Irina Nakhova



Joseph Backstein

The works of Irina Nakhova have always occupied a special place in the system of the Moscow Conceptualist school. She was a trained artist – a rare thing in the Moscow art scene at that time – and belonged to the third generation of Conceptualists (after that of Kabakov and Bulatov and that of Komar and Melamid). She managed to develop a huge potential of visual material; the visual element is of course essential to practically every school of fine arts, even the conceptual - but in Nakhova’s work it is given priority.
Conceptualism sees its aesthetic aim not only in criticism of the existing social system, but also in analyzing the conditions in which art functions as an institution and as an educational system.
Thus Hans Haacke, for example, presents as an artwork a documentation of the conditions in which real estate is commercially exploited in New York. Here he is not only criticizing the capitalist system, but is also deconstructing the conditions that enable the reproduction of «the visual» in contemporary art. He does this by dispensing with the customary symbolic language of both figurative and abstract representation. One might say that in Hans Haacke’s work – comparable with that of other conceptualists – the non-visualizable is visualized.
The same applies to Irina Nakhova’s work, though with an essential addition: her aesthetic analysis, directed towards the language of fine art, operates within the discourse of fine art itself. In contrast to «classical» conceptualism, she does not use everyday commodities as her starting-point for artistic «elevation» in the sense of «transfiguration», but existing visual material, which can also be pictures drawn from mass culture. If the artist takes material from mass culture, it is neither the metaphors of pop art nor the symbols of the culture industry that are reproduced, but her material.
In this way, Irina Nakhova’s method continues that line of artistic practice in which from a certain point the material manipulated by the artists is no longer of primary importance. From this point onwards, it is no longer a question of the «creation of form out of raw material, but of the work with objects that are already on the market of cultural objects» (Nicolas Bourriaud).
In the contemporary cultural context, concepts such as originality and even artistic creativity become increasingly blurred.
Thus in her first «Room», Nakhova used fragments of magazines.
The way in which this material was presented makes clear that the artist’s real interest lies not only with inner conformity to the principles and structures of the visual, but is also directed at the spatial structure itself, formed by the gravitational fields of the purely visual.
In a sense, this was Nakhova’s initial invention.
The radical character of this artistic gesture cannot be sufficiently emphasized. With it, Nakhova initiated a new artistic genre, a whole new medium unprecedented in the Russian, and indeed, in the international scene. Only according to formal criteria are Nakhova’s «Rooms» comparable with installations and environments.
These «Rooms» do, of course, function also as installations, and they represent spatial constructions whose elements have a particular aesthetic purpose.
But the real novelty was that the space of the installation was identical with the room in the apartment in which the artist lived with her husband. The idea of the «Room», the duplication of the «semantics of the living-space» already contained the germ of that new kind of installation which Ilya Kabakov later termed «total installation». In the course of the series of five «Rooms», the logic of the development of this new genre gave Nakhova an insight into the aesthetic significance of totality.
Kabakov’s «total installation» focuses on the Russian metaphysics of human habitation, the lack of structure in this area, the collective character of living and the non-existence of spheres of privacy.
Kabakov himself was the first to admit that Nakhova’s «Rooms» provided him with the inspiration for this kind of idea. Kabakov’s first installation was done in 1986, while Nakhova’s «Rooms» were realized between 1983 and 1985. Basically, the «Rooms» represent the most authentic and – from a historical viewpoint – the very first example of the «total installation». Moreover, the existential origin of Nakhova’s totality is maximally illustrated, since the work was realized in actual living-space.
We should note, however, that the artist arrived at the revelation of totality neither immediately nor directly. Her concept for the first «Room» was actually planned quite differently. The installation realized in the apartment was demonstratively separated from the actual living-space and exhibited in a kind of stylizedWhite Cube – following the internationally familiar pattern. This gesture is interesting to the extent that the artist was thus resisting the Soviet conception of exhibition space, which was a variant of «communal space», the idea of «collective» living.
A typical Soviet exhibition did actually look like a communal apartment, since as a rule the artists outnumbered the available rooms and the concept of the exhibition was subordinate to the logic of the «anticipated deficit». As in mass sports events, victory was not important – participation was what counted: that is, not the positioning of the work in the room, but the fact that it had been selected by the committee.
To be fair, one must admit that even before the Revolution, this was the conception of exhibitions in Russia. Think of the epoch-making avant-garde exhibition «0.10» in 1915; even at that time the pictures were hung in the same kind of small groups, and there was the same lack of «personal» space and «air».
Irina Nakhova was fully aware of the trend and the significance of her gesture. In her apartment, she created «artificially» an «ideal exhibition room», which she peopled with «ideal persons», represented by figures cut out of glossy magazines. This method should be seen in dialog with Moscow Conceptualism, since Nakhova is dealing with the important subject of artists as people. Here the artist is operating simultaneously as the author of the «Room» and as a person, as the resident of her own apartment.
The theme of the «person» is developed still further. Nakhova transforms the viewer into a person who is granted access to the artificial/ artistic space of the «Room». The «Room», however, remained « a room in a house» – and of course the viewer did not become a viewer until he/she entered the «Room»; not until this moment was it possible for the work to be physically «experienced».
Unlike the exemplary, constructed persons in Kabakov’s albums, or the artificial characters Zyablov and Butchumov, thought up by Komar and Melamid, Nakhova herself represents a person, while the persons in her first «Room» are reduced into two-dimensionality: they emerged from the banal world of consumerism, with which the Soviet people of that time were not yet familiar.
In «Room # 2», the theme of the ideal room is further developed.
Nakhova creates a classical illusionistic space, which she then subordinates to the logic and measurements of the room; it is a threedimensional room which, like the first one, can be entered by visitors.
The space is, however, so disfigured by holes and cracks as to arouse an insuperable feeling of disquiet in the viewer/visitor.
This transformation of a room and the transformations of visual language are continuations of earlier explorations Nakhova carried out in the course of her investigations into modern painting and its potential for representing different spatial structures.
With the development of such painterly resources, as well as with conceptual and sculptural interventions in «Room # 2», the artist abandons the ideal White Cube, the harmonious world of the «imaginary West» that existed at the time in the consciousness of the Russian intelligentsia. One has to say, however, that Nakhova was herself undoubtedly a member of this intelligentsia, and that her work still makes use of its visual culture.
The dialectical thesis which was posited in Nakhova’s first «Room» and which found expression in the creation of the ideal space within a room, was developed in the antithesis of the second «Room», where the threatening metaphors of existential catastrophe were manifest. This path led the artist to synthesis, to the creation of a «total» living-space, which was realized in the third «Room».
Here, in «Room # 3», the actual living-space in the apartment remained almost unchanged, with one basic exception: Nakhova wrapped all the objects that were in her apartment at the time. The act of wrapping was not a quotation, however, nor a parody of Christo’s work (as the educated reader might imagine), although Nakhova was already quite familiar with this artist’s projects – despite the Iron Curtain and the resultant difficulty of obtaining art periodicals and catalogs.
Through the act of wrapping, she created an aesthetic detachment from «collective» reality, elevating the everyday world into the potential and the status of an artistic object. In this context, the basic difference between the total reality of Nakhova’s work and Kabakov’s total installation must be emphasized.
In Kabakov’s work, the installation space represents the environment of a person from the history of Russian literature, while withNakhova the exhibited «Room» and at the same time the space of existential experience are concentrated on the artist herself. This lends Nakhova’s aesthetic principles the charm of that romantic impulse characteristic of all art of the transitional period. And art was in this very state of transition during the years immediately preceding Perestroika, which is already presaged in Nakhova’s early work.

English by Gail Schamberger