Irina Machitski, architect, artist, and Buddhist student, saw her passions come together when she build a stupa, Buddhist bell-shaped structure, on a remote island in Siberia. Irina, who is the publisher of the Tretyakov Magazine, the publication of Russian’s largest museum of national art, Tretyakov Gallery, spoke with impactmania about how interiors in London led her to colors, which ultimately led her to building a stupa. She is now in the midst of realizing a stupa in Victory Park, Moscow to foster communications, coexistence, and peace in the center of the Russian capital.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
It was my dream. After architecture school, I was very lucky to meet one of the most renowned British designer David Laws in London. [Laws was responsible for the State Rooms at 10 Downing Street during Margaret Thatcher’s reign.] Under the tutorship of David Laws, first as an assistant-designer, then as a designer and artist, came my deep knowledge about private life — how a family lives inside a space. Selecting fabric and putting an interior together gave me an understanding of paintings, understanding how artists see nature through color.
You mentioned that designer David Law allowed you to see architecture differently. How was it different from architecture in Russia?
Before the [Russian] revolution, prominent families used to invite mostly architects from abroad, Italy and France, to build houses. After the revolution, nobody cared if families wanted to invite guests and how the space would allow for those functions. The home became very basic. The family was supposed to adjust to the space, not the other way around. We stopped creating space, an environment, serving the family.
After the ‘90s when some families in Russia had enough means to build homes, it was a very primitive attempt. There were a lot of houses that would have circular rooms or pointed roofs. It was rather funny.
Russians are very talented in general; the culture is deeply rooted in the arts. Right now, there are beautiful buildings being build and a young generation of architects who create incredible spaces.
How did you move from architecture into art? Or have you always been a painter?
This is exactly the period where I started to convey my feelings through color. This is where it started. I was fortunate to be abroad and meet people like David, who opened my eyes to color. In Russia everything was very subdued. The colors used were earthy tones, black, and gray. I wanted to share the feeling that comes with bright explosions of colors with people in Russia. My first exhibition was held at the Moscow Central House of Artists that can be rented by any artist. It was a very large space and I filled it with a very bright colors.
That must have been very unusual for you to come out with all these colors.
I needed to share the discovery. Especially for my family, it was a surprise, maybe even a shock. They would look at my husband at the time, with a face that expressed, are you sure she painted this? Then it turned into a feeling of pride. We had a guest book where people left their opinions. There were very interesting entries, people thanked me for showing another world.
One young girl was very adamant about one of the painting, Loneliness. She wanted to discuss it, because it disturbed her. She said, “I have no idea what this painting is talking about. It’s not how I would imagine loneliness.” And, at the same time, there was an elderly woman, who expressed, “Now I see that people share the same feelings as I do.”
People would come back to see the exhibits. It was very special to me to help people see emotions through colors.
How did colors become so critical in your work?
I had a deeper understanding of color, which started with Nicholas Roerich, a famous Russian painter and philosopher. When we looked at Roerich’s painting when we were little, we saw mountains that were of royal blue color or a lapis lazuli color. People thought those colors were from Roerich’s imagination. Then when we went to the Himalayas, we saw exactly those colors. It felt like I was finally seeing colors. I had to share it.
From art you moved into Buddhism.
Spiritual growth was brewing inside of me. My art gave me courage to share spirituality with others. Western culture couldn’t always give me answers. I was reading the letters between the Van Gogh brothers, for example, and looking at the art of Kandinsky, trying to understand philosophy and reason. For me, the only understanding of the world came through color. Buddhism, unlike other religions, is very connected with colors and elements. That was the draw. Then, optimism and hope came through sharing.
What’s the main thing you learned about yourself being a Buddhist student?
It was very unexpected when I learned about who I was. Life creates situations for us where we learn something new about ourselves. In the way we behave, the way we react. In general, life is a series of open-ended lessons for us to find out our true selves.
Take for example, California, where we are now. It’s absolute paradise, but then the [Thomas] Fire happens and it becomes hell. How do we react? What do we do? Are we ready to help? Russia in that way is a much more complicated place — I find it more harsh. Those checkpoints are everywhere, all the time, everyday, anywhere you look. You are given opportunities to do something; every day you’re given a chance to make a conscious choice.
There are people that live in Russia and their life is really, really complicated. This is why we build the stupa. A stupa is a piece of architecture. It’s a building, but it’s a place of power, strength, and energy that is artificially created. For that you need a special shape of the building in a special place. There are rituals that are done throughout the creation and construction process. It takes time that fills this specific object with energy. You can compare it to wine that is being aged.
This specific stupa was created to help people to think in positive ways. Positive thinking is the only way to release oneself from suffering.
The stupa is build on Ogoy a remote island in Siberia. Why there?
Yes, it is on Ogoy on Lake Baikal in Siberia. It’s difficult and easy question. I was born in Siberia, so that’s a first connection. More mystical answer? I saw the shape of this island in a dream and knew that this island was located on Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal for Siberia is like the Himalayas for India: a natural phenomenon that purifies the soul and mind. The stupa is a declaration of World Peace and Consolation.
