Irina Nakhova: The Green Pavilion, Russian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

The Russian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale will present Irina Nakhova’s The Green Pavilion. Since the mid-1970s, Nakhova (b. 1955) has made a significant contribution to the development of Moscow Conceptualism, infusing its logocentric model with visual intensity and a critical edge. In the early 1980s, using one of the rooms in her Moscow apartment, Nakhova embarked on a series of environments entitled “Rooms”. Together with the Russian Pavilion curator, Margarita Tupitsyn, an internationally renowned expert on the Russian avant-garde and contemporary art, Nakhova has here realized a series of ambitious environments that revisit the paradigms of the Russian avant-garde, as well as explore and redefine Nakhova’s concepts of spatial relations and viewer interaction.

The Russian Pavilion is painted green, a color deliberately chosen to evoke the original appearance of the building, designed by Aleksei Shchusev in 1914. With the pavilion, Shchusev created a building uniquely suited to accommodate and enhance various artistic practices. Nakhova’s project deliberately fuses the functionality of Shchusev’s structure with her own use of the latest technologies.

According to Tupitsyn, the Green Pavilion should also be seen as engaged in a dialogue with Kabakov’s Red Pavilion, executed for the 45th Venice Biennale, of 1993. With The Red Pavilion, Kabakov demonstrated the importance of color discourse for both Russian modernist and postmodernist artists, who shifted the approach to color from one of formalism to “socio-formalism.” Kabakov erected the Red Pavilion on the building’s grounds, leaving the pavilion itself empty—a potent metaphor that embodied the non-institutional status of vanguard artists and their non-participation in the Soviet culture industry. While Kabakov’s Red Pavilion marked the end of the Moscow vanguard’s hermetic phase, Nakhova’s Green Pavilion resumes the debate concerning these artists’ departure from local contexts in favor of more global significance in the post-Soviet era.

Inside the Green Pavilion, Nakhova further underscores the signifying mechanisms of color by painting every room a different hue. Shchusev’s division of the Russian Pavilion into five discrete spaces prompted Nakhova to revisit her 1980s Rooms series, where the viewer was actively involved in an artistic experiment. In the first room on the pavilion’s main floor, Nakhova projects herself onto the futuristic image of a pilot in the form of a head. The oversized head’s impenetrability (achieved by means of a helmet, mask, and goggles), combined with the proposition that the viewer seek to control his perceptions, reveals the duality of the artist’s position in society. On the one hand, he is authoritative, while on the other he is too dependent on the external world from which he aims to escape and simultaneously wishes to control.

In the second room of the installation, Nakhova tackles Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, the most enigmatic canvas in the history of modernism, a work entirely reliant on the viewer’s imagination as it provides neither formal nor iconographic referents. Depending on one’s position in Nakhova’s installation, the square appears opaque, creating the effect of a solar eclipse, or transparent, as if joined to the cosmos, observable through the skylight above.

In the third space, Nakhova’s painterly gifts expand beyond the boundaries of the picture frame, filling up the entire space with an abstract composition executed in two of the most significant colors in the history of Russian art: revolutionary red and perestroika green. The characteristics of these two epochs of Russia’s history are thus communicated exclusively through the use of color and form, reminding the viewer of the social aspirations of abstract art.

For the ground floor of the pavilion, Nakhova created a video installation consisting of the grids of digital re-creations of architectural modules drawn from Shchusev’s iconic monuments, such as the Lenin Mausoleum; these modules are filled with private and public archival photographs. Nakhova destabilizes this factographic architectonics by the insertion of images of abjection such as worms, and by a confluence of elements that together allegorize the vulnerability and instability of historical assertions.

Irina Isayevna Nakhova (Russian: Ирина Исаевна Нахова; born 1955 in Moscow) is a Russian artist. Her father, Isai Nakhov, is a philologist. At 14 years old her mother took her to Victor Pivovarov’s Atelier. Pivovarov played an important role in her life and later became her mentor. In 2015, Nakhova became the first female artist to represent Russia in its pavilion at the Venice Biennial. She is represented by Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York City. Nakhova currently lives and works in Moscow and New Jersey. She works with different mediums like fine art, photography, sounds, sensors and inflatable materials. She is a Laureate of the Kandinsky 2013 Award.

