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by Elena Zaytseva

A Box of Her Own: On the Affective Power of Russian Art Archives

Looking at the black-and-white photographic documentation of two versions of Room №3 by Irina Nakhova, one—that of the original installation created in her flat in Moscow in the winter of 1985—and another, a reconstruction of the work in Zimmerli Art Museum in 2016[1] — it’s clear that this is the same work, but with significant differences. Both photos show a room with white walls, a white floor, and a white ceiling. All pieces of furniture are reduced to their geometrical forms and are also painted in white. The window and balcony door are covered in blinds and painted white, and the only source of light is a lamp, the sharp light of which is too weak to reach the far corners of the room. There is something strange that one can sense looking at these photographs but can’t pinpoint without having visited one of the installations or read a detailed description of the work in the catalogue. Only then does the strangeness of the photograph become clear: the shadows in the room are drawn on the places where they existed in reality. So, entering the installation, the visitor finds herself in a space that had real dimensions, but was an artificial place, drawn by the artist. The photo of the original work of 1985 reveals uneven creased surfaces, covered with cheap paper attached with home-made glue and airbrushed shadows. The reconstruction in Zimmerli looks like an ideal embodiment of the original, with gradations of grey shadows calculated on a computer and printed digitally. Nakhova points out[2] that the reconstruction of the work was, in fact, what she had envisioned in 1985, but couldn’t achieve due to restricted access to materials and no access to art institutions.

Ira Nakhova, Room N°¯3, 1985: Installation in the artist’s apartment. Photograph showing Galina Chernogaeva  by: Georgy Kizevalter. Courtesy of Ira Nakhova.

Ira Nakhova, Room N° 3, 1985: Installation in the artist’s apartment. Photograph showing Galina Chernogaeva by: Georgy Kizevalter. Courtesy of Ira Nakhova.

The Rooms series occupies a momentous place in the history of Moscow conceptualism. Beginning during the cold, dark, wet, and frustratingly long winter of 1982-3, Nakhova created five different installations of Rooms in her apartment over five consecutive years. Each installation was made in the winter, and each turned a domestic space into a white cube, transformed by means of light, collages, and painting. “I started doing things out of extreme necessity before I even knew the term installation. It was the start of the 1980s, the Brezhnev era [...] it felt that everything was over and nothing would ever change.”[3] The room of the apartment was emptied of its domestic objects and turned into a space with white walls and specialist lighting (Nakhova invited a theatre lighting specialist). The Room therefore became a “white cube,” a metaphor and representation of a Western art institution, created in the private space of an artist’s apartment, at the time when the real “white cube” of the art institution was completely absent in the Soviet Union. The walls of museums and exhibition halls, controlled by the Union of Artists, were colorful and busy with contesting paintings; there was also a tradition, much-loved by Soviet designers, to cover walls of exhibition halls with fabric. These halls were, in any case, inaccessible to conceptualists.

In the Dialogues of Andrey Monastyrsky with Joseph Backstein,[4] Monastyrsky recounts that the creation of each Room by Nakhova was a significant event in the life of conceptualist circles in Moscow. Her Rooms, he said, “shook the community as no other work by any artist.”[5] The two weeks in which each Room existed were marked with discussions and meetings. Ilya Kabakov, seeing Room №1, praised Nakhova’s work and at the same time criticized it for the lack of social agenda: it is impossible to say where exactly this work was made, he argued[6]. Two years later, Kabakov showed his friends his first installation, The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, a work that shows a succinct critique of Soviet reality.

