Nika Kupyrova: Creating myths of home and demons that hide within

Nika Kupyrova has traversed Europe from East to West and back. Born in Ukraine and having grown up in Prague, she went on to study art in Edinburgh and Iceland. Now Nika lives and works in Vienna, and partly in Prague, creating installations and photographs of dream-like creatures and spaces. Currently, the young artist has an installation at the Windows Gallery in Vienna - the new art space of the Czech Center in Austria.

Nika Kupyrova, photo: Nathaniel MurrellNika Kupyrova, photo: Nathaniel Murrell I visited the articulate and spirited artist in her Vienna studio and spoke to her about her work, life and the various art scenes she has been a part of. I began by asking her to describe her art and technical approach:

“I work a lot with found materials – old furniture, old objects – objects that come from our general surroundings, often household objects, things that you would probably recognize, but some of them you may be seeing for the first time. So I take the things that we know and put them together in a different way and try to bring out their hidden qualities and hidden associations.

“My recent inspiration has come from mythology and contemporary mythology. I’ve tried to re-create traditional mythological characters using contemporary materials and associations.

“In terms of technique, I combine photography and sculpture. I create sort of photo-sculptures. They are compositions created specifically to be photographed and they are taken apart after the photo shoot. So, the final artwork is a photograph. I also do sculpture and other types of objects. When I work with space, I like to create an all-around experience that allows you to walk in the space and build your own narrative with the hints that I leave around.”

'Head Hunter', photo: Nika Kupyrova'Head Hunter', photo: Nika Kupyrova You now have an installation at the Windows Gallery in Vienna. Can you describe what it is about?

“Originally I created this work for another exhibition, but I usually create installations in such a way that they can be adapted to different places. The [Windows Gallery] space is very specific. It is kind of like a window display, but it is also closed from the back, so it creates a display cabinet of sorts that you see from the outside.

“The series, which is called Head Hunter, is made of small objects that are hanging from branches from the forest, which seem to be growing out of the wall. I was working here with mythology and the boundary between living and non-living and trying to create a new kind of being.

“The title of the series is a play on words, similar to the way that my sculptures are a play with objects. I tried to take this expression, which became quite contemporary, to mean a person who recruits people for jobs. But, at the same time, I look at the other meaning - as someone who actually hunts for heads.

“I took this word from its usual context and put it into a new context, and asked, who really is this headhunter? Is it a person? Is it a creature? And this led me to the creatures I created. They look a bit like heads, but it’s really hard to say, because they don’t necessary look like body parts, but more like simple creatures living their simple existence.”

'Head Hunter' exhibition in Windows Gallery, photo: archive of the Czech Center in Vienna'Head Hunter' exhibition in Windows Gallery, photo: archive of the Czech Center in Vienna You’re quite a world trotter. You’ve lived in Prague, in Edinburgh and now you’re in Vienna. Tell us a bit about how you actually got here?

“I was born in Ukraine and my family moved to Prague when I was eight years old. And it was never the same as the place where I was born, I took it as just another place where I lived. And after living in Prague, I just kept going. I moved to Scotland, and I thought ‘Why not? Why not go somewhere else?’ I just got so used to it. After Scotland, I started exhibiting more and I had a show in Vienna. And I really liked it here and I met my boyfriend here as well. So I thought ‘maybe this is a place where I would like to be for a while’. And I’ve been here since 2009.”

Do you think the movements in your life – geographically and even culturally speaking – inform your art in any way?

“I think it does. Probably not in a way that has anything to do with specific countries. For me it is more about the experience of the traveler, who doesn’t have a particular home. I kind of see this idea of home as a conservative idea of something permanent, that it is somewhere where you are born and where you live. But this concept adapts to the life of a traveler, who makes a home in different places.

'Naked Lights', photo: Nika Kupyrova'Naked Lights', photo: Nika Kupyrova “So, some of my work had to do with the living space and with how you make a new space into a home. Even when you move into a hotel room for a couple of days, you still put your coffee cup or your book in specific places, and you unpack your things and put them in the cupboard. So, you start to build up certain compositions around yourself and try to create a sort of comfort zone, even if it is temporary. This is the same process that you go through when you move into a flat. It’s about building a habitat.”

If we go back a little bit, you started talking about mythology and said that it plays a big role in your work. Given you diverse background, how do the different mythologies from the different places you have been to combine in your work?

“I guess my interest in mythology comes from this living space and from the experience of living in a lot of different places – flats, hotels, different countries, spaces and habits. And I came to see the living space as a sort of safer, more controllable version of the outdoors.

“We try to build it around ourselves in a way that makes us feel comfortable. At the same time, there are some elements which are symbolic of the outdoors. For example, we have the light on the ceiling – which is somewhat of a symbol of the light outdoors. We would feel uncomfortable without it, but at the same time we can turn it on and off, it won’t burn us, it won’t be too bright.

'Drawers', photo: Nika Kupyrova'Drawers', photo: Nika Kupyrova “And this brought me to the idea of mythology that we create. There are these elements that we create in the living space – light, water, heat – but even though they are much more controllable, they still make the shadows in the dark corners and the spaces under the bed and all those places that phobias and demons can hide.”

You can also now compare the contemporary art scenes in the different cities you have lived and exhibited. How would you say the Vienna differs from Prague in this respect?

“I think when you come to Prague for the first time looking for contemporary art you probably won’t find a lot, because it doesn’t have such a prominent place there as it has in Vienna, for example. The average person on the street probably would not known anything about it. And when I came back to Prague for the first time after university, I had a feeling that it was all very slow there, all quite improvised.

“Now, I have a feeling that it’s changing all the time. There are many new projects starting, new spaces are opening. I think in general Vienna has a similar type of cultural scene to the one in Prague. It is just that recently Vienna has become much more international; people come here for residencies, for travel, for projects and here I feel like I’m in a good place because eventually everyone will come here to visit. It’s not yet like that in Prague, but it’s getting there.”

Have you had any shows recently in Prague?

“I always try to have some shows in Prague, because I am trying to get to know new people and stay a part of the scene there. Recently I had a show at the gallery of the National Technical Library, and there are a couple of other things coming up. Mostly I show in Vienna, but about a third of my exhibitions are in Prague.”

'Keep', photo: Gerald Zahn'Keep', photo: Gerald Zahn Are you currently working on something new?

“I was just working on a new photography series, which was about the concept of the coat of arms. I tried to re-create the idea of the coat of arms with contemporary ingredients. It was quite fascinating for me to create these kinds of logos or brands for a family. It got me to think about a family as a political structure. Every family, big or small, has their intrigues, their backstabbing, etc.

“And I already have my next project planned out. It won’t be a sculpture or a photograph, it will have to do with text art. The project is about fortune cookies. So it is perhaps a slightly new direction for my work. [The text in fortune cookies] have a very specific language to them. It has to apply to any person who may read it, but at the same time has to sound as if it was just about you. And I found that quite interesting. And I wonder if it would still work if it is presented in a different form, if it’s not this secret message, without the element of taking it out of the personalized cookie.

“Text art is one of the themes I started working on at university, but I left it for a while, and now I would like to come back to it.”