People / Russia

“The Venice Biennale is the possibility of a different scale” — Irina Nakhova

Read an interview with artist Irina Nakhova, who will be the first woman to represent Russia in 2015 Venice Biennale with a solo exhibition.

Irina Nakhova

©Photo: Stella Art Foundation

Kate Shebanova: You mentioned in one of your interviews that after reading Irving Stone’s “Lust for Life” you realized your desire to become an artist. What was the key factor? Can you share with us, please? Did you have any doubts after?
Irina Nakhova: I didn’t have any doubts, but, it seems, it was not a coincidence that I read that book and found my way into Victor Pivovarov’s studio, when I was thirteen. I was interested in art before, but I started to more or less knowingly pursue it when I was a teenager. Before that I had been deeply fond of theatre: all by myself I did my best to secure tickets for the plays at the Bronnaya Theatre and the Taganka Theatre; I watched each play for several times, I wanted to become a theatre director but later my obsession switched to fine arts.
My parents had a huge library and even now I’m using it. My father taught classics at the University, therefore, the Greek Art albums were among the first books I made acquaintance with. Irving Stone was also in our home library as well as Post-Impressionism by John Rewald, then it was an exclusive rare album published in the USSR, a classic, I suppose, it was the only book about post-impressionism translated into Russian. It happened that I started to do some stuff myself and I didn’t have any doubts after that.
Of course, my parents were against at first, they didn’t consider an artist to be a profession, and even though they were unaware of it, they were right. But later when they understood that I wanted to devote myself fully to art, they started to support me. I’ve always been an extremely independent and persistent person.

What inspires you now?
Inspiration is a wrong word. For me art is a tool of cognition, it helps to answer and solve different questions, it doesn’t originate from inspiration, beauty or prettification. I always start to work when I feel it is necessary for me to understand something or to express myself and at that I can’t fulfill this with any other means. That’s why inspiration mismatches in this case. Necessity – that’s the correct word!

Which of your works is standing out for you and why?
When I am completely engaged with something, I can’t leave it without getting to the bottom of it. Therefore, all works I’ve created are brought to a certain limit. During different periods of my life I arrive at different conclusions and insights. On the one hand, each of my works is my kid, and on the other – an independent adult: I lay my works aside, I take a detached view on them – and they immediately separate from me and start living their own lives.
I perceive my previous works as if they were someone else’s. But they almost always touch me with something: either I find them unexpectedly topical or they move me somehow. I look at the works of other artists the same way – whether these works resonate with me, discover something new to me or surprise me.

‘Top Management’, 2013, featured in Irina Nakhova’s current show at Nailya Alexander. (courtesy the artist and gallery)

‘Top Management’, 2013, featured in Irina Nakhova’s current show at Nailya Alexander. (courtesy the artist and gallery)

Which arts and crafts you find the most interesting for the moment?
Any which are able to move me and appeal to me; which are relevant to what is happening now. These can be the works from any epoch and period of time.
For example, last week my husband and I went to Houston to visit Rothko’s Chapel. About three weeks ago I felt an irresistible impulse to see the Chapel myself and I needed that for my work as well. I’ve never been to Texas before. That thought had been chasing me until we went there. This Chapel is an amazing achievement of humanity!

Do you think of your participation in the Venice Biennale, 2015, as of the top of your career?
But what is implied by a career? A career is something stand-alone. I am absolutely honest, the things I do are my life, and it is my way of communication with the world and the outcome of my understanding of the world.
I find it wonderful to be part of the Venice Biennale as it is a possibility to realize here and now things I was unable to achieve in the past. Of course, the proposal to represent the Russian Pavilion is something extraordinary, even now I find it hard to believe in. The Venice Biennale is the possibility of a different scale.

How did you learn that you had become the artist of the Pavilion?
I received a short insignificant email – just several short sentences: Ira, we have a proposal for you. We think it will make your day – you’ve been chosen to be the next artist of the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I thought it was a joke, not a good one, by the way. But later, after a couple of more emails, I realized it was for real, of course, I was extremely happy.

