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Taus Makhacheva and 380 Kilos of Well-planned Absurdity

The spectrum of the themes explored by Taus Makhacheva, a Russian artist from the Caucasus, is very vide. Whether she’s dealing with complex political issues or creating mock-ups for the Venice Biennial, considered to be one of the most prestigious exhibitions in the world, the artist does everything with constructive criticism and subtle humor. In the following conversation, the artist shares her thoughts on how she became an artist, the difficulties she faced while trying to make it in the art world, and the large installation that is currently showcased in the Kaunas Railway Station as a part of the 12th Kaunas Biennial AFTER LEAVING | BEFORE ARRIVING.

Although you are typically recognized for your work that reflects on the geographical specificity of the Caucasus, its vexed history, and your own dual Russian/Avar identity, recently your artistic practice took an unexpected turn. You don’t talk about Dagestan all that much anymore. Do you intentionally concentrate on other topics?

I think there are different ways of functioning when it comes to artistic practices. It’s like a system of currents that sometimes exist under surface and can be very conflicting since each current might flow in a different direction. However, some currents of my practice stay the same and can be traceable through my works, whether it’s resilience to images, forms, or social structures, or whether there’s constant desire to push against things and to question basic things. The work Ring Road, which is exhibited in Kaunas, is a good example of that. There’s a lot of geography, Dagestan, and the reality that trigger my way of thinking in this piece. But it’s also a work about the serious relationship between the artist and the art world. It’s about the exchange and the way we function, the current art market, and the exhibition system.

However, sometimes my works have a broader scope. For instance, the work I exhibited in the First International Riga Biennial last summer called Dear R., R., K., S., M., A., C., S., K., I., G., L., A., A., L., P., G., E., J., D., M., C., B., O., F., F., R., D., M., E., L., I., F., L., A., M., T., K., K., L., P., F., V., A., L., L.consisted of 52 audio speakers that were simultaneously playing different apologetic phrases collected by me from e-mails. It was about a clash between our thinking time and external demand time, how much we are able or not able keep up and what that ‘keeping up’ really means today. Recently, one of my favorite words became ‘JOMO’ – the joy of missing out, as a contradiction to ‘FOMO’ – the fear of missing out. I think JOMO is a good word for 2019 or even the beginning of the 21stcentury.

My work consists of different layers, so I don’t think it’s a shift. However, I’m very influenced by my surroundings. So, if I’m watching a lot of ASMR videos, I end up making ASMR Spafor the Liverpool Biennial. And, if I am driving and looking at mountains in Dagestan, of course I’m going to come up with something like Ring Road. It is, to an extent, about my environment. I guess, lately, my environment simply wasn’t just about Dagestan, since I was traveling a lot for work.

Speaking of ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) Spa(2018), quite often it is described as one of your most ambitious projects so far. Could you tell us more about it?

I was invited to the 2018 Liverpool Biennial by its curator Kitty Scott and director Sally Tallant for a new commission. During my research residency I came across the incredible space called Blackburne House. It was the first school for girls in Liverpool, but it was closed at some point and later reopened as education center for women. Now it is a place of transformation and empowerment. At the time, I was watching a lot of ASMR videos and I wanted to do something that reflects on this phenomenon. Since the videos are recorded with 3D mics, they are incredibly real, very soothing and pleasant. I was interested in this imitation of one-to-one intimacy that one can get hooked on. During my research residency I also discovered that when the Blackburne House was reopened after twenty-five years of being closed, there was a sculpture found at the entrance, which was broken into pieces. Somehow everything just connected.

I invited the amazing artist Alexander Kutavoi to develop the installation with me. He proposed an installation which consisted of imaginary enlarged pieces of the broken sculpture from Blackburne House and made it into furniture for the spa. The visitors to ASMR Spawere almost literally lying down on the parts of the broken Greek sculpture while having a facial and listening to beauticians narrate a script written by David McDermott. All these facial beauty procedures are incredibly similar to the way restorers clean a painting or a sculpture. So, in a way, the visitors were sculptures, being cleaned and assembled, while listening to the metaphorical stories of how different artworks, just like them, were destroyed and recovered throughout history. We had beauty products developed especially for ASMR Spa.They were based on different stages of sculpture creation. We had a clay cleanser, a metal-infused toner, a plaster mask, and a cream. The last was my favorite. It was developed by the Moscow cosmetic company 22|11, which signed up for this crazy idea. It was called Ready to Paint Moisturiser, and its main ingredients were linseed oil and cotton extract, which are basically the ingredients of a painting. The visitors to the spa would go through the sculptural process of molding, absorb the ‘paint’, and then leave. Meanwhile, people who didn’t have the means for the actual facial at ASMR Spacould watch the ASMR video imitating the whole thing.

Parallel to your artistic practice, you have also created an alter ego called Super Taus, a female superhero, who can be easily recognized by her traditional Avarian women’s outfit. Once in an interview you described her body of work as ‘life-affirming practices’. Could you briefly comment on that?

Super Taus is someone who appeared in 2013, when I had a small solo show in Tehran, where I met Sohrab Kashani. He’s an artist, curator, and writer, who has an alter ego called Super Sohrab. Super Sohrab is an ordinary guy with a superhero costume that sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails. I guess his mere existence speaks quite well about redefining masculinity, contrary to all those heroes that embody the whole country.

I was so astonished by this and a little later Super Taus appeared as a mode of resistance to the feeling of political helplessness. I also see her as homage to all my Dagestani female relatives who are very strong women who have accepted the social structure they’re living in and find happiness in doing what they’re expected to do with a certain strength and resilience. She’s not just someone who comes out at moments of crisis. Super Taus is someone who exists all the time. She lives her life in the mountains in Dagestan, has a family, and works at a kindergarten. She’s not an artist, but if I cannot manage something, I call her for help. She has ideas or can do a talk instead of me. But she doesn’t operate on art-world terms. What she does is life-affirming practices. I, myself, am still very much an artist that makes artwork.

