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Dmitri Prigov: Haunted Spaces

Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones.
—Bertolt Brecht

In the 1970s Dmitry Prigov became known in Moscow’s literary and artistic milieus mainly as a poet. However, from the beginning of his career he demonstrated a somewhat unusual type of poetic behavior—unusual for the time in which he started his poetic readings and the public he was appealing to. These readings were actually performances, situated in a still-not-well-explored zone between literature and visual art. The texts of the poems that Prigov was reading were important in their own right—witty and precise in their diagnosis of the cultural situation in the Soviet Union at that time. But for Prigov, the figure of the poet was much more important than his poetic production. The poetry that the poet writes is only one of the components of his poetic image. The poet is also looked at by the public—not just heard or read. He is not completely hidden by his poems but rather visible, present as a body. And his public behavior and political stance are also looked at and taken into consideration. What people see when they look at the poet also forms their perception of his writings. During his performances Prigov embodied the figure of the poet—playing it out in front of the public, while at the same time creating a certain effect of estrangement, of inner distance between this role and his own “profane,” merely human mode of existence. If Prigov’s performances had been filmed in the 1970s they would be regarded today as belonging to the domain of contemporary visual art. Unfortunately, at that time, poetic performance was not seen as an art practice in its own right because reading and writing poetry was not seen as a unified body of practice. But Prigov saw poetry precisely in this way. His cans, described as containing words and poems, remind one of Manzoni’s cans labeled merde d’artista, so that poems become equivalent to other secretions of the human body.

This shift of attention from the production of poetry towards the figure—the body—of the poet was of course not accidental for Prigov. Thanks to his professional training Prigov was a sculptor. And during Soviet times he made his living by producing monumental sculptures in public spaces. This kind of activity unavoidably leads to the following question: How might one become a sculpture, a monument—instead of merely producing sculptures and monuments? Undoubtedly, poetic recital is the most obvious form of self-sculpturization, or self-monumentalization: the poet positions himself in the center of a public space and is seen by the people from all sides, as Prigov notes in one of his poems. In his poetic texts, Prigov often refers to the monument of Pushkin in Moscow. Nor could he overlook the monument to Mayakovsky in one of the squares of central Moscow where poetic readings took place during the 1950s and ’60s. The public success of poetry readings by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, or Bella Akhmadulina that took place in the late 1950s and ’60s brought the figures of contemporary poets into the public arena. However, in the 1970s the voice and figure of the poet were seen as less relevant than the poetic texts. Poets such as Joseph Brodsky in particular created an abstruse type of poetry that had to be read from the page to be really enjoyed. Only a reader—and not a listener—could play with the many levels of meaning that this poetry suggested.

In fact, Prigov saw the written word more as an image than as a text in the traditional sense of this word. He experimented with typography and used written words as elements of a textual image that was itself mute. Following Guillaume Apollinaire or also, perhaps, Ilia Zdanevich, he used typography to create image-poems. At the same time, for Prigov it was obvious that Pushkin and Mayakovsky were monumentalized primarily not because of the quality of their poetry (there were many good, deceased Russian poets who received no posthumous monuments) but because of their propensity to self-monumentalization—to exposing themselves as public figures. Prigov constantly compared himself to Pushkin—or rather he compared his own public figure to Pushkin’s. Thus, one can say that for Prigov, poetry was from the beginning inscribed into the field of visual art—and into the strategies of self-sculpturization or self-monumentalization that were designed to create the fullest possible visibility of his own figure in public space. Indeed, the scene of the perfect visibility is a recurring topos of Prigov’s poetry.

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