Spaces of Utterance / Spaces of Survival
Dmitry A. Prigov
It used to happen all the time. You would walk through the halls of a museum or an exhibition and stop in front of a little painting, and your whole poor, easily agitated soul would twitch in a pang of sweet distress. A modest little piece (almost nothing by today's standards) could solve global problems, overturning not only your spirit, but sometimes even (and actually quite often) the principles of contemporary art. That's the way was.
Dmitry A. Prigov. Столпники. Mixed tech., paper. Courtesy of Krokin Gallery. 2004
But who pays attention today to a little thing of the size of something like 20 x 30 cm, if it does not happen to bear the marker of a great name from the distant or even the more recent past? Since not too long ago (in fact, quite recently, in a historical sense) art objects and installations that do not match, in terms of their size, the imposing vastness of exhibition halls have become almost unthinkable. However it is not physical size as such that matters but the fact that it is directly associated with and boldly reveals the principal figures involved in the art market and the whole process of contemporary art – companies, banks, corporatations, and state institutions. It exposes the link between the so-called art process and the business of tourism, entertainment industry, big money and global ambition. It is this situation that is largely determining artists' strategies today. However, what has only recently been a lively and stimulating process, is now becoming ossified, which is manifest in the ovbious predilection for glamor, industrial design, and ingenuous commercialization, when the motifs of power and ambition begin to prevail over creative, existential and cultural-critical ones.
The very immensity of art projects practically makes any personalization of artistic statement impossible. Through necessitating enormous physical effort, it emasculates the content and the objective of the project (be it socio-critical, anthropological, or simply visual). What is left is grandeur and pathos. Which, of course, is altogether not that bad. As to the message, it is plain and easy to understand. Its commonplace clarity ranks it together with pop-shows, design, and advertising. Everything else, even if it is there, simply stands no chance of being read through the dominant cultural optics. Actually, there is nothing tragic about this situation; it is the usual dramaturgy of the exhausted actuality of strategies in a historical and cultural space.
Dmitry A. Prigov. Nobody is here. Ink and acryl, paper. 1990-91
Within the functional bounds of the present system of visual art, the orientation toward this kind of statement (almost completely dominant, at least for now) seems to be the only victorious strategy, the one that ensures success. This is true. This is how the system is perceived by the newcomers and beginners when it seductively flaunts the sleek splendor of its exhibitions, institutions and money. Let's face it: to us, the "unsuccesful" ones, all this is nothing but a deceptive and unobtainable phantom. So, from the standpoint of cultural hygeine, it would be quite useful to impose a temporary moratorium on all big projects, including, by the way, the erection of sculptural monuments by that guy Tseriteli.
However, all this is useless emotion. It is obvious that the real problem lies elsewhere and cannot be solved by invectives that are hardly ever productive. The solution to the problem can be found in sratifying visual art not according to traditional genres and media, but according to some other principles. It is quite clear that Damian Hirst and the artists of new painterliness, for example, are doing completely different things, even though they are grouped together under the same heading, visual art. The same is observed in music, where the show biz stars never cross paths with the authors of new improvisational music. Their money, managements, venues, and audiences differ, as do their goals and their messages. This is why they are evaluated by different musical criteria. There is no such thing as absolutely the best; you can only be the best in your own category.
The main goal lies in creating awareness of, articulating and even ideologizing long-brewing problems. This is how the supporters of this kind of differentiation between the two different spaces of artistic expression thematize the issue. There is a space of global proportion and total ambition, and there is a space of gesture that could be described as anthropological in its scale (space is here understood in a cultural rather than physical sense). The latter space has different acoustics and is connected not to the violence of a total gesture, but low-energy diffusion. It seems clear that this dividing line is increasingly fickle due to the present complexity of the cultural-generational configurations, and the diversity of genres and media, all of which demand different physical sizes and different degrees of financial support. But what we are talking about here is a principle that should be declared and presented as an uncircumventable phenomenon.
Dmitry A. Prigov. The Fifth Sky. Mixed tech., paper (fragment). Courtesy of Krokin Gallery, 1995
It is precisely this "small" space that permits the moral and ethical issues to resound distinctly and clearly. In fact, it even forces us to make a moral choice. Whereas the space of big socio-political and global-market messages involves rigid external constructions of cynicism and base intents. Let's face it.
In the confines of our situation, as the intertwining of big moneyl and "pop" becomes more and more apparent, any big project willy-nilly pushes you into a zone where you have to collaborate with the powers that be. Here, we must note that we are not trying to negate the possibility of this kind of cultutral behavior. In this zone they have their own prizes and their own judges. The only thing we must do is to openly admit that there are different cultural niches, and different ways of inhabiting them.
