Artist: Nika Kupyrova
Title: Woman in Green
Text by Kathrin Heinrich
Photography by Janine Schranz
Video installation by Gerald Zahn and Nika Kupyrova
Venue: Bildraum, Vienna
Crime and Embellishment
A scene is set: the swimming pool glistening in the fractured sunlight of an unsettled autumn day, leaves strewn about the cobblestone ground, the doors of the Victorian pool house set ever so slightly ajar, a box of matches on the low table, a mink coat slinked lackadaisically over the back of a chair.
Leafing through a book, how much is remembered, how much is retained? Reading a novel for the second time, is it a different book then? How much of the scenery recounted here from the memory of my reading a novel is imagined? Was it really autumn? Was there truly cobblestone or rather luscious, emerald grass tended to by a, perhaps brooding, gardener?
Nika Kupyrova’s solo exhibition Woman in Green is rooted in the re-reading of two books that seem vastly different at first glance, on closer inspection, however, reveal delicate connections and parallels regarding the role of women and the examination of labor. A re-reading as re-imagining that twists and interlaces strands of The Hollow, Agatha Christie’s proto-feminist 1946 murder mystery, and The Strange and Beautiful World of Orchids, a faded textbook from 1972 on tropical orchids. Both were crucial impulses for Kupyrova’s project, thematically as well as structurally speaking, and their motifs appear throughout the show – literally, at times, but also figuratively, in the way the single works pick up on their themes.
When Hercule Poirot, Belgian detective extra-ordinaire, arrives at the pool-side murder in The Hollow, he quickly realizes that all is not as it seems. While he can’t quite put his finger on the why (yet), he has the peculiar feeling that an artificial scene was staged for him. A handsome physician, shot by the pool. Five women in his orbit, each undermining a stereotype. It is this very scene of the novel, this air of artificiality reminiscent of an exhibition that renders The Hollow rather unusual.
But it is also the creator of this artificiality – although somewhat innocently, as we learn over the course of the book: the Woman in Green. Neither victim nor truly suspect, the novel revolves around artist Henrietta Severnake, closely examines her routines, her musings, and even her artistic practice. Christie doesn’t shy away from the economic or psychological aspects of artistic life: of Henrietta’s efforts to be part of group shows, her plotting towards new pieces and the experience, the rush of losing herself in the act of creation but also its opposite, the frustration of an artwork she deems failed.
Accompanying Poirot through The Hollow, the undulating gardens and hilly forest of its elegant country-side manor, the one place we never learn of, is the estate’s greenhouse. But shouldn’t there be one? Certainly, the aristocratic ancestors couldn’t have been immune to Orchidelirium, the condition best described as the Victorian fangirling of tropical orchids. Much like the five different women in Christie’s murder mystery, the history of the tropical orchid in Europe tells a story of emancipation, of underestimation and exclusion, and of the overcoming of stereotypes. While the greenhouse was initially seen as a women’s playground, “views on botany changed through the introduction of the tropical orchid, and the act of studying the plant kingdom was transformed from a leisurely, feminine pastime to one with ‘serious’ scientific potential,” as Terri Pinyerd writes in the Hyacinth Review. What was seen as a female hobby, turned into an incredible resource.
Purely formally speaking, the orchid seems oh-so-evocative of feminine anatomy, but the allure of the tropical orchid lies rather in a queerness. As researcher Mike Fay of the British Kew Gardens told The Guardian when asked what it was about orchids that people loved so much, they have “a sort of kinkiness. They don’t have a normal lifestyle. They indulge in strange pollination, they have to have a relationship with a fungus for the seeds to even germinate, they have weird and wonderful flowers that are incredibly variable. Some are difficult to keep going, so it’s a way of showing you are a good horticulturist.”
A question that is also at the heart of Woman in Green. What does it mean to care for plants, to slip into the role of the horticulturist, to be a gardener or ‘just a lady who tends to her plants’? What does it mean to be an artist, and especially a female artist? How do these activities relate to common notions of work and labor?
The weight of the gender role and its expectations seems to become manifest in Kupyrova’s concrete and metal sculptures that materialize the negative space of handbags. Titles like Anne-Marie and Madeleine evoke the women that might carry them. At once old-fashioned and quite contemporary, the names recall The Hollow’s characters, thus posing the question: Who carries the gun in their handbag?