Taus Makhacheva: from national issues to international fame

Taus Makhacheva. Photo by Natalia Pokrovskaya

An artist who raises difficult questions on politics, gender and national identity in her videos and performances is unveiling a circus-inspired project at the Yarat centre in Baku.

In 2006, an intrepid art student named Taus Makhacheva walked into Tate Modern with a sign and an intention. A sandwich board hung from her shoulders: “I want my show at Tate Modern,” it announced in basic black lettering. Her CV was pasted on the backside. 

Institutions remain powerful gatekeepers of art’s historical canon, something Makhacheva evidently understood as a young artist building her portfolio at Goldsmiths College. But in calling that performance "Maturity II," she also found irony and critical distance to be helpful bedfellows in navigating — and rewriting — the rules of the game of access. At a subsequent studio review, a professor inquired which work she would exhibit, should her wish be realized. “That one,” she responded.

Now 36, Makhacheva has come into her own as a gifted storyteller who works fluidly in text and image, creating films, poetic essays, and multimedia installations that restlessly re-draw the boundary between fact and fiction. Her work recombines the marginal narratives that she culls primarily, but not exclusively, from interviews and the archives of former Soviet republics. For Makhacheva, the post-Soviet transition is a personal experience, grown from myth, travels and the unresolved history of Russia’s mark on the Caucasus, where her family comes from. Her film Gamstul (2012) follows the movements of a male figure on a cliff in an ancient mountain village, whose inhabitants were forced to leave by the Soviet government in the 1950s and sent to work on a collective farm. The only moving element in the film is the man, who repeats poses from a painting by the Russian artist Franz Roubaud (1856-1928) about the war which Russia fought from 1817 to 1864 to conquer the Caucasus. That film is now part of Tate Modern’s permanent collection.

By almost any account, Makhacheva has become a consummate transnational artist. She considers Moscow as her home base, although she spends much time travelling. In 2018 alone, her work could be found at Manifesta 12 and the Riga, Liverpool, and Yinchuan Biennales, in addition to a solo exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and numerous group shows. 

When I spoke with her, she was completing an artist residency with curator and researcher Sabih Ahmed at the KADIST Foundation in Paris. They are preparing a summit on heroic personas this autumn, a follow-up to "Super Taus," Makhacheva’s alter ego, who wears traditional Dagestani female dress while performing ironic and extraordinary feats. 

She is also simultaneously working on an installation of an eight-metre-high hot air balloon for the upcoming Lyon Biennale, as well as a multi-ringed, mythical circus for the Yarat Contemporary Art Centre in Baku. 

How did the young artist in the lobby of Tate Modern manage to get it so right? What becomes clear after speaking with Makhacheva is that her work has found critical resonance because she understands that the best place to examine concepts like “nation,” “history,” and “global art” is in the theater of globalism where biennales and contemporary art museums play important roles.

In her short film, "Tightrope" (2015), a tightrope walker carries copies of objects from the Dagestan Museum of Fine Art across a canyon in the Caucasus mountains. This work was included in the main project of the Venice Biennale in 2017 by curator Christine Macel. For Makhacheva, exposing the precariousness of cultural heritage is about raising questions rather than providing overt answers. She views her art as political rather than polemical. “I am not interested in making sharp one-liners,” she explains. “For that, there are strong examples of activist art.”

For Charivari, which runs from 12 July to 29 September at the Yarat Contemporary Art Centre in Baku, Makhacheva has envisioned a multimedia installation that she describes as a “dream structure with circus props, a web of elements firmly welded, yet so delicate that you understand that stepping onto it would destroy it.” 

The project was inspired by two Soviet films that she came across in her research. One film, called "National Circus" (Natsionalny tsirk, 1967), featured the Soviet Union’s most celebrated performers from each nation, while the other was based on the Berberov family, whose son was killed by one of the lions which shared their Baku flat.  

When Makhacheva was a child, her dream was to become a clown, because “it’s the best profession — making people laugh.” She was convinced she would never make it because there would be far too many applicants.

Makhacheva explained that her aims for Charivari and its web of historical references is to make people feel “excavated” and “precarious.” She also sees it as a way to talk about how history repeats itself, “how often we forget everything and then end up in the same situation again politically.” Overall, Charivari seems intent on producing an encounter with the mass cultural event structures that have come to define contemporary art itself. It may leave audiences wondering whether the show will ever go on again. “Part of my process is seeking to retell the stories of individuals, and then having conversations with those individuals about how their own telling relates to the way their stories have been told by others,” she explains. 

The point is not only to demonstrate the fallibility of memory. Makhacheva also takes the responsibility of interrogating history upon herself. The final challenge for her, which will surely resonate with many creative spirits, is knowing when to release her work into the world for reception and criticism. “You have to allow your work to arrive somewhere,” she says. “Learn to trust your process.” 

While Makhacheva has collaborated with other artists in many of her prior projects, she describes her role in Charivari as primarily a “catalyst,” rather than that of a physical producer — a change that has compelled her to turn the lens on herself to address questions of authorship. “This person is doing this; that person is doing that; but where am I? What happens when I am just the thing that helps three or four chemicals react?” she wonders. “It is a question I need to answer soon with a project.” Such self-reflection is characteristic of the artist, who toils over the bottom line of each of her gestures. “Every project contains a good dosage of fear as to whether the object will tell a story. Will people take something away from it, beyond seductive forms?” 

Makhacheva’s thoughtful approach to art production is rare and refreshing in a contemporary art world that thrives on an experience economy of quick thrills that play well into the dynamics of social media. But conversing with her felt like sitting down with an honest friend, whom you trust to give you a straight answer because she holds no illusions about herself.

Taus Makhacheva. Charivari

Yarat Contemporary Art Center

Baku, Azerbaijan

12 July – 29 September, 2019

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