In 2004, when we organized a trip to Lake Baikal with a Tibetan Lama, we were stopping on many different places on Lake Baikal. On the very last day before we were leaving, we stopped at one island.
There’s nothing on the island, there’s no water, people, nothing. The Lama said that it would be a good place to have supper. One year later, we found ourselves organizing the whole construction. We joke that it was like a pregnancy, because it took nine months to build the stupa.
How accepted is it in Russia to build a stupa?
It was a complicated period at the beginning, because it is next to the main island, Olkhom. This is the place where the world shaman organization holds its annual meetings. So it is historic shaman’s land, and was present even before the [Russian] revolution.
When we were building in 2005, there were no real obstacles. It was going rather well, local people would come help us, people from the country, even from abroad. They would come, stay for a couple of days, and lend a hand. During the construction, there was endless display of blessings. I can’t even begin to tell you how many rainbows we’ve seen, or incredible rain that would look like crystals falling from the sky, just like diamonds. It was orchestrated like a special play of nature and elements, working with us in synchronicity.
In Tibetan tradition, it’s very important to be in agreement with the elements. In the Western world, you’d have a private piece of land; you’d come in and start chopping away all the trees to build a house. Tibetans see that differently — you have to be in peaceful agreement; you have to ask permission to disturb the elements, to disturb life. That was an important lesson.
You are closely involved with the Tretyakov Gallery. Why Tretyakov?
Around 2000 when Russia opened up to the West, I wanted through the GRANY foundation [Irina’s foundation] share with the world the riches of Russian art. The Tretyakov Gallery is the largest museum of Russian art in the world. At the same time I wanted to demonstrate to the Russian public Russian art and what’s going on in the western world. The Museum became an inspiration for a magazine that is published in two languages, Russian and English.
What is your main message of the Museum’s publication?
The biggest problem as we see it is communications. The earth’s problems are a result of human inability to live in harmony and understand each other. We need more communication between different countries and different cultures. The main goal is to have that dialogue.
In the media, there is much debate about the divide between men and women. What are your thoughts regarding the communications between men and women?
From the point of view of Buddhism and our philosophy, there is no man or women. There’s a positive thinking, a positive view of the world. Then there is a negative thinking, self-cherishing. If people are jealous, there’s envy and competition. For us, gender is not really a factor.
We know how some people are approaching the discussion in the U.S. with #metoo, but we do hope that there is a middle way. Women shouldn’t try to become men. We need each another and collaborate. You don’t have to put somebody down to raise yourself up.
From a Buddhist’s points of view, from the ultimate level, there is no female or male, there’s Buddha nature. That unites us all. Depending on your current predisposition, or whatever accumulations you’ve become, you are one or the other. We want women to keep their feminine nature and yet have this decisiveness and ability to make executive decisions.
How do you explain that men come first, women second in Buddhism?
Buddhism and culture, they are different things. In cultural tradition, in Tibet, men are still the ruling class. It is the same in Christianity where it’s more difficult for a nun to become the leader of a monastery. The Tibetan culture is different from a Buddhism — we care about the Buddha nature.
Let’s talk about miscommunication and misunderstanding between cultures. What do you think is one of the misconceptions that the people in the West have of people in Russia?
Izabell Blumin, Irina friend:
[The musician] Sting said it, “the Russians love their children too”
Civilization, in its current form, is to propel economy. And any country needs a good enemy. Russia has been a very good enemy, with a face and place for many years. Today, enemies are without faces and places, think of ISIS. We have seen American boys joining ISIS. We hope that the young generation will wake up, have dialogue, and find harmony. Compassion, dialogue, and awareness, whatever the buzzwords are, but we need to find harmony.
Our Buddhists training teaches us that we need to approach every human being as our parent. That helps us to see the world differently. Russian people are not different from American people. And politicians all over the world are the same. As soon as there’s this ego starting to cling to the soul, it is negative. Reminding ourselves that we are our own parents at one life or another helps us to be kind. There is a reason why all the sentient beings on this world are humankind, but we keep forgetting that. We keep forgetting the word kind.
Irina: There is an interesting project that we are working on; we are looking to build a stupa in the heart of Moscow. There’s a special park in the heart of Moscow called Victory Park, where people come and remember the veterans. There are different religions represented in the park. Buddhism is not part of it yet. The aspiration is to have a stupa in the heart of Moscow.
Everyone will co-exist in Victory Park?
Yes, it will have a cultural resemblance and connection to Russian culture, and yet it will be representing a Buddhist mind. It is an aspiration for everybody to start listening to each other.
The stupa will be a joint effort of all the Buddhist’s different lineages and directions, we will build it together — a stupa for the city, for the country, which will bring peace, prosperity, and a bright future for people connecting with the natural elements.