Dmitry Prigov: Pulsierendes Schwarz

ifa-Galerie, Neustädtische Kirchstrasse 15, 10117 Berlin. Open daily except Mondays 2-7 p.m. from 1/29/99 to 3/21/99. Catalogue: DM 18,–.

Dmitry Prigov is one Moscow Conceptualist artist who has succeeded in creating an artistic universe of his own, or rather, an artistic all-encompassing mythology. His output alone is monstrous: He has already completed 20,000 poems and is planning to reach 24,000 by the end of the year. He has written prose, plays, and theory; worked as a performing and recording artist; produced drawings, sculptures, objects and installations. This massive output testifies to his obsession to fill the void around him with texts. Ever on the way to do this, he has now stopped in Berlin to realize several of his installation projects in the art gallery of the Institut fuer Auslandsbeziehungen.

In true Conceptualist fashion, there is not too much to see in terms of visual opulence. The project is titled “Pulsierendes Schwarz” (Vibrant Black), and black is indeed the dominant color, matched against the white of the walls and punctuated with splashes of red. Reducing the visual seduction to a minimum, Prigov charges the objects with maximum symbolic power. This is especially true for the few objects that do not fall into the stern color framework of black, white, and red. A series of photographs titled “The Third Eye” is the prelude to the installation, featuring enlarged portrait photographs on which a third eye has been drawn in black ball-pen. The eye, which is a recurrent motif in Prigov’s work, returns on two more occasions. On a large drawing in black ball-pen on old Pravda newspapers, it watches over a person kneeling in front of it, giving the impression of the Eye of God. Another eye fills most of the back wall of the main room of the installation. It is, however, concealed by a black curtain which spreads on the floor so far as to cover a chair standing in front of the curtain – another cult object that invites the visitor to adoration. Filling most of the main room, there is a long table covered with black cloth and roped off with red string. On it lie some books, some bricks and a bottle, all wrapped up in black velvet and tied with white string. On shelves along the wall, there are the glasses for this “Last Supper,” filled with various colored liquids and labeled “Russian Snow,” “Child,” Hope” etc. However, the true surprise waits literally around the corner. In a side room, in front of a large black blot that has “killing” written across it in white letters, a teddy bear is suspended from the ceiling. Opposite the bear hangs a shotgun, from whose barrel a red thread marks the trajectory of the bullet that hits the bear in the chest. Like a stream of blood, the thread dangles down to the floor, ending in another glass filled with red liquid. This mock execution is certainly the center piece of the installation. Turning back from it, one reinterprets the table as being laid out for a sacrificial meal. The glasses appear like chalices waiting for the bear’s blood. The brown fur as well as the wood of the shotgun, which contrast so lively with the surroundings, seem to be absorbed by the red, white, and black. Numerous symbolic references come to mind: Malevich’s Black, Red, and White Squares; the color symbolism of icons; Death, Life, and Eternity. The teddy may symbolize the Russian Bear that meets its end in post-Soviet society, or it may be a symbol of childhood lost. Finally, the eye may stand for a divine presence as well as for Big Brother, or for the Artist who rules supreme in his self-created artistic space. At the same time, though, this is probably the very impression Prigov wants his spectators to have. As is frequently the case in his works, the first, obvious meaning is counteracted by seemingly trivial details. It is exactly the cozy brown of the teddy bear’s fur that breathes life into the black, white, and red. The bear itself, when you look at him, smiles at its mock execution: after all, it is just a piece of string stuck to its fur with a safety pin. The smile of the bear makes all lofty interpretations crumble. The whole symbolic system that is evoked by the three main colors collapses before this child’s toy clad in brown fluff. He is the Bear Of Very Little Brain* that lets all lofty aspirations evaporate into thin air, or rather, into black paint.

But this deconstruction, too, is part of Prigov’s strategy. His project is to speak every artistic language there is, revealing its totaling urge and its inner contradictions. The confrontation of two seemingly incongruous sign systems has long been one of Prigov’s favorite devices. Thus, the installation has two signfiying centers, which appear to be mutually exclusive; the “sacral” optical centerand the smiling bear. While the first center elevates the installation to the status of a temple, the second makes everything appear as a joke. Neither of these two perspectives is more true than the other, both are equally valid. The eye, the black curtains, the newspapers and so forth have all appeared before, in other contexts. But far from forming a coherent artistic system, they turn into a heap of signifiers that receive their meaning from the various contexts, absorbing, but not accumulating meaning. What remains is the Vibrant Black – vibrating between infinite meaning and total meaninglessness.

Click here for documentary material and photographs.

Click here for a German review and more photographs of the installation.

*The Winnie-the-Pooh connection was suggested to me by the article by I. Zhukov: O tvorchestve Vinni-Pukha i konceptualizme. Voprosy literatury, 1994, No. 1, pp. 322-330.