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Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Cultural Labour


Moscow Romantic Conceptualism was a major Soviet underground art movement and the echoes of its influence still manifest themselves in the pacesetting and often rebellious contemporary art of Russia. Developed in the atmosphere of strict ideological conventionality of the 1970s Soviet Union, Moscow conceptualist art served as not only a form of protest but also a means of escape from artistic and personal constraints characteristic of the period.

This series offers an analysis of the most prominent names and artworks of the movement along with a discussion of such concepts as freedom, choice, and courage in a restrictive environment, as well as the ways they are presented through art. The series consists of six chapters focusing on the works of six individual artists who were categorised as part of the Moscow Romantic Conceptualism movement by the art critic and philosopher Boris Groys (1979), and delves into the topics of protest, escapism and reciprocal influences of the artists and social phenomena:

  1. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Cultural Labour

  2. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Art of Heightened Senses

  3. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Riot of Paradigms

  4. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Resurrection of Romanticism.

The Cultural Labour

The possibilities of art, all-encompassing, all-consuming and, just like a solvent, blurring the conventional boundaries and connections of things, mixing concepts and reorganising reality, are demonstrated to the greatest extent in the works of Moscow conceptualists, a group of underground artists deconstructing Soviet ideology in the early 1970s - late 1980s. One of the most active and prolific representatives of the movement was Dmitri Prigov, poet, artist, author of installations and person whose everyday image was inseparable from his creative persona. As art historian and curator Dmitri Ozerkov wrote: any attempt of separation would be doomed to fail as Prigov was purposefully embedding the artistic into the individual, into himself, throughout his whole life (Ozerkov, 2011, p. 81). His artistic activity went beyond the creation of artworks and extended to conversations, interviews, acting and to practically his every appearance in the public space. Any researcher who set themselves the task of compiling a general overview of Prigov's biography would face great difficulties in separating creative act from a simple fact of life as he seemed to transform everything in his life into an artistic statement. “I am a worker of culture”, Prigov said (Rubinsten, 2000) and supported his words with a truly unprecedented dedication to work. Taking into consideration the scope of Prigov's, the cultural workaholic, activity, and the framework of research of Soviet underground art, this article will focus on the artist’s work from the Soviet period, with a few necessary exceptions.

Figure 1. Prigov in his studio in the 1970s. [Photograph]

Prigov was the voice and face of both the anxious instability and the vitality of perpetual movement. He adopted and mixed various styles and influences to demonstrate the antinomy of the uniting power of art and the alienation of the artist. The latter is especially applicable to the authoritarian culture in which Prigov developed his creative vision. He was a part of a society that was in aesthetic and ideological opposition to official propaganda at a time when historical change was anticipated, but its result was unknown. Both the current and the future position of Soviet underground artists was unstable. Authors had to form their own creative worlds where pure art just for the sake of it existed and in which they did not need to seek approval or understanding. Prigov's art was a vivid example of this obstinate persistent creativity despite unfavourable circumstances. A few of Prigov's poems can serve as aid in attempts to analyse his creative essence, constantly transforming in its wholeness:

Pattering footsteps upon the roof A drop of blood on a kitten’s paw The fate of the poet in Russia Miraculous transformations from terror into triumph and back To terror (Prigov, 2004, p.15)

Another conceptual artist, Viktor Pivovarov, called Prigov "Prygov" (Pivovarov, 2010, p. 696), which in Russian sounds similar to hopper and accurately characterises the elusiveness and irrepressibility of Prigov's nature. Processing fears, experiences, feelings, cultural codes in an ironic but at the same time carefully reflective manner characteristic of conceptualism, Prigov made everything art, while at the same time denying the direct intention to create. His poly-writing, a made-up word meaning writing somewhat excessively, is not creativity but routine, he said (Epstein, 2010, p. 55), and conveyed reality through the prism of his countless texts and drawings. Both as a method of escapism for the artist and the viewer, or as a way to leave a notable mark in the history of art, this hyperproductivity indeed worked. Prigov was concerned with problems of loss and destruction of artworks, death and oblivion (Ozerkov, 2011, p. 81) and delved into the process of self-therapy by adopting and promoting the idea that everything that was, is or will be already exists. At the same time by being almost ubiquitous in the avant-garde art circles of late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia for a long period of time he secured his place on the list of prominent artists of the era. Despite high productivity that is usually associated with lack of quality, Prigov's work was cutting-edge and convincing in its dedication to studying and reflecting on existence.