How did you choose to become an artist in the first place?

I wanted to be a clown when I was a kid, but I knew it would be incredibly competitive because there were so many children in the circus which, obviously, in my childhood mind, wanted the same. Meanwhile, my mother is an art historian, so I was hanging around artists a lot as a child and I was constantly being asked if I want to be an artist myself. I used to say yes, but it wasn’t true. There’s no salary, no working hours, you never know if you’re making something good or not, there’s no criteria. I remember my initial terror and rejection very well. So, I completed my first degree in economics. Later, however, I studied photography, but I found it quite limited. I wanted to go into the unknown. So, I started looking for the best art schools in London. People suggested Slade and Goldsmiths. I didn’t get into Slade, but Goldsmiths took me. At the time I didn’t know the system or that the Venice Biennial existed – I knew nothing. All I knew was that I wanted more.

Most of your work involves art-world critique. For example, in your film Tightrope(2015) we can see the tightrope walker Rasul Abakarov conveying framed artworks between two rocky outcrops in the Caucasus Mountains. And, quite recently for the 2017 Venice Biennial,  you created a fictional documentation of the performance Baida(Boat), which never took place, as a sort of mock-up about one of the most important art events in the world. What inspires you to engage in this critical discourse towards the art world? What struggles did you encounter personally with regards to this topic?

Very often, I think it comes from a place of pain. Why do I do art? I don’t do it to be rich. I mean, just look at my amazing colleagues. A lot of them are incredible artists that are making great shows. However, a lot of them are struggling. So, if you do art, you do it because you have something to say, and usually it comes from a place of pain. The art system is complicated, and there are a lot of things that I find incredibly difficult. For example, Tightropestarted with me being very angry at a specific situation: I found out how the whole collection of the museum was forced to move within a very short time. This made me question why culture acts in service to politics. It’s one of those things that has always been done and will probably last as long as humanity exists. I guess I’m a believer in culture.

And as for Baida, it was a performance that no one saw. It was meant to be that way. First, I had the idea to bring in a real boat and exhibit it. But then I thought that would be ridiculous. I mean, why would I spend money for that and what would that even mean? Very often I can be obsessively self-reflective when developing my works. I think it is something that Goldsmiths gave me, a certain anxiety and neurosis that make me question my ideas so that I eventually arrive at a form that actually makes sense. So, for BaidaI decided to make a non-existing online performance at this obscure point in Adriatic Sea that no one is going to visit. The script for the invisible performance was written by Tim Etchells and it was about people trying to find the work at the Venice Biennial and constantly asking what and where it is. There’s this FOMO idea once again. I guess this was the only work that I could have done as a new commission at the time.

This year at the Kaunas Biennial you will present the installation called Ring Road(2018), which you once described as ‘completely ridiculous’. It seems to be a work with many layers. Could you tell us a little more about it? What is the idea behind it?

Ring Roadalso started with the very basic desire to make a ring road. But I’m glad that I didn’t. Funny right? Every time I create a work I go through the desires of the middle 20thcentury, but I keep questioning it. The idea was influenced by the Soviet film called The Path Leads Downwards(Тропа уходит вниз, 1962). It was a film about the relocation of mountaineers into collective farms in the flatter areas of Dagestan very close to the mountains. Later, I met Abduzhalil Abdulzhalilov, who was living in the mountain village Gamsutl and who told me how in the ‘70s a lot of people were moved into these collective farms and how he moved back to the mountains in the ‘90s. It made me think of a circular road that leads nowhere and how often road building and rebuilding is an aspect of political dominance.

I was also impressed by how Ahmet Öğütworks with contracts. I must credit him. He once created an installation called Bakunin’s Barricade, which looks like barricades that are made out of works from the museum’s collection. If the museum buys this installation, it is obliged through the contract with the artist to give the installation to protesters to be used as a barricade if there’s a protest in that city and the demand is made. Obviously, no one is ever going to buy it. No museum would. But the contract became part of the work. I found it fascinating. Especially having in mind that my art is not very object based. So, I wanted to play with this idea of how an artist must develop a physical practice in order to survive. In order to do so, I decided to make a mountain installation that weighs 380 kilos. It is a model for the proposal for a circular motorway around the mountain peak. Whoever would like to own this object should sign the contract with the artist and will be obliged to build that road within two years. Also exhibited is the elaborate budget for the road building, which amounts to 135,466,060 rubles (1,875,505 EUR) (in 2019 prices – the price is constantly updated). It’s a “gift for a gift” situation. Very often I see artists struggling with production. I was just underlining how the art world functions. Fascinatingly, the whole artwork was funded by an art fair foundation – the Cosmoscow Foundation for Contemporary Art.

The overall theme of this year’s Kaunas Biennial focuses on the notion of the journey as a metaphor for changing the cultural identity of the city as well as its people. How do you think this sort of collective journey of our living environment changes us as individuals? Maybe you can even relate to that from a personal perspective?

I like this idea of a circus on tour, so when people ask me where I’m based, I say that I’m an artist on tour. There’s this constant non-permanence, a certain ‘after leaving, before arriving’. I think that what I’m most happy about is the social and individual plasticity, as well as a sense of empathy, that developed in me. This empathy allows you to put yourself in another person’s position and to speak in non-judgmental way. This development can take us forward as well as help us understand how fluid our identity is and how fluid it was when we were born and when we were teenagers. Once we abandon a very rigid structure of the self, we realize how many worlds open up to us. I think that’s the most revealing thing that happened to me as an artist.

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