In contrast, Nakhova’s work didn’t relate to social critique; it came from the space of feminine subjectivity: women often find solace in doing some work on their homes, transforming them somehow: “I started doing things out of extreme necessity [...].” As often happens with feminist critique, it starts from the point of subjectivity, but goes far beyond personal matters. Nakhova’s work was addressing the institutional situation: Moscow conceptualists were working as if in an imagined and idealized “Western” art institution, in the situation of the impossibility of such an institution, which Nakhova articulated by recreating a “white cube” in her small, Central Moscow apartment. The representation of an art institution in the form of a small local “white cube” accentuated an institutional demand coming from a tight group of artists who envisioned the possibility of such an ideal institution, one free of the flaws of both the Soviet system and the corrupting influences of a free market in a real, Western “white cube.” When recreated in Zimmerli Art Museum in 2016 in its original dimensions, Room №3 was placed inside a big museum space with high ceilings: stepping inside, the viewer could feel the difference between the real spacious “white cube” of the museum and the small imaginative one, finding herself within a space that was half real, half drawn by the artist.

Ira Nakhova, Room N°¯3, 2016: Installation in Zimmerly Art Museum. Courtesy of Ira Nakhova.

Ira Nakhova, Room N° 3, 2016: Installation in Zimmerly Art Museum. Courtesy of Ira Nakhova.

are by all means the most influential works of Moscow conceptualism, and they are some of the finest examples of feminist institutional critique, created at a time when feminism was practically mute in Russia.[7] There was almost a decade-long gap between the forced emigration of a generation of feminists who published the samizdat magazines Women and Russia and Maria—Tatiana Goricheva, Tatiana Mamonova,  Natalia Malakhovskaya, and Yulia Voznesenskay—and a powerful wave of feminist art exhibitions of the 1990s in Russia. Tatyana Mamonova argued that the non-official art world was misogynist and male-dominated. In fact, the history of it until recently was written as the history of male leaders with big ideas. However, it is important to underline that: 1) the artist who first articulated institutional critique, specific for the place and time and within that milieu, was a woman; 2) her works “shook the community” and provided a powerful impetus to the art of total installation; 3) the reconfiguration of private/domestic as institutional/political and producing works from a place of vulnerability, subjectivity and sensitivity put Nakhova’s installations of the 1980s alongside the works of Western feminists of the time, such as Martha Rosler.

Rooms required the viewer’s interaction, and a series of discussions were conducted in each installation. Documentation of discussions, hand-typed in five copies, became part of the archive of Moscow conceptualism (MANI, Moscow Archive of New Art). The important feature of that archive was that it was created with the works of art, rather than as a post hoc assembly of documentation. In the situation when the “white cube” of the museum was unavailable, the archive became an institution for curating artworks, to select them and put them into a historically relevant context, preserving and opening them for future debates. Boris Groys pointed out that, “The concept of a divine power that is perfectly sovereign and does not need any legitimization was transferred to the museum. This protestant theory of choice, which stresses the unconditional power of the chooser, is a precondition for institutional critique—the museums were criticized for how they used and abused their alleged power.”[8] In those terms, the archive of Moscow conceptualism played the humble role of vicarage: their power was conditional and restricted by their tight circle. But the choice they made, in fact, became a choice of history.

Gluklya (Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya) started an ongoing project, Debates on Division (curated by Anna Bitkina), as part of the public program of Manifesta 10 that took place in her native city of St. Petersburg. Opened in 2014, soon after the anti-LGBTQ law and annexation of Crimea, Manifesta 10 was partly boycotted by some artists and curators. Unlike her colleagues of the Chto Delat? group, Gluklya decided to participate in the biennial, putting the controversies of the political situation at the very center of her project, exploring social, political, and personal ruptures that underlined the conflict. She organized an event at the Alexandrinsky Theatre where the public was invited to participate in putting together a collection of an imaginative Museum of Utopian Clothes that would collect costumes which most eloquently signify historical, political, and social forces of the time. The pieces were donated by people who were telling their stories, which were pre-recorded. The jury of arts workers judged the donations, but the final decisions about whether the items deserved a place in the museum were made by the audience voting. Gluklya wrote a backbone script, but the development of the discussions was subject to a large degree of spontaneity.

Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), Debates on Division: When Private Becomes Public, Manifesta 10, 2014:  Documentation of performance at New Stage of Alexandrinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. Photo: Nokolay Simonovsky.  Courtesy of Gluklya.

Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), Debates on Division: When Private Becomes Public, Manifesta 10, 2014: Documentation of performance at New Stage of Alexandrinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. Photo: Nokolay Simonovsky. Courtesy of Gluklya.

Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), Debates on Division: When Private Becomes Public, Manifesta 10, 2014:  Documentation of performance at New Stage of Alexandrinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. Photo: Nokolay Simonovsky.  Courtesy of Gluklya.

Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), Debates on Division: When Private Becomes Public, Manifesta 10, 2014: Documentation of performance at New Stage of Alexandrinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. Photo: Nokolay Simonovsky. Courtesy of Gluklya.


The arguments of the judges and comments from the audience revealed deep discord not only between the different politics within the art world, but also the ruptures between the politics of the creative class and the people—a most painful problem for the Russian intelligentsia since the nineteenth century. A petite woman migrant worker from Kyrgyzstan offered the white dress she wore for her daughter’s birthday party. Telling the story of her displacement, she said that although she worked very hard, she was confident that she would be paid for her labor, and she believed that by putting herself under the pressures of a migrant worker, she would build a brighter future for her children. This woman’s donation was criticized by a judge, a left-wing political scientist for its conformity. Although the judge’s argument that conformity prevents social progress was well informed and correct, the question arose: when a left-wing academic criticizes the position of a migrant woman, does he do it from a more comfortable social position? If the answer is yes, doesn’t he put this woman, already deprived of many human rights and social securities, under even more oppression, this time from the privileged left? The feminist philosopher Alla Mitrofanova[9] writes: “Feminist art, where it is on the left side of the political spectrum, is an internal opposition to the left movement, making it reconceptualize the automatic reiteration of leftist rhetoric, and pushing the formulation of issues into new circumstances, by fighting on two fronts. Feminism reveals how the right and the left in politics come close in their simplification of the system, caught by the traps of their own ideologies.”[10]The debates were charged with personal positions that were incompatible with each other. One jury member shared her nostalgic rumination about holidays in Crimea, while a woman in the audience answered that she is Ukrainian and, living in Russia, wears Ukrainian clothes to manifest how the conflict between the two countries plays out on her body. The conflicted atmosphere of debates dissolved when everybody was ushered outside, where they participated in a procession along the main avenues of St. Petersburg to the Monument to Gogol in Admiralty Square. After charged debates in the theatre, participants found themselves as a small and quirky group among the summer crowds of a “City Museum.” They saw, they felt, how tiny their community was within the crowds of the city—and the divisions within their community looked smaller than the rupture between the city and them—and this was the same rupture between the intelligentsia and the people that was revealed during the debates and that made everybody feel uncomfortable.

The Artist’s Place is on the Side of the Weak is a manifesto that Gluklya and her partner in the Factory of Found Clothes (FFC),[11] Olga (Tsaplya) Egorova, wrote in 2002. In this statement, the rupture between the creative class and the people is revealed and worked with. Connected to this, it would be relevant to remember Tatiana Goricheva, a feminist publisher of the 1970s, who stated that she turned to feminism because she became disappointed in the elitism of dissident circles in Leningrad.[12]Working with clothes has allowed to Gluklya and Tsaplya to explore political divisions from the position of the weak and reveal the affective power of art by means of breaking boundaries and using carnivalesque strategies of exposure, absurdism, and laughter. Gluklya’s strategy is like the “radical empathy” of Andrea Fraser, except her works are not entirely contained within the institutions, but spill onto the streets. Gluklya and Tsaplya’s first well-known performance as FFC was In Memory of Poor Liza (1996). Wearing white dresses, they jumped into the Winter Canal in St. Petersburg. Reference to “Poor Liza”[13] was important for them, as it was one of the first novels in Russian literature that asserted the priority of feelings, empathy, and compassion over rationality. Social and gender inequality is at the center of its narrative. The novel’s heroine drowned herself due to an unhappy love affair with a man whose social position was superior to hers. Jumping into the cold waters of the Winter Canal, the artists used the vulnerability of their bodies in line with international feminist tradition to criticize social patterns of inequality. But, more than that, they aimed to attract attention to contemporary art at a time when contemporary art was only emerging as an institution in post-Soviet Russia. In preparation for the performance, Gluklya and Tsaplya debated the necessity of documenting the performance with their fellow artists of the radical art community in St. Petersburg. Contrary to their colleagues’ opinion, such as the Novye Tupye group, which was against documentation, Gluklya and Tsaplya persevered and invited journalists to their action.

