This is one of four works in Tate’s collection from a larger group entitled Drawings on Newspapers in which the artist has drawn with ballpoint pen on a page of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The series was produced in the late 1980s while the artist was still living in Moscow, prior to his move to London in 1991. The title words of each work appear in the centre of the newspaper page as negative space surrounded by cross-hatching in red or black ink. Prigov often used hatching and cross-hatching techniques as well as the addition of tape to create dense textures around or on top of words or images. The addition of these auras or haloes appears to give them a mystical or spiritual force, although Prigov rejected such allusions, stating that ‘“the sacral stuff”, “the spiritual stuff” – we used these exclusively as derogatory ironic terms’ (quoted in Svetlyakov 2014, p.9). To make Khozraschet 1989 (Tate T14449) and Setting Up 1989 (Tate T14450) Prigov also added acrylic paint, creating a third layer on top of the pen and newsprint. Prigov used a similar process to produce the series Drawings on Reproductions: Avant-Garde c.2004 (see Tate T14432–T14437) and Scotch Tape Drawings 1998–2002 (see Tate Tate T14443–T14446). As with many of the artist’s pieces, the Drawings on Newspapers are displayed unframed to retain an informal quality. The Drawings on Newspapers can be displayed in groups or individually, although all three parts of the triptych Redness Will Save the World c.1987–9 (Tate T14447) must be displayed together.
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 which were 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 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.
Prigov began to produce his Drawings on Newspapers in 1987, two years after Mikhail Gorbachev had been elected General Secretary of the Communist Party. At the time Gorbachev’s program of economic reforms known as perestroika (literally, renovation from within) was in full force, bringing radical economic and social changes to the Soviet Union. Pravda, which translates as ‘truth’, was notorious in Russia as the conveyor to the masses of the ‘true word’ of the Soviet government and the official version of events that could not be questioned. The words overlaid on the newspaper surface were all buzzwords used in official proclamations of the perestroika to signal change. Here Prigov destroys the words of the state propaganda machine by appropriating them as backgrounds for his own text. According to art historian Kirill Svetlyakov, Prigov superimposes his written word on the printed words of the Communist Party in an attempt to break free from the ‘dictatorship of words’ and to embrace the process of emancipation (Svetlyakov in State Tretyakov Gallery 2014, p.74).
The title of the triptych Redness Will Save the World is a satirical play on words. The phrase is a reference to the famous line ‘beauty will save the world’, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1869 novel The Idiot. Here the Russian word for ‘beauty’ (‘krasota’) is substituted for ‘redness’ (‘krasnota’), words that sound similar in Russian. The colour red had particular political significance in Russia, as the colour of the Soviet flag and of communism. This symbolism is enhanced in the triptych by the use of red ink. The alteration of the words suggests a slogan advocating world revolution, similar to those that were popular in the years immediately following the formation of the Soviet Union. However, in the era of perestroika, as communism was increasingly exposed as a fading ideology, these words appeared to ridicule earlier ambitions.
The three other Drawings on Newspapers all use black ink and a ballpoint pen. They also share a common theme, using terms that described Soviet economics and the management of personal finances in the Union. Acceleration (Tate T14448) makes use of a word often employed by the Soviet government following the reforms of perestroika to acclaim its success and resulting economic growth. Khozraschet is a portmanteau formed from the words khozyaystvenniy raschet. This literally translates as ‘economic accounting’, a term used at a state level to refer to the economic policies of the Soviet Union. However, among the Soviet people this term was appropriated to refer to extra (often black market) sources of income, which many citizens relied on to supplement the salaries they received from official employment. On top of the ink drawing Prigov has painted three exclamation marks in a circle in red acrylic paint, resembling a proofreading symbol used to question the validity of the text. A similar play on words appears in Setting Up, a literal translation of the Russian obustroystvo which means the ‘provision of the necessary facilities’. Again this word is taken from the field of economics and was often used in the Soviet vernacular to refer to someone starting a new business or a new life. Prigov has again added red acrylic paint to superimpose a proofreading symbol in a circle that may suggest errors that should be removed from the text, further acknowledging his mistrust of the printed words of the Soviet state.
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.222–3.
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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