Dmitri Prigov’s ABC of Russian culture

Gerald Janecek on the Alphabet Poems

Andrei and Dmitri Prigov
Dmitri Prigov and Andrei Prigov (PMP Group––also including Natalia Mali), video still from Narod i vlast' sovmestno lepiat obraz novoi Rossii (The people and the state together are building an image of the new Russia), 2003. DVD, 8 minutes.

Today I present a guest post from Gerald Janecek, who has contributed so much to our understanding of the visual, verbal, and sonic breadth of Russian avant-garde poetry from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day. Jerry’s and my shared interests include the work of the conceptual artist and writer Dmitri Prigov, whose iterative practice spanned a vast range of genres and media from sculpture to performance, poetry to theatre. Some time ago, Jerry shared with me an extraordinary video of Prigov performing with the musician Vladimir Tarasov in the apartment studio of Ilya Kabakov in Moscow in 1986. Below, I present part of this video: Prigov and Tarasov’s performance of the 49-aya azbuka or 49th Alphabet from Prigov’s Alphabet series (you can read the Russian text here). Jerry’s commentary on the work and its performance follows. Together I hope they will serve as an introduction to a writer and artist who deserves to be far better known in the English-speaking world.


Gerald Janecek

While seriality as a principle of production is not unique to conceptualism, it is certainly one of its favorite devices.  One thinks, for instance, of Roman Opalka's number paintings, of On Kawara's date paintings and postcards to friends detailing when and where he woke up on a given day, of the Bechers' collections of photographs of cooling towers and other common vernacular architecture, of Edward Ruscha’s photos of gas stations and swimming pools, or, in Pop Art, of Warhol’s soup cans, Brillo boxes, and portraits.  In the Russian sphere we have Bakhchanyan’s Diary (1981), a daily mug shot of the author over a year that was designed to continue for the rest of his life and to conclude with a photo of him in his coffin, but was interrupted and ended when a roll of film failed to develop.  And perhaps most famously, Grisha Bruskin’s Fundamental Lexicon, part of which was sold at the Sotheby's Moscow auction in 1988 for nearly half a million dollars and, more locally, his triptych for the renovated Reichstag [1999].  Dmitry Prigov was an active participant in this genre both in the visual arts and in poetry.  His effort to write 24,000 poems by the end of the millenium was surely aided by his inclination toward serial production and no doubt each item in a series was counted in the total, even if it was ultimately discarded into one of his Little Coffins of Rejected Poems. (For more on these Coffins, see my discussion of them in A Common Strangeness––J.E.)

The serial forms were used by Prigov numerous times throughout his career in varied and creative ways, but here I would like to focus on his Azbuki or Alphabets.  The principle involved is rather well known and even traditional: going through the alphabet (in this case the Cyrillic alphabet) and extending each letter to involve words beginning with that letter.  Prigov evidently wrote over 80 such works.  To date some 60 are available, primarily on Prigov's website, but also in print.  They date from 1980 to a publication in 2007 (written in 2003, it seems), with by far the largest number dating to 1985 (over 40 items).  In terms of serial form, each Alphabet is a member of the whole series, but the fixed sequence of the letters in alphabetic order also forms its own internal series within each member of the series.  Arguably each Alphabet is also to some extent a cycle, like a sonnet cycle, in that alphabetic order provides a form, but little in the way of content except a letter for each entry.  In Prigov's works the entry under each letter in the alphabetic sequence can range from merely the letter itself, to whole paragraphs of text-extension, even to mini-plays.

As the series of Alphabets went on, and as Prigov gave more and more recitals for friends and the general public, their performative aspects began to take on greater significance.  By performative aspects I mean those that features that are provided only or primarily by the author's oral delivery and are largely absent in the printed text.  Fortunately, many of these have been recorded on audio and videotape for posterity.  At the same time, Prigov can be seen to increase the structural and semantic complexity of the work.  The Forty-Ninth Alphabet (1985) is particularly interesting and effective in both its performative and structural features.