Thinking about art institutions as places ruled by collective agreement, mission, and cooperation and, at the same time, involved in power patterns imposed by hyper-capitalism, one imagines institutions that are embedded in the set of established agreements of democracy. Democracy, however imperfect, is a systematic tradition of theory and thought, based on values of equality and freedom, won over a long history of struggles, their values embedded in education and culture. Feminism, radicalizing left-wing struggles and enriching them with affective rhetoric and reframing them according to radical demand, comes from the same root of democracy that engendered the art institutions at their best. But what happens in regions with a relatively young tradition of contemporary art, where feminist struggles have been conducted in political conditions different from democratic contexts, which shaped feminist struggles in a different way and sometimes under different names? Coming to Russia in the first post-Soviet years and visiting studios of women artists, art critic and curator Jo Anna Isaak found a strong tradition of feminist resistance, which, wrapped in a different language, was often incompatible with Western feminist discourse: “In the course of many long, intense conversations that lasted well into the night, I have come to realize that our mutual misperceptions may prove to be the most fruitful part of interchange, for they tell a good deal about ourselves and what we are hoping to find in new social configurations for women.”[14]A play, Global Congress of Post-Prostitution[15] written by philosopher Keti Chukhrov, is a satire on the hierarchies of the art world, the axis of which lies along West-East divisions. Shown at Steirischer Herbst in Graz in September 2019, the piece touches upon the most uncomfortable ruptures within the art world. The comedy is set in a small destitute post-Soviet town in Georgia, where art workers organize a global symposium, inviting star participants from the West. Written by Georgia-born, Moscow-based Chukhrov, the piece develops into a carnivalesque and dark power game where star academics wrestle with their provincial counterparts. At a certain point, the provincial protagonist claims:

The best way for us to gain as much power as possible is to do exactly what we criticize. Denounce with the one hand and implement with the other; defy subjugation and simultaneously subjugate; deplore the extremes of techno-science and simultaneously be in the avant-garde of techno-science. You can criticize power only if you have that very power. Therefore, you first have to criticize it, then pretend that none of this power is yours, and then you control both, power and the position resisting it.[16]

Chukhrov’s satire, coming from within the left, challenges leftist rhetoric that leaves aside real cases of physical and mental suffering caused by “careers” that most workers didn’t choose voluntarily, an issue that is particularly acute in countries that don’t belong to the developed West.

Art as an established institution has a large degree of power that activists can use as a resource to change the system. The artist Katrin Nenasheva decided to fight for the rights of children in foster homes. For this, she conducted a series of performances, one of which lasted for twenty-one days in the summer of 2014: she tied a bed to her back and walked around Central Moscow. She was a budding artist and had institutional support, therefore she could not be ignored by society: her performances caused public debates and led to changes in the system of fostering children in Russia. From 2005 to 2013, Eugenia Golant drew portraits of migrant workers trading on a street market, and exhibited them in the same communities in which they were made. Olga Jitlina created a board game, Russia is a Country of Opportunities,[17] in which players can follow different routes of migration, facing all the difficulties that real work migrants have. Jitlina’s game was later republished by governmental agencies as a resource to help migrants navigate the system. All these works caused real changes for the people they were trying to help.

PunkRockFemFest, 2015. Photograph by: Tatyana Sushenkova. Courtesy of Tatyana Volkova.

PunkRockFemFest, 2015. Photograph by: Tatyana Sushenkova. Courtesy of Tatyana Volkova.

PunkRockFemFest, 2015. Photograph by: Tatyana Sushenkova. Courtesy of Tatyana Volkova.