Figure 2. Dmitri Prigov, Well, 1974. [Ink, gouache on paper and cardboard]

Prigov's early gouache drawings introduce to the viewer for the first time the confrontation between closed and organised space (the inner) and spontaneous and disproportionate in their power forces from the outside. This diligent building and rebuilding of a personal world around oneself and the blackness of another reality peering through the gaps, demonstrating its authority through power, will be later expressed in Prigov's installations (Ozerkov, 2011, p. 87). The author is aware of his losing position and does not enter battle with this fundamental universal force. He continues his work, taking advantage of the temporary opportunity, nesting structures from available elements of social, historical and physical reality. He seems to be humbly out of place, recognising both his own value and the normality of being alienated:

In Japan I would be Catullus And in Rome I would be Hokusai And in Russia I am the same guy Who would have been Catullus in Japan And in Rome, Hokusai (Prigov, 1997/2007, p. 110)

The same humility is manifested in Prigov's distancing himself from his works. Composer Vladimir Martynov described this as: “the statement is aware of itself as a statement, the text is aware of itself as a text” (Martynov, 2008). Thus, the role of the demiurge is inferior in this case to a one-time function of the maker. Then the artist detachedly observes the life of the separated creation, of which he no longer has control. In his 1963 poem I See It All from Somewhere Above Prigov describes the funeral of a man with whom he is "parallel, but not on a par" (Prigov, 1996, p. 13), which leads the reader to the understanding that the man is the author himself. The poet observes the procession, people, and the event with fatalistic disengagement, understanding the impossibility of control and celebrating his right to the pleasure of curiosity before heading into the abyss of the unknown.

Figure 3. Dmitri Prigov, Weeping eye, 1987-1988. [Newspaper, rope, gouache, ball pen]

Just like his fellow Moscow conceptualists, Prigov worked with the surrounding visual and textual reality, reinventing and reformatting familiar formulas in his unique way, at first glance in an ironic manner. There is indeed a lot of irony in Prigov’s artworks, but this is only the first level that forms one of his artistic creations, which, according to the artist himself, consists of four: anecdotal, poetic, citation-allusive and literary-strategic, which is simultaneously existential (Klein, 2003). The author aims at problems above those stated by the simplicity of the chosen form when he uses images of communist leaders that are almost sacred to Soviet society or to the delicate theme of religion. The freedom given to a work and its viewer/reader allows one to find deep meanings and answers for questions on personal and eternal values, rather than the lack of freedom provided by propagandistic and preaching ready-made formulations. Prigov said that culture, unlike religion (this can apply to ideology as a whole), is concerned with penultimate truths and understands exactly what it is doing. According to Prigov, religious teachers and founders of schools are engaged in final truths, but art exists for "opening eyes and realisation", and for preparing a person to take "their own step" (Prigov, 2019, p. 45).

Prigov used images of leaders, throwing them off their pedestals not only in their roles of idealistic moral guides, but also as people in general, equally powerless in the face of something unknown, greater and inevitable. In his Twenty Stories about Stalin, one of the many examples of such texts, Prigov repeatedly and freely has characters kill each other, including Stalin himself, who may then reappear in the following story (Prigov, 2016, p. 477). It should be noted here that Prigov, distancing himself from his works, thus does not claim to be the Creator in them, it is not he who controls the lives of the characters, it is the text itself, the art that exists beyond everything. Art for Prigov, as well as God, is beyond definitions and especially ideological formations, therefore in his works the themes of death, chance, the impossibility of control, scaling the finity of a person to the infinity of the forces that are eternal come through with such regularity. Prigov's conventional God stumbles over the context of time and gets entangled in everyday experiences. A character in one of his poems secretly takes out his garbage to a kindergarten at night, because he cannot find the strength to get up at the morning call of the holy waste truck. He confesses and feels either Christian shame or shame in the face of society (which was omnipresent in Soviet culture), comparing the morning signal of a dustcart with the voice of God (Prigov, 1997, p. 15). Radically mixing seemingly incompatible concepts, beliefs and images, Prigov demonstrates that every thought and speculation is fuelled by a single source. Everything that can be said has already been said. The existence of canons and idols, therefore, is also impossible because individual creative elements are singled out from an eternity of art and reassembled again and again. Thus, from a worker of culture, Prigov involuntarily passes into the category of its priest, completely devoting himself to its service.

Figure 4. Dmitri Prigov, Two Portraits, 1977. [Paper, applique, typewritten text]

Prigov said in an interview that his "aim is simply to deconstruct any discourse, any piece of writing, as writing, as language" (Metres, 1996). But by moving in this direction, he dismantled into layers any existing ideas in general about the world. Realising eternity and restoring it in its rights, Prigov, like a jester, turns its components on their heads, juggling names and allusions, not giving the observer a chance to understand where inspiration ends and parody begins:

So here we've gathered together again. Here sits Tarasov, I'm standing here, over there I see Kabakov sitting, there is Rubenshteyn, there Chuikov, and where? where is he? a-a-ah [should these be capitalised? Just double-checking] there he is to the right of Monastyrsky, over there is someone else, they're all sitting, they are heroes, they are the heroes of Pushkin, Lermontov, Tchaikovsky (Petr Ilich), of his First Concerto, of his Second Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, of his Third Concerto, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, of his Tenth finally! They are sitting! they are heroes! They are my heroes! […] I'm Dante! I'm Homer! I'm Shakespeare! I'm Diderot! I'm Robespierre! I'm Napoleon! I'm Hegel! I'm he-he-he-eee-geeeel, I'm he! I'm he-he-he, I'm he-he-he-he-hehehegell I'm Aristotle! I'm Catullus! I'm Nebuchadnezzar!! I'm Tamerlane! I'm Tutankhamen! I'm Tchaikovsky! (Prigov, 1985/1989, pp. 728-731)

