BY Tom Jeffreys in Profiles | 17 OCT 18

In Search of the Ridiculous: Taus Makhacheva’s Performative Follies

Featuring a proposal for a circular motorway around a mountain peak, the ‘weird and absurd’ work of the Russia-based artist

BY Tom Jeffreys in Profiles | 17 OCT 18

‘Weird’, ‘absurd’ and ‘ridiculous’ is how artist Taus Makhacheva describes her own work. Makhacheva is speaking to me about Ring Road (2018), commissioned for the recent edition of Cosmoscow art fair in Moscow, Russia, which took place in September. The work involves a proposal for a circular motorway around a mountain peak in rural Dagestan, the Russian federal republic to which Makhacheva, who was born in Moscow, traces her origins. But Makhacheva’s motorway is a little different: should it ever be built, it would be completely unconnected to existing road networks, and therefore utterly useless as a piece of transport infrastructure. ‘Completely ridiculous’, she laughs.

Makhacheva’s idea had its first public iteration in a 2015 exhibition, ‘Myth’, organized by curatorial agency Arts Territory at Center for Contemporary Art, Tbilisi, and Europe House Georgia. There, it consisted of digitally produced blueprints. Primarily, Makhacheva was looking to ask questions about the politics of large-scale infrastructure projects, with specific reference to those of the Soviet Union: ‘When one country conquers another, the first thing it often does is build different roads, different arteries as a way to carry out political change and domination’, she told me. But the work also critiqued the way humans exist within and against the natural environment. ‘I was travelling through the landscapes of Dagestan and thinking what an aggressive gesture it is to take a bit of the flesh out of a mountain’. She also describes it as a ‘tease’ – a way of poking some fun at ‘a highly performative society when it comes to masculinity’ by presenting a perfect road on which to live out some gasoline-fuelled drive-time fantasy, but making it totally inaccessible.

Taus Makhacheva, Ring Road, 2018, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © the artist and narrative projects, London

During Cosmoscow, Makhacheva exhibited a mock-up of the proposed road placed upon a pedestal in the very centre of the venue: a thirty-kilo mountain model, made from dolomite, a sedimentary carbonate rock, with a road-shaped ring sliced out around the upper half. A ‘solid, art-world, art-fair object’ is how Makhacheva describes the piece, made in collaboration with sculptor Aleksey Selivanov and stonemason Sergey Solovyev. Nonetheless, despite the art fair context, this object is not for sale: anyone wishing to take possession of the dolomite sculpture must sign a contract, legally binding under legislation of the Russian Federation. The contract commits them to build the motorway around a specified mountain, the Makhnot peak, near the village of Bolshoy Gotsatl (coordinates: 42.5247222°, 46.8905556°). The contract, legislative information and geographical details were exhibited alongside a preliminary geological survey and cost estimate (130 million roubles, about GBP£1.5 million) in glass-topped vitrines adjacent to the dolomite model. Today, Ring Road is both more real and further from reality than ever.

Taus Makhacheva, Tightrope, 2015, HD video still. Created with the support of Cosmoscow Artists' Patrons Programme. Courtesy: © the artist and narrative projects, London  

Ring Road extends a number of long-running threads in Makhacheva’s work. Her film Tightrope (2015), shown at the 2017 Venice Biennale, showed a tightrope walker carrying 61 copies of work from the collection of the Dagestan Museum of Fine Art across a precipitous Caucasus ravine. Other works also situate humans within the dramatic landscapes of Dagestan: in Rekhen (2009), a man in a traditional sheepskin coat stumbles among a flock of sheep on high snowy plains; in Endeavour (2010), Makhacheva herself pushes against a large, unmoving rock for nine futile minutes; and in Gamsutl (2012), a male dancer is dwarfed by the ruins of a mountain-top village as he strikes carefully choreographed poses.

Other works display Makhacheva’s ironic and gently satirical approach to the art world itself. The film Baida (2017), for example, consists of fictional documentation of a performance which never took place. Scripted by artist and writer Tim Etchells, the work was shown online during the Venice Biennale in 2017 and exhibited in Palermo for Manifesta 12 this year. The performance professed to relate to the lives and deaths of fishermen on the Caspian Sea; in the film, the characters who try and fail to see the work are recognizable art world types including an overly earnest Englishman and a collector who jokes about being ‘up all night thinking about the Anthropocene’.

Taus Makhacheva, Baida, 2017, film still. Courtesy: © the artist and narrative projects, London

Ring Road builds on this affectionate mockery but with a greater focus on mechanisms than people. Makhacheva speaks of the precarity of many of those involved in the art world, including artists and galleries: ‘it becomes about how to make work, how to find funding, the way you dream and what that means.’ The artist describes this aspect of the project as ‘resistance to the market’. Despite being produced with funding from an art fair, Ring Road ‘cannot be bought or sold; it’s just this weird contract of exchange’.

As the works traverse different contexts, entangling issues of geographic specificity with questions relating to the strange placelessness of international art, Makhacheva’s central motives remain largely unchanged: ‘To me, art is a space of complete freedom. Art is never a statement; it’s a question, an open choice for a viewer or anyone who wants to spend time with the work.’

Makhacheva’s work speaks often (although not always) to the geographic specificity of the Caucasus, with its dramatic landscapes and vexed histories. At the same time, Makhacheva increasingly foregrounds the work’s status as a piece of art that only exists within the apparently placeless context of the gallery, art fair or biennial. She operates therefore in an entangled relationship with the structures of power and money that works like Ring Road explicitly critique. Makhacheva’s strategy is therefore to implicate her own work – and frequently its audiences – in a dizzying double bind: her art questions our relationships to a tangible world of mountains and histories, people and politics, but it also questions its own capacity to ask such questions. In undermining itself, her work becomes the more powerful. Makhacheva does this not with hand-wrenching anxiety but with humour and a rare deftness of touch.

Taus Makhacheva is an artist based in Makhachkala and Moscow, Russia. In 2018, she has shown work at Manifesta 12, Palermo, Italy, Liverpool Biennial and Riga Biennial of Contemporary Art. Her work can be seen at Mimosa House, London (until 15 December) and her solo show at narrative projects, London, is on view until 3 November. Tightrope is currently on view in the Krasnoyarsk Museum Centre in Krasnoyark, Russia. In 2018, Makhacheva is shortlisted for the Pinchuk Foundation’s Future Generation Art Prize.

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).