“I can say that if you organize a feminist project, it is very important that it has an art component in it, such as an exhibition or poetry recital,” says activist curator Tatiana Volkova.[18] In 2014, domestic violence was partly decriminalized in Russia, and it triggered many feminist art projects. When the center to support women who survive domestic violence, “nasilie.net” (violence.no), was opened in Moscow, the opening was organized by artists Darya Serenko, Oxana Vasyakina, and her team who helped the center achieve publicity and reach victims of domestic  violence who wouldn’t know about the center otherwise. “It is a very effective strategy because quite often an act of civil resistance stays ignored; it doesn’t have an instrument to attract public attention to the problem,” says Volkova.[19]The generation that emerged in Russia after Pussy Riot’s action in the cathedral (2011) brought about activist strategies that are different from their predecessors. Abandoning the strategy of single heroic actions that inevitably fall into the patriarchal pattern of power wrestling, feminists are developing an approach of “quiet picketing” and building a flickering network of support groups, making small changes, in real life. Every day for eighteen months, Daria Serenko went out to Quiet Picket, with posters that she quietly unfolded in public places, engaging strangers in conversation about discrimination and sexism. A poet and artist, Serenko is determined that changes could be made on a personal level of empathy and compassion. In 2013-14, the artists Victoria Lomasko and Nadia Plungian organized the festival Feminist Karandash, a series of exhibitions with an intense program of discussions, workshops, counseling, and master classes in self-defense. The festival became an emerging platform for many women artists who hadn’t had the opportunity to exhibit before, thus substantially enlarging the circles of artists who work with a feminist agenda in different regions of Russia.

Daria Serenko, Quiet Picket, 2017, courtesy of Daria Serenko.

Daria Serenko, Quiet Picket, 2017, courtesy of Daria Serenko.

Say No to Violence: How Feminists Should Work in Culture. A banner of an event, fragment. December 12th, 2019, accessed January 21, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/events/448253226089870/

Say No to Violence: How Feminists Should Work in Culture. A banner of an event, fragment. December 12th, 2019, accessed January 21, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/events/448253226089870/

In these conditions, the role of museum archives rises to a level of great importance. Barely visible from the centers of power, archives collect the documentation of activists’ works, providing institutional support for them and making documentation available for exhibitions. The archive of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow is a powerful force for activist projects, including those of feminist activism. It’s led by Alexandra Obukhova, one of the thirteen actionists who threw their bodies on the cobblestones of Red Square in the famous action “The Word” in 1991. The activist art section of the archive is curated by Tatiana Volkova, a curator who had organized the most profound festival of activist art in Russia, Media Impact. The festival, which had fifteen reincarnations (five in Moscow and ten in the regions), started as a large institutional project, a part of the Moscow Biennale, held at one of the large venues in Central Moscow with the support of corporate sponsors. It then moved towards a series of smaller events on independent platforms, when the political situation toughened, and public space narrowed. The first Media Impact opened in autumn 2011, a month before Pussy Riot’s action in the cathedral, and two months before mass protests against undemocratic presidential elections. Later versions of Media Impact were held in small galleries and university seminar rooms as a series of discussions, many of which were closed by the local authorities before they had even started. In 2015, Volkova organized a feminist platform within Media Impact: Fem-Club, which works with different sections such as anarcho-feminism, cyber-feminism, LGTBQ+, decolonial, echo, and now all these sections of contemporary feminism in Russia comprehensively are represented in the museum archive. In a tightening political situation in Russia, activists’ events are suppressed, which makes it very important that these events are institutionalized by entering into museum archives. Like the archives of the Moscow conceptualists, these archives are created and replenished together with artworks that can produce a platform for resistance.

