Taus Makhacheva’s “A Space of Celebration”
By Yalda Bidshahri
Combining humor and criticality, Moscow-born artist Taus Makhacheva’s works incorporate multiple objects, bodies, and voices to tell stories that exist somewhere between fact and fiction. “A Space of Celebration” at the Jameel Arts Centre, Makhacheva’s first survey in West Asia, brought together projects created over the past 13 years. In her works to date, Makhacheva has looked at the making and remaking of history and heritage, with stories from the North Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, a region that has undergone post-Soviet recomposition. The witty and contextually grounded installations involve Soviet-era circuses, distorted gymnastics training arenas, and suspended mountain ranges—sites that allow the artist to explore the connections between historical narratives and myths of cultural authenticity to make way for the fantastical.
During the Soviet era, circuses were used to project state narratives, but were also a safe space for banter and critique around political topics. In the second gallery of the exhibition, Charivari (2019/2022) draws on archival materials to evoke a fictitious circus. Makhacheva’s multimedia installation includes dazzling costumes hanging among red metal structures that look like remixed ladders, hoops, and towers. The voices of the ringleader, synthetic bears, a contortionist inside a lion’s belly, and others talk us through a circus rife with superstition. Amid the chaotic cast and whimsy arise socio-political propositions on contemporary life. The diverse spectrum of performers and their varying experiences in the imaginary circus provoke reflections on issues including equal rights and the plurality of identifications. The title of the work refers to a circus’ opening or closing act, where different solo and group performers parade into the ring simultaneously, upping the rhythm with each movement until the circus ring is filled with all their bodies bouncing in the air. Much like the traditions of the Soviet circus, in most of Makhacheva’s works, characters and voices often overlap, setting the stage for complex tales where the truth is in-between.
Continuing this exploration with identities and sounds, the nearby gallery was transformed into a warped recreation of a gymnastics training area for Quantitative Infinity of the Objective (2019), where authoritative voices played successively out of loudspeakers, triggering discomfort. These expressions are usually directed at young athletes from people who seek to regulate their behavior: “Faster . . . There’s our champion . . . You won’t get far without me.” The walls were covered with illustrations of surreal, outlandish sequences including flying trapeze routines and human pyramids, shown alongside the warped bars, beams, and mats in the room. The manipulated bodies and the deformed gymnastics equipment appear to be shaped by the oppressive words emanating from the speakers. Together, the components of the installation invite a curious look at the tightly controlled and heavily promoted sports programs initiated by the Soviet government, and elicit questions about how people and ideologies are formed under the tight hold of social codes.
In the penultimate gallery of the exhibition, we meet Super Taus, Makhacheva’s superhero alter-ego who was presented through multiple works gathered in the space, including the mixed-media installation Superhero Sighting Society (2019), created in collaboration with Sabih Ahmed. The fantasized superhero lives and works in Dagestan, which literally translates as “country of mountains.” In the installation, upside-down peaks hang from the ceiling like clouds, and voices overlap in over a dozen languages, recounting superhero sightings from around the world. While it is commonly understood that superheroes arise in times of crisis, the superheroes reported in Makhacheva’s Superhero Sighting Society tackle everyday small-world issues. As part of the installation, a catalogue is distributed with transcriptions of the 31 witness accounts included in the audio piece. One of them mentions Carry Your Pram Man, for example, who “picked up the pram and took the stairs two at a time, placing it down at the top before looping his arm under the elbow of a wrinkly old man, guiding him down the steep steps before flying back up for another stroller.” Through these testimonies, the work of the Society prompts contemplation on ideas of power and the multitudes of ways heroic figures show up across different geographical contexts with varying concerns and desires.
As I stepped out to the warm sun, I felt a sense of relief. The overlapping sounds coming from the many galleries had my mind spinning like one of the artist’s conceptual performers. Experiencing the complex, multilayered worlds contained in Makhacheva’s expansive body of works left me contemplating my own power and fragility.
Taus Makhacheva’s “A Space of Celebration” is on view at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, until August 14, 2022.