According to Dmitry Ozerkov, it was the horror of the scale of this realised eternity that shaped Prigov as a worker of culture, a person inseparable from his own role as an artist (Ozerkov, 2011, p. 87). Thus, Prigov was making art in order to exist and to exist outside the moment of physical presence on earth. Giving possible options for his own death for each year of his life in one of his works (Prigov, Schuchat & Morse, 2020, p. 262), he demonstrates a heightened understanding of the value of time. This theme, as well as the theme of absolute disappearance, dissolution, is a running refrain through Prigov's works. Such worldview completely reworked the concepts of power, subordination, the importance of ideological attitudes and beliefs in his creations. Structures where these concepts exist were seen as simply constructed from the building materials of previous experiences, like a creative text, and, accordingly, could be transformed by the artist even further. The human personality itself, made up of millions of accidents and impressions, if it is not deliberately assembled and represented, is as elusive as any other subjective quality of an object, which Prigov demonstrated by his absolute dissolution in texts, installations and drawings. A genius or a charlatan parasitizing on cultural heritage, a cynic or a romantic, a brave revolutionary or a person who is in constant horror of the realisation of his own insignificance, an ironic violator of foundations or a quivering chronicler of reality? Prigov is everything and nothing, like everything in the world. A reformer, generator and “regenerator” of ideas, a creative human perpetuum mobile, Prigov destroyed all authorities except the authority of culture.

Bibliographical References

Epstein, M. (2010). Dmitrij Aleksandrovich Prigov – Mikhail Epshtejn: Popytka ne byt’ neidentifitsirovannym [Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov – Michail Epstein: Attempt not to be unidentified]. In E. Dobrenko, I. Kukulina, M. Lipovetsky & M. Mavofis (Eds.), Nekanonicheskij klassik: Dmitrij Aleksandrovich Prigov (1940-2007). Sbornik statej I materialov, (pp. 52-72). Moscow: Novoje Literaturnoje Obozrenije.

Groys, B. (1979). Moskovskij romanticheskii kontseptualizm. [Moscow Romantic Conceptualism]. A-Ya 1, Paris, pp 3-11. (Original work published in the samizdat magazine 37, Leningrad, 1979).

Klein, A. (2003). Beseda s Dmitrijem Prigovym [Convesation with Dmitri Prigov]. Klein

Martynov, V. (2008). Pestrye prutja Iakova: Chastnyj vzgljad na kartinu vseobschego prazdnika zhizni [Motley rods of Jacob: Private view on the picture of everyone’s celebration of life]. Moscow: MGIU.

Metres, P. (2007). The End(s) of Russian poetry: An interview with Dmitry Prigov. Behind the Lines: Poetry, War, & Peacemaking.

Ozerkov, D. (2011). Dmitri Prigov: Dmitri Prigov. Exhibition Catalogue of collateral event of 54th Biennale di Venezia, pp. 81-90. Retrieved from

Pivovarov, V. (2010). Prigov: Nesistematicheskie nabroski k portretu [Prigov: Unsystematic sketches to the portrait]. In E. Dobrenko, I. Kukulina, M. Lipovetsky & M. Mavofis (Eds.), Nekanonicheskij klassik: Dmitrij Aleksandrovich Prigov (1940-2007). Sbornik statej I materialov, (pp. 696-701). Moscow: Novoje Literaturnoje Obozrenije.

Prigov, D. A. (1996). Sobranie stikhov. Tom 1 [Collection of Poems. Vol. 1]. Wiener slawistischer Almanach: Sonderband 42. Wien: AAGE A. Hansen-Löve.

Prigov, D. A. (1997). Napisannoje s 1975 po 1989 [Written from 1975 to 1989]. Moscow: Novoje Literaturnoje Obozrenije.

Prigov, D. A. (2016). Monady: Sobranije sochinenij v 5-ti tomakh [Monads: Collected works in 5 volumes] (Vol. 1). Moscow: Novoje Literaturnoje Obozrenije.

Prigov, D. A. (2019). Mysli [Thoughts]. M. Lipovetskij & I. Kukulin (Eds.), Sobranie sochinenij v 5-ti tomakh (Vol. 5). Moscow: Novoje Literaturnoje Obozrenije.

Prigov, D. A., & Janecek, G. (1989). Dmitrii Prigov: Forty-fifth alphabet poem (tsa-tsa). In J. Burbank & W.G. Rosenberg (Eds.), Michigan Quarterly Review: Perestoika and soviet culture (pp.728-731). The University of Michigan. Retrieved from

Prigov, D. A., & Mattison, Ch. (2004). Fifty drops of blood in an absorbent medium. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse.

Prigov, D. A., & Schuchat, S.; Morse, A. (2020). Soviet texts. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse.

Rubinstein, L. (2000). Rabotnik kultury [Worker of culture]. Fond Dmitrija Aleksandrovicha Prigova. Intervju.

Visual Sources

Author Photo

Eugenia Ivanova

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