Elena Zaytseva is an independent curator and historian of art, a former Associate Curator of Pushkin House, London. From 2003 to 2007, she worked as a curator at the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, where she co-curated major exhibitions of contemporary art, collection displays, and series of lectures and talks on modern and contemporary art. She curated special projects of the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (2005-2007) and exhibitions in independent art spaces in Moscow and London. She holds a PhD from the Research Institute of Theory and History of Fine Arts, Moscow, and an MFA in Curating from Goldsmiths, University of London. She is a co-editor of Cosmic Shift: Russian Contemporary Art Writing, published in English by ZED Books, London, in 2017.


[1] Exhibition Thinking Pictures at Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, 2016, curator Jane Sharp.

[2] Irina Nakhova, Zoom conversation with author, January 21, 2021.

[3] Irina Nakhova, Rooms (Moscow: Maier, 2011), 31.

[4] Joseph Backstein, Andrey Monastyrsky, “Introductory Dialogue,” in Joseph Backstein, Inside of the Picture: Essays and Dialogues About Contemporary Art (Moscow: New Literature Review, 2015 (in Russian)), 154-176.

[5] Ibid., 175.

[6] Ibid., 174

[7] Later in her career, in the 1990s, Nakhova created a strong body of work that explored gender-related social patterns, and these works were shown in milestone feminist exhibitions. See: Zen Art 1989 - 2009: The History of Gender and Art in Post-Soviet Space (Moscow: Moscow Museum of Modern Art Publishing Program, 2010).

[8] Boris Groys, “Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archive,”, e-flux Journal 45, last accessed January 20, 2021, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/45/60134/art-workers-between-utopia-and-the-archive/.

[9] Alla Mitrofanova is also a co-founder founder of the Cyberfemin Club, which was the first feminist organization in post-Soviet Russia.

[10] Alla Mitrofanova, “The Public and the Political in Feminist Statement: Street Actions in St. Petersburg and the Pussy Riot Case,” n.paradoxa 32 (July 2013): 5-12.

[11] Factory of Found Clothes (FFC) (1995-2014) was group of two artists, Gluklya (Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya) and Tsaplya (Olga Egorova), who also were co-founders of the Chto Delat? group.

[12] Tatiana Goricheva, “I Got Bored with Сovertness and Elitism of the ‘Second Culture,’” Gefter February 26, 2016, accessed January 29, 2021, http://gefter.ru/archive/17640.

[13] “Poor Liza” is a short story by Nikolay Karamzin, first published in 1792.

[14] Jo Anna Isaak, Feminism and Contemporary Art: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Laughter (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 7.

[15] Global Congress of Post-Prostitution, 58’, is a dark comedy written by Keti Chukhrov, staged by Guram Matskhonashvili, which premiered at the festival Steirischer Herbst in Graz in September 2019 (curators Ekaterina Degot, Dominik Müller).

[16] Ibid., 43’.

[17] Olga Jitlina and ADC Memorial, Russia is a Country of Opportunities, board game, Olga Jitlina (idea), Andrey Yakimov (consultant), David Ter-Oganyan (drawing), Galina Jitlina, Alexander Lyakh (development), Tatiana Alexandrova, Nadezhda Voskresenskaya (design), 2011—2012.

[18] Tatyana Volkova, conversation with the author, October 10, 2019.

[19] Ibid.

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Issue 52

Instituting Feminism


by Helena Reckitt and Dorothee Richter

by Secretariat for Ghosts, Archival Politics and Gaps (SKGAL)

Emelie Chhangur interviewed by Jennifer Fisher

by Husseina Hamza, Joyce Jacca, Tracey Jarrett, and Janna Graham

by la Sala (Alba Colomo & Lucy Lopez)

by Alex Martinis Roe and Helena Reckitt

by Romane Bernard, Sofia Cecere, Thelma Gaster, Jeanne Guillou, Barbara Lefebvre, Séraphine Le Maire, Oksana Luyssen, Rose Moreau, Jeanne Porte, Laurence Rassel, and Miska Tokarek

by Ann Sutherland Harris, Daria Khan, Rosa Martínez, Camille Morineau, Maura Reilly, and Catherine de Zegher

by Ève Chabanon, Anna Colin, and Madeleine Planeix-Crocker