, Moscow 2008, reproduced pp.241–2, 248–9, 254, 262, 264–5.
Kirill Svetlyakov (ed.), Dmitri Prigov: From Renaissance to Conceptualism and Beyond, exhibition catalogue, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow 2014, reproduced pp.88, 90–1, 93.
Julia Tatiana Bailey and Antonio Geusa
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