Nakhova graduated from the Graphic Design Department of the Moscow Polygraphic Institute in 1978. She was a member of the Union of Artists of the USSR from 1986 to 1989 and, alongside her friends and colleagues Ilya Kabakov, George Kisevalter, Vladimir Sorokin, Dmitrii Prigov, and Andrei Monastyrsky, is considered one of the founding members of Moscow Conceptualism. Nakhova received international recognition as a young artist for Rooms (1983–1987), the first “total installation” in Russian art, located in the Moscow apartment where she still lives today.

In 1988, Nakhova was one of the youngest artists included in Sotheby’s first auction in Moscow. The “groundbreaking” auction, titled “Avant-Garde and Soviet Art”, realized more than $3,000,000 USD and marked a major step forward in the opening of Russian art to Western European and American markets. Nakhova’s work caught the attention of American gallerist Phyllis Kind, who gave the artist three solo shows in New York in the early 1990s, Nakhova’s first exhibitions in the United States.

From 1994 to 1997 she was a professor in a university in Detroit in the US. In 2011, Nakhova was featured as a special guest of the Fourth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. As part of a large-scale retrospective of Nakhova’s work, her seminal installation Room No. 2 (1983–1987) was a result of her frustration from the oppressive Soviet regime, located in her Moscow apartment where she lives today.

In 2013, Nakhova was awarded the Kandinsky Prize in the category of Project of the Year, one of the highest honors in contemporary Russian art, for her work Untitled. Nakhova described Untitled as “my reckoning with history as comprehended through the history of my family – my grandma, executed grandpa, mom, dad and my past self. This is my attempt to understand the inexplicable state of affairs that has reigned in my country for the last century, and to understand through private imagery how millions of people were erased from history and happily forgotten; how people have been blinded and their souls destroyed so that they can live without memory and history.”

Nakhova’s work is in public and private collections throughout France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. In Russia, her work can be found at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, and The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Nakhova’s work is part of the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art, one of the largest collections of Soviet-era art outside Russia, amassed by American economist Norton Dodge from the late 1950s until the advent of Perestroika in the 1980s. Dodge smuggled nearly 10,000 works of art from the USSR to the United States during the height of the Cold War, often at great personal risk, a story detailed at length in John McPhee’s The Ransom of Russian Art (1994). The collection was donated to Rutgers University in the mid-1990s, where it is on permanent display at the University’s Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum.

The Exhibtion
In 2015, Nakhova was chosen to represent Russia in its pavilion at the Venice Biennale. She was the first female artist to represent Russia in a solo pavilion. “Based on a dialogue with the pavilion structure itself, designed by Aleksei Shchusev in 1914, The Green Pavilion relates to installation art as much as it does to architecture,” writes Stella Kesaeva, President of Stella Art Foundation, in the catalogue for the installation. “As with [Vadim] Zakharov’s project, the architectural features of the pavilion comprise an important component of Nakhova’s installation. This time, an opening has again been created between the first and second floors of Schusev’s building, plus the exterior is painted green. The result: the Russian Pavilion takes on the appearance of a romantic gazebo, while concealing within itself the spatial metaphor of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915). Another installation presented in this pavilion was her project „rooms“ which were a complex of five different spaces between art, architecture and the viewers point of view. ”

Irina Nakhova’s three-part installation The Green Pavilion, which represented Russia at the Venice Biennale (2015) is a thought-provoking, but disjointed look at our relationship with history and the future.

An installation artist and academically trained painter, Nakhova combines painting, sculpture, and new media into interactive installations and environments that engage viewers as co-creators of conceptual mindscapes. Art is powerful and eye-opening, difference experiences, physical and intellectual, that do not exist otherwise as spaces.

We exist as a part of history. We may be buffeted by forces beyond our control and our observable contributions may fade away. History is what it is and the future is uncertain and foreboding, but we were and we are a part of the whole story.

Such as Nakhova’s green-red room, “The abstract composition comes from Nakhova’s earlier canvas Primary Colors 2 (2003), imbued with the Russian avant-garde’s reductive color theories…and embrace of what Malevich termed ‘a new color realism.’ Applied mechanically, the latter transgresses the boundaries of the canvas to operate in literal space. In this sense, Nakhova’s green-red room is a postmodern (Jamesonian) hybrid of color-form and color-text in which one can locate the traces and distortions of society as a whole.


The first part of the installation, a giant head of a helmeted man whose features subtly change, is visually stunning, but it is not immediately clear how it is related to the installation as a whole.

When you walk into the first room, all the sizes are different, and who greets you there is the pilot. The pilot is your navigator through time. So when you are here, there is dark. The skies are closed, but you are in the cockpit of the flight. When you come closer to the pilot, his eyes open, he looks at you and he also looks at the sky, and you can see that the sky are opening [via a skylight]. Then you really see what’s going on, but it’s also like in a dream because there is no verbal communication.