It begins, as do most Prigov series and cycles, with a preduvedomlenie, or author’s introduction, that in this case emphasizes the present moment of the performance.  The author looks around the room and points out the various familiar faces of friends and colleagues who are “his heroes.”  Then, surprisingly and with humorous anachronism, he claims that these are also the heroes of “Pushkin, Lermontov and Tchaikovsky,” who in a fit of continuing hyperbole and oratorical bathos is made to have composed ten piano concertos (instead of the actual three, Op. 23, 44, 75).  At this point the recitation of the alphabet begins, initially in a triple beat (“A-tsa-tsa,” which is soon varied and expanded to include lines (I-K-L) in iambic tetrameter (the Onegin meter) ending in –tsa rhymes. The semantic evolution of –tsa includes a joke under M from an entirely cultural milieu (matzo) and an encoded message under N (no ne ni-ko-gda).  The rhythm and patterning break off at O with a triple exclamation, which then introduces the famous opening melody of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, performed with vigorous vocalism by the poet.  This is perhaps the first aspect of the work that is not and cannot be adequately conveyed by the printed text.  What then develops is a counterpoint between the Tchaikovsky melody and Prigov's short synopsis of the plot of Eugene Onegin.  The overheated, melodramatic delivery of the latter portions suggests that the author-speaker might have in mind more the Romantic Tchaikovsky opera than the cooler, more elegant and ironic Pushkin novel.  The hyperbolic delivery reaches a peak under letter T with the repeated screaming exclamation “Death!” as the poor hero's only exit from the painful situation of having missed his chance at true love with Tatiana.  Thereafter the tone settles down to its initial rhythms, once again including a humorous reference, this time to an obscenity under letter X, finally coming to rest at YA on a catalog of famous names with which the speaker identifies himself. Beginning with YA, he then moves on to other letters, particularly G.  Here Prigov inserts a humorous jab at Andrei Voznesensky and his most famous poem, “Ia—Goiia” (“I Am Goya”; 1958), thereby satirizing what was and is a serious poem by placing its title and first line in a context which does Voznesensky any number of times better in terms of egotistical exaggeration.  Prigov's catalog of great names, including of course Pushkin, whose name is used to once more sing the Tchaikovsky melody, eventually returns to the composer and in the end to the people in the room whom he had termed his “heroes” and who are now his “golden heroes.”

While perhaps initially unclear in its direction, this work turns out to be rather tightly structured in its layers of content.  The unexpected appearance and parody of Eugene Onegin is prepared for by the connection to Tchaikovsky and his opera based on the novel and by the meter of the first “content” lines (I-K-L).  And the return to Tchaikovsky is prepared for by the inclusion of Pushkin in the list of famous names under YA.  Tchaikovsky is the common thread linking the introduction and all the other elements of the work.  It should be noted that the level of cultural reference here is intentionally at a low level of sophistication: Russia’s most famous and popular composer and his warhorse concerto, Russia's greatest poet and one of his most famous works, and a list of other historical and cultural figures likely to be known by any school child or factory worker.  The excitement and drama with which this well-known material is presented pushes it over the top in the direction of burlesque and parody.  Yet the intensity and seriousness of Prigov's performance calls the parodic intent into question.  Moreover, it is likely to elicit a counter-reaction: how dare he make fun of these great works and people!  This uncertain balance of factors is intriguing and quite typical of Prigov in general.

In terms of form, the alphabet is decidedly linear, yet in its modern Cyrillic version it conceals the potential for a return to the beginning.  YA (Я) is a iotized form of the vowel A, and is also the first person singular pronoun which returns us to the concept of authorship usually highlighted in the introduction.  Thus in the example we have just discussed, the linear alphabet is strongly counteracted by a structure of concentric contexts.  The largest circle is the context of the given performance highlighted in the introduction and returned to in the conclusion.  Within that is the context of Tchaikovsky and his concerto with its melody and rhythm of the alphabet and his opera Eugene Onegin.  Within the opera is the novel and Pushkin, and within that is the emotion-laden dream and the hero's projected death.

While not all of Prigov’s Alphabets are quite so interesting and successful (some in fact grow tedious and predictable before their conclusion), many are surprisingly inventive, elaborately structured and semantically complex.   The controlling factor of the alphabet is reflected in the “extensions” to each letter, which are themselves composed of letters and therefore also reflect the history of alphabetic writing, issues of authorship, power, and thought in written language within a specific social context, factors more explicitly dealt with in some of the other Alphabets.  Prigov’s Alphabets series shows him brilliantly and, it seems, exhaustively exploring the issues involved in alphabetic writing from numerous angles and on numerous levels. When looked at as individual works, as we have done here, they are often fascinating, but when they are seen as a whole series, one cannot help but be amazed by the artistic potential Prigov has uncovered in what would seem to be such a modest and inflexible serial form.