Dmitry Prigov 1940-2007
A Russian poet and performance artist whose work was respected in the west.
Published: July 27, 2007 (Issue # 1292)
MOSCOW — Dmitry Prigov, a prolific and influential Russian poet and artist who at one point was incarcerated in a Soviet psychiatric hospital as punishment for his work, died on July 16. He was 66.
His death was reported by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, which said he had collapsed in the Moscow subway earlier this month after a severe heart attack.
Prigov’s creative expression took many forms. He said in 2005 that he had written nearly 36,000 poems. He also wrote plays and essays, created drawings, installations and video art, acted in films, staged performance art and performed music.
For years his verse circulated in the Soviet Union as samizdat, officially banned literature that was passed furtively hand to hand. Only in 1990, during the last stages of the Communist era, was a collection of his verse officially published in his country. His work had been published extensively abroad in ImigrI publications and Slavic studies journals.
Trained as a sculptor at the Stroganov Art Institute in Moscow, he began writing poetry in the 1950s, then worked as a municipal architect and created sculptures for parks. In the 1970s he grew close to artists in the Soviet underground and became a leader in Moscow’s conceptual art movement, combining his poetry with performance. He was also known for writing verse on cans.
“In America there was Pop Art,” said Vitaly Patsyukov, a Russian art historian and friend of Prigov’s. “Here it was ideology as a manifestation of mass consciousness.” Patsyukov added, “He turned words into objects.”
At the time he was producing work considered subversive by the authorities, Prigov was stopped while walking down a street in 1986, he recalled, and was whisked away by the KGB and then to a Soviet psychiatric hospital. His stay was brief, however, after prominent poets like Bella Akhmadulina lodged protests.
In the West he was probably best known for his performance art. Rita Lipson, a senior lecturer in Russian literature and culture at Yale University, recalled Prigov’s performance there. His work, she said, was “a form of social protest.” One of his most widely known cycles of verse is about a Soviet policeman.
Prigov, who was born in Moscow, is survived by his wife, Nadezhda, a son, Andrei, and a grandson, Georgy.
Patsyukov said Prigov had been looking forward to participating in a conference on religion and art. Contemporary artists and the Russian Orthodox Church have been increasingly at odds in Russia, and Prigov had hoped to reconcile them, Patsyukov said.
Viktor Yerofeyev, a novelist and essayist with whom Prigov worked closely, said Prigov had been “a brilliant poet and created his own distinct poetic world.”
“In the 20th century,” he said, “the poetic word was torn away from life, but Dmitry Alexandrovich brought poetry closer to life, as another great poet, Pushkin, did in his day.”