The present situation is more than obvious. The state has not only seized all political power, but has also captured all economic resources (arbitrarily fixing, of course, the lowest financial level beyond which it has no interest in further action) as well as the entire sphere of the mass media and of open utterances (again, arbitrarily assuming that the state is not interested in utterances that resonate with only a thousand people, numbers neglible for electoral manipulation). So obviously, in our case, we can talk about working together with small businesses with the goal of realizing rather moderate socio-cultural projects. One could also work with alternate political forces and social movements. But this essentially coincides with the artistic strategy that we are describing as the strategy of moderate-size or small spaces. Naturally, in the framework of our situation, a choice like this is always also a social choice of position in relation not only to the world of finance, but also with regard to the political establishment with which it is intertwined. Although, of course, similar things are happening all over the world, in all sorts of states of governance. To judge from what we see, it really is an international process. This is what one thinks, at least, and what one would like to believe.
Of course, a cold and objective tone of description and respectful equivocacy toward artists involved in big projects cannot obscure the author's tastes. And even more, it cannot hide the signs of the author's preference for certain stratagies of overcoming an increasingly ossified cultural situation. It would certainly be very difficult today to determine any specific way of existence and self-realization for these kinds of artists and types of curators and exhibition venues that would match them. (In its day, for example, the Documenta clearly designated the dividing line between artists who produce texts and artists who work through strategies and gestures.). In our case, the creative/aesthetic and moral/ethical parameters underpinning preferences and choices are easy to see. And, of course, any new type of artistic behavior will need certain types of people, people of a certain psycho-somatic mould who would be unable to realize themselves fully within the limits of other cultural-aesthetic projects. So where is the difference? How can you tell who is who? Understandably, the framework of big, total projects is ideal for the self-realization of a certain extravagant type of artist who works with the extremes of human nature, who is comfortable about big spaces and big projects. But these projects do not even presume the possibility of concentrating and taking time to make sense of it all. Obviously the orientation toward what we could call an anthropomorphic scale, on the contrary, assumes that both the audience and the author can be absorbed for extended periods in meditative contemplation. As a consequence, the thematic and strategic-behavioral aspects of these projects begin to reorient themselves towards a new "normal person." Tthe distinction between these two types of projects and artistic manifestations is drawn not according to the principle of "new sincerity" (or new openess), but through the space of statements itself, in which both gestures of "new sincerity" as well as cultural-critical ones could coincide (just as they could in other spaces, if this is where they are heading.)
Dmitry A. Prigov. Black Board. Ink and acryl, paper. 1990
We should also note the different principles behind the work process of the aforementioned artistic types. That is, the work of big-project artist actually begins when the project itself is announced. The project practically culminates in the anticipation of the next one (though of course we are not talking about the potentially endless routine of producing for the market). Together with industrial-scale production of art objects, the use of assistants, and unbelievably inflated prices, it places this type of artist into the same boat with other figures in show business. Preposterous prices and incomes, in turn, foster a corresponding lifestyle befitting pop-stars and the business elite. Even if there is still a lack of this kind of money, this example becomes the ideal, which one then tries to approach through one's strategies in life creative activity. By the way, we should also note that in the past if an artist had a huge studio and an ever-growing number of assistants, it signified the same commercialization and mass production of art. This is quite different from the type of artistic existence that orients itself towards an individual creative process which is its own reward, and whose projects are constructed post factum (at least in the ideal) to correspond to a certain artristic position and creative stand with reliance on the artist's whole body of work... But this approach is not dominant today: art pieces are usually custom-made for specific. Sometimes, the same pieces drift from exhibition to exhibition, with no regard to their themes or titles. Anyway, it goes without saying that this new type of seemingly quiet existence also requires a necessary and sufficient level of prices and money to insure some degree of comfort (which hardly amounts to living the glamorous life of the elite). It seems essential to note this difference in the ways of artists' existence.
Dmitry A. Prigov. Chairs (left). Mixed tech., paper. Courtesy of Krokin Gallery. 1995. Dmitry A. Prigov. Black Board (right). Ink and acryl, paper. 1990
I am aware of the weakness of the theoretical part of my text and the description of the new art phenomenon, the way I see it... It is not more than just an attempt to indicate a vector. Or better still, a wish or a preference, tinged with no small dose of emotion. One could be even more definite and say that the "space of utterances" (or the "space of survival" if we correlate it with the socio-cultural sphere) defined by its distinctive features and symptoms is quite a vague notion and hardly contains any criteria allowing for the assessment of the existing situation. I can only hope that something at least shines through the sketch I have drawn. However, prophetic pathos can sometimes be embarrassing and absurd. Like this:
- I wish I could sit down by the piano and play, and play...
- What's the problem? Here it is. Go ahead...
- Is that a piano? It is not how I imagined it.
This is just in passing, just for sake of intellectual honesty and self-criticism.
But basically and in principle, everything is exactly the way we have described.
Dmitry A. Prigov
Was one of the leading Russian writers and artists. Author of the numerous books, participant of solo and collective shows. Had many publications in "Moscow Art Magazine".
Died in 2007.