You are the first woman-artist representing the Russian Pavilion in Venice. Is this of importance for you? Will it be reflected in your work for the Pavilion?
If it is to be revealed in my work for the Pavilion, it will be revealed, I don’t think about it intentionally. But by conviction I am definitely a feminist.
The choice of a woman-artist for the Pavilion was a surprise for me, but probably, the time has come. Maybe there were discussions, I am not sure, but it is entirely possible. It’s funny but it looks as if Biennale 2015 is the women’s one. A lot of countries invited women to represent their national pavilions. It’s a good sign; the world is more open and tolerant now.

Irina Nakhova, Installation Ironing Boards 2001 Inkjet prints on fabric, boards, four irons with inkjet on adhesive vinyl installation view

Irina Nakhova, Installation Ironing Boards 2001, Inkjet prints on fabric, boards, four irons with inkjet on adhesive vinyl, installation view

Will your work for the Pavilion differ from what you did before?
This work is a huge secret, I want it this way. By the way, this year there appeared the rule to approve the project at the Ministry for Culture. I hope everything will be fine but, in essence, it is censorship.
I have never been to the Venice Biennale. My friends always recommended it; they found it necessary for me to see the Biennale. But I saw no sense to go without any purpose. Probably, this was some sort of hex. A week after that letter I was already in Venice. I examined the Pavilion; it is an amazing space, and it is always important for me. Space will play an important part in my work.

The Venice Biennale is a certain demonstration of the “achievements” in art of different countries. What do you think of the comparison of your works with works of other artists?
When it became known that I would be the artist of the Pavilion, everybody started to instruct me saying that works are of no importance, as it is simply a huge international get-together, an entertaining event for the art-community. But I don’t know anything about this. And it is not my business to compare. It has never occurred to me to compare artists; it is possible to compare an artist inside of his/her creative development, inside of one creative field.

What are the benefits to be an artist from Russia? What are the disadvantages?
More than half of our lives we lived in the USSR, we gained vast experience that enriches us. And it’s important. People in other countries have no such experience. Russian people have the opportunity to compare. We managed to live two lives. But it is important to visit other countries, to get closer to different cultures. An open society, which I hope, will remain in Russia.
An artist is on the fringe, standing on the margins, observing the world. It is important for an artist to have a possibility to look at things sideways. An artist is always an outsider, he can be a prophet, he can see what a person inside of the system doesn’t see. It is a bit different outlook; a different type of connection to the world, and an artist can help other people discover something new. Artistic as well as scientific discoveries should happen all the time.
Generally speaking it doesn’t matter if you are a Russian, a German, an American, or a Kazakh artist, problems are the same if we speak about an Artist from the capital “A”. An artist should live in the open world and see the large worldview, he should not limit himself by the Russian or Australian background. Of course, artists cannot escape their origins, but the detached view on their own and other cultures makes this view more focused, and it allows one to see a larger picture of the world. Globalization of the world is good.

Irina Nakhova, Inflatable Bear, 2005

Irina Nakhova, Inflatable Bear, 2005, courtesy the artist and Nailya Alexander Gallery)

Do you visit art-fairs?
No, never. I don’t visit them and I am not interested in them. Fairs are to do with something professional, I perceive what I’m doing not as a profession but as a way of living, so, in my opinion, visiting fairs is not my calling.


Irina Nakhova (b. 1955) graduated from the Moscow Institute of Graphic Arts in 1978. She is an installation artist and an academically trained painter who “parlays art historical references into interactive environments that are humorous and poignant” (Marina Mangubi). She has had a long and distinguished career with numerous solo exhibitions in New York, Moscow, Austria, Estonia, Chicago, and London. She is a member of unofficial artists’ group, now known as the Moscow Conceptual School. She is also a member of the Union of Russian Artists since 1986. Since 1992 Irina lives and works between Russia and the US. Nakhova taught contemporary art at Wayne State University in Detroit (MI), Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (PA), and International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg, Austria. Her artwork is in museums and private collections in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

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