The second part of the installation occupies two rooms. In the lower room, images and videos from the old USSR are projected onto the walls. Blue ‘X’s and red circles start to appear on some of the people shown in the photographs; then the photos and videos fade and are replaced by new images. As the people in the photo are crossed out and their images fade, it seems like they are being ‘disappeared’ from history, a fate suffered by many victims of totalitarian regimes over the years.

This visual representation of the practice of ‘disappearing’ people is a little obvious, but what makes the installation work is the way the viewers become part of the work. Above the room of disappearing photos is an empty grey room. In this observation room, visitors can look down through a transparent plastic window on the floor and see the people observing the fading photographs and videos.

Light pours down through a skylight in the ceiling, through the plastic panel on the floor and into the room below. If the people in that room look up, they will see they are being observed by the people in the room above.

From time to time, the skylight closes and the room of images goes dark. When the skylight opens and the light returns, some of the people below will have moved on—they will have disappeared. Similarly, sometimes the observation room goes dark and when the light returns, some of the observers will have disappeared as well.

Living under an oppressive authoritarian regime, innocent bystanders can end up as observers—silent witnesses to the turmoil around them. This creates a horrible dilemma. By remaining silent and not doing anything, are these silent witnesses complicit in the horrors that are perpetrated? However, if the silent witnesses speak up or take action, won’t they become the next victims? In such a cruel environment, anyone can be ‘crossed out’ and made to disappear.

In the above video, when Irina Nakhova describes this second zone in the Green Pavilion, the artist does not mention the people being crossed out of the photos, but instead focuses on the effect when the room goes dark:

It’s the place where you can really come to yourself and see what’s going on around you with acute awareness. When it’s all dark, you have just the sky and the past. For me it’s soothing because it was before us, it will be after us and we are a part of the history, so there is no fear, there is no joy, but it is the nature taking over us and going through us.

The third part of the installation is an empty room painted with an abstract green and red pattern. Describing this, the artist states:

Russian Pavilion
The Russian pavilion houses Russia’s national representation during the Venice Biennale arts festivals. The Russian pavilion was designed and built between 1913 and 1914. Its architect, Alexey Shchusev, used motifs from 17th and 18th century Russian architecture.

The Stella Art Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in Moscow in November 2003 on the initiative of Stella Kesaeva. The foundation is dedicated to supporting contemporary art, with a special focus on encouraging scholarship in the field of Moscow conceptual art. It maintains a collection of over one thousand artworks from the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The Stella Art Foundation has carried out approximately one hundred projects by Russian and foreign artists both in Russia and abroad.

Venice Biennale 2015
The 2015 Art Biennale closes a sort of trilogy that began with the exhibition curated by Bice Curiger in 2011, Illuminations, and continued with the Encyclopedic Palace of Massimiliano Gioni (2013). With All The World’s Futures, La Biennale continues its research on useful references for making aesthetic judgments on contemporary art, a “critical” issue after the end of the avant-garde and “non-art” art.

Through the exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor, La Biennale returns to observe the relationship between art and the development of human, social and political reality, in the pressing of external forces and phenomena: the ways in which, that is, the tensions of the external world solicit the sensitivities, the vital and expressive energies of the artists, their desires, the motions of the soul (their inner song ).

La Biennale di Venezia was founded in 1895. Paolo Baratta has been its President since 2008, and before that from 1998 to 2001. La Biennale, who stands at the forefront of research and promotion of new contemporary art trends, organizes exhibitions, festivals and researches in all its specific sectors: Arts (1895), Architecture (1980), Cinema (1932), Dance (1999), Music (1930), and Theatre (1934). Its activities are documented at the Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts (ASAC) that recently has been completely renovated.

The relationship with the local community has been strengthened through Educational activities and guided visits, with the participation of a growing number of schools from the Veneto region and beyond. This spreads the creativity on the new generation (3,000 teachers and 30,000 pupils involved in 2014). These activities have been supported by the Venice Chamber of Commerce. A cooperation with Universities and research institutes making special tours and stays at the exhibitions has also been established. In the three years from 2012-2014, 227 universities (79 Italian and 148 international) have joined the Biennale Sessions project.

In all sectors there have been more research and production opportunities addressed to the younger generation of artists, directly in contact with renowned teachers; this has become more systematic and continuous through the international project Biennale College, now running in the Dance, Theatre, Music, and Cinema sections.