“Come on, say ‘Russia’. Ru-ssi-a. Come on, say ‘Russia,’” Dmitri Prigov urges to a cat. Needless to say, the cat never does say ‘Russia’ and the exercise is absurd and defeatist, if performed with a striking earnestness. As Prigov, a poet, artist and leader of Moscow Conceptualism enunciates ‘Russia’ over and over, nagging the cat that tries to liberate itself from his embrace, ‘Russia’ dissolves into syllables, vowels and consonants until its meaning is lost completely. There is a tension here between language as arbiter of order and the paradoxical dissolution of this very order in Prigov’s performance. ‘Russia,’ a 2004 media-opera, like much of Prigov’s work that spans drawing, installation, performance, poetry and sculpture tests the limits of language and meaning, while exploring the complex legacy of Russia’s socialist project and its eventual unravelling.
Concluding what has been a year of exhibitions commemorating the centenary of the Russian Revolution, ‘Dmitri Prigov: Theatre of Revolutionary Action’ at Calvert 22 casts a glance at Russia’s socialist past from the other side, so to speak. Focusing primarily on work produced after the fall of the Soviet Union, the exhibition nevertheless covers most strands of Prigov’s genre-defying practice, which emerged in the unofficial artistic circles of Moscow. From ventures into concrete poetry in ‘Stikhogramms’ of the 1970s, to the operatic performances of the late 90s and early 2000s, Prigov’s practice is brimming with irony and dark humour, a characteristic that much art with a lived experience of socialism shares.
Dominating the upstairs space is an installation, in which two broomsticks support the crumbling ceiling while a black blob inscribed with the word ‘skies’ is about to engulf the viewer from below. Red is leaking from the cracks in the white ceiling, forming two pools on the floor. Red, black and white, colours associated with Malevich’s Suprematism and early Soviet art, design and propaganda, form a recurring colour palette within Prigov’s installations and sketches. But where the black of Malevich’s abstract compositions is geometrically contained, controlled, its energy channeled, the formless blobs and pools in Prigov’s work are uncontrollable apparitions – eruptions of the suppressed.
It is the paradoxical co-existence of references and interpretations, where both and neither can be true at the same time, that is characteristic of Prigov’s practice in particular and of Moscow Conceptualism more generally. In ‘Cleaning Woman and the Angels’ the cleaning lady’s kneeling pose could be one of defeat or of apotheosis. Every work is already internally contradictory, which throws meaning into flux, betrays and sabotages all possible interpretations, and compromises the authority of the artist. But as the Moscow Conceptualism scholar Daniil Leiderman suggested in the accompanying lecture programme, to consider this an example of post-modern irony would be to put Prigov in a position that is too fixed. Identification and distancing may be in constant play in Prigov’s works but both are earnest. Without earnestness Prigov’s many betrayals would be meaningless.