Dmitri Prigov, Composition with Labels, ca. 1995, ballpoint pen on paper, 11 5/8 x 8 1/4".

Dmitri Prigov, Composition with Labels, ca. 1995, ballpoint pen on paper, 11 5/8 x 8 1/4".

Dmitri Prigov

Palazzo Ca’Foscari

Dmitri Prigov, Composition with Labels, ca. 1995, ballpoint pen on paper, 11 5/8 x 8 1/4".

Those familiar with the poetry of Dmitri Alexandrovich Prigov (1940–2007) might be surprised to learn that he was actually educated as a visual artist, and in 1975 was accepted into the prestigious, conformist, and nepotistic Union of Soviet Artists. This unbefitting membership was certainly at odds with Prigov’s sardonic dissident poems and oddball performances, one of which, 1986’s Public Service Appeal, briefly landed him in a mental institution. This (in hindsight) comical episode might have had tragic consequences were it not for the looming political changes leading to the collapse of the Soviet regime.

Curated by Dimitri Ozerkov, the exhibition “Dmitri Prigov: Dmitri Prigov” is a massive effort undertaken by the St. Petersburg State Hermitage Museum’s 20/21 Project for Contemporary Art, in collaboration with the Centro di Alti Studi sulla Cultura e le Arti della Russia and the University Ca’Foscari in Venice, Rem Koolhaas’s Office of Modern Architecture, the Dmitri Prigov Foundation, and the Zurich- and Moscow-based Barbarian Art Gallery. The renovated minimalist quarters of the Palazzo Ca’Foscari house meticulously produced installations based on the artist’s sketches, many incorporating arrangements of chairs, wineglasses, and black cloth—the recurring components of Prigov’s symbolic universe. In some rooms sleek transparent speakers, suspended from the ceiling, were set up to broadcast audio recordings of Prigov reciting his poetry or performing his “media operas,” as well as of classical music from his collection.

Prigov’s realistically rendered but often fantastical drawings and collages (most in ballpoint pen with the occasional use of gouache, watercolor, or acrylic) combine with audio, installations, and video projections to make something like a Gesamtkunstwerk. On stepping into the darkness of the palazzo’s foyer, the viewer is confronted with a series of wall-size apparitions of Prigov’s wizardry. First, there is The Evangelist, 2007, a projection showing a veiled figure thumbing an open tome, the only point of light on his expressive hands, with a many-voiced clatter audible from behind the curtains on which the video is projected. The disembodied voices beckon one to part the curtains and enter the second dark space, an antechamber with a double video projection, again on a set of curtains: Dialogue, 2002, presents a simultaneous reading by Prigov and his son, Andrey; the absurdist verses they sound out as they face each other create the effect of a shouting match. Passing through this set of curtains, we next see In the Garden of Gethsemane, 2000, in which the artist frenziedly chants a variation on Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “May this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26:36–46). Subtitled in English, this video suggests the biblical context that is fully revealed in the next room, where on the other side of the same curtains we witness the poet, come face-to-face with a mural depicting a giant eye with an actual wine-filled glass set on the floor beside it.

Prigov’s protean art brings to mind the work of his older compatriot, the maverick writer/artist Alexei Remizov (1877–1957). Both combined visual art and writing in an integral creative activity. Both fashioned themselves as shamans in their performances, stressing auditory and visual elements in their writing. And both worked obsessively: Remizov producing thousands of drawings for his handmade illustrated albums, Prigov cranking out six or seven poems a day, his poetic legacy eventually comprising more than thirty-five thousand works. Had Remizov been born a few decades later, his mischievous, subversive, unclassifiable work would have been tagged Conceptual. Prigov’s timing was better, and fortunately for him, and us, this immaculately produced commemorative project succeeds brilliantly in bringing together poet and visual artist as a single protean figure under the auspices of Conceptual art.

Julia Friedman