Measuring Your Contemporary Conditions: An Interview with Taus Makhacheva

Taus Makhacheva, Tightrope (film still), 2015. Image courtesy the artist

Measuring Your Contemporary Conditions: An Interview with Taus Makhacheva

Interview by Joanie Magill

Ahead of her commission for Liverpool Biennial 2018, Taus Makhacheva talks about the evolution of her practice, her Dagistani period, ASMR and collaborating with Ukrainian artist Alexander Kutovoi.

Until recently, Moscow born Makhacheva’s work, has focused on Dagestan, her ancestral place of origin, exploring themes of cultural authenticity, politics and contemporary life. Mostly known for her video work, her artistic practice also encompasses food-based work, installation, and a super hero alter ego, Super Taus.

Her Biennial commission is a sculptural installation that is a spa experience, with products developed by Tigran Geletsyan from 22|11 Cosmetics. It is inspired by Auto-Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), a phenomenon where watching videos of seemingly mundane activities such as folding towels or tapping fingernails on a surface can produce physical tingling sensations in the viewer. The piece is also a response to the installation site, Blackburne House, and its history of supporting and rebuilding vulnerable women.

Taus Makhacheva, Super Taus, Untitled 2, 2016. Photo: Malika Alieva

You’ve talked in the past about how a new piece of work starts with a story. Can you talk a bit about the story that triggered this piece?

Yes, I think there were multiple ones. It’s all sorts of general observations about the contemporary condition in a way. It was my obsession with ASMR videos that I have been watching and this really strange intimacy that is enjoyed digitally.

It was my first research visit and I thought about a few different things. There were a few phrases, Sally (Tallant, Director of Liverpool Biennial) said, ‘I’m sorry for the rain.’ It made me think of how we embody things around us, how we take on responsibility for things around us.

Another thing, when I came to Blackburne House, it was such an incredible place and in terms of rebuilding of a person. You might be in a complicated situation and you are so empowered. The fact that almost all the staff are women so it’s a space where you see a reflection of yourself, where you see a possible future, a possible alternative. This is a very interesting space for empowerment. I was also thinking a lot about how we rebuild ourselves.

For example, there is this Inspire course at Blackburne House, for women who are going through grief or other things, and they practice Tai Chi and mindfulness and mindful eating. For me it was similar to sculpture building and artwork making. You remake yourself with what you have, and you train your mind with mindfulness and so I was thinking about that.

I’ve had a few conversations, with the Deputy Director who told me about how they rebuild. For example, there is this term called brick wall. Around Christmas they hit a brick wall with their studies and they don’t feel like they can do it and they send someone to talk to them to tell them that they are capable.

Walking around with Polly (Brannan, Biennial Education Curator), who said that art has radically been reduced from the curriculum in schools in the UK, made me think how do we acquire a different type of knowledge, a different type of experience? Are we trapped in efficiency, money making and very rigid type of experiences?

So all of these things fell into this very hybrid work that I’m in the midst of production.

Taus Makhacheva, On the Benefits of Pyramids in Cultural Education, Strenghtening of National Consciousness, and the Formation of Moral and Ethical Guideposts, 2015. Performance at 6 Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. Photo: Ivan Erofeey

You are collaborating with another artist for this piece. How does this effect your process?

So there’s me and Alexander Kutovoi (Sasha), a very talented artist and sculptor who’s originally from Ukraine but based in Moscow.  We’re making this sculptural installation. We’re imagining this giant sculptural head that was broken down into pieces that couldn’t fit into a room in Blackburne House.

These pieces form the furniture that the spa is going to be composed of. On the one hand it was a face, a sort of a perfect thing but then had some sort of trauma.

I’m developing a script with David McDermott who’s based in Liverpool, whose background is TV drama. We are developing a script that would include all of these stories and inspirations that I talked about.

There will be a beautician, an actor / performer, who will be performing these sort of signature sculptural facials and she will also be reciting these stories. So it’s a physical experience. And she is a mixture of an art conservator and an actual beautician because in art conservation, the stages that an artwork goes through when it’s cleaned and repaired, its very similar to a facial.

The facial will be taking place during the opening days and it’s also going to be taking place throughout the biennial twice a week. When it’s not on, there will be videos you can watch which will be these ASMR videos which is the same procedure that will be performed but on the video. During the opening, I will also be performing the facial procedures.

Working with Sasha has really been incredible. I’ve realised that I can’t just use spa furniture it just doesn’t work, and he came up with the idea of this head and it was perfect. So we both know when it’s not ready. We both talk of the frustrations, like, no, this is not the right decision and when we arrive, we both know that it is the correct one. It’s been interesting having this process with another artist and that’s quite an interesting methodology that I am discovering now.

What I like about it is that you can get into areas that you can never get into. He came to the studio and we discovered that Blackburne House had been closed and when it was reopened there was this sculpture that had been broken and was on the floor, so we thought we would use part of that. We thought we would take maybe some historical sculptures and some things but it didn’t work.

So the earlier I get into a project the easier it is. I first came last June, and this is why I am able to make something so multi-layered.

How did your interest in ASMR emerge?

I think it was always there. It is a question of how does a flat image initiate another type of reaction. I did this short video about my practice for the Venice Bienniale. I was tired of doing these talking heads, so I did this ASMR video of me tapping on my gigantic hard drive, which is about 25 terabytes, caressing this monster that keeps all my archives.

It is techniques of inner building in a way. It’s about how one thing provides a completely different experience and you are taken to a completely different place. There was one by an ASMR artist, ASMR Requests, I think. She was pretending to be a restorer in a museum and you would imagine yourself as an artwork. So she takes notes, brushes off the dust and there are all these glove sounds.  So this also fed into it.

This piece is very different from your previous work, much of which is rooted in Dagestan. How did you arrive at this point?

Yes, there’s pretty much no Dagestan here. The closest thing to Dagestan is that we are developing these facial creams with this very nice cosmetics company in the Caucasus.

I think the practice is moving somewhere else. I like the phrase, ‘measuring your contemporary conditions’.  So it’s like a period, like the Blue Period. It’s my non-Dagestani period.

I think you can observe it with the works because for example one of the latest works Baida, which was a non-existent performance which was happening in Venice but wasn’t really happening because all of the documentation was shot in advance in Dagestan and the voice over in London.

There were some threads about Dagestan, but there was also much wider threads that referenced all types of invisible boats that disappear in shallow waters that we’re not able to pay attention to. So it’s the next step, a test.

I understand that I need to look at the practice in a wider sense, but I’m not sure I can answer that question yet – how does that fit, what is the constellation, what is the skyline like, where does it fit in the skyline?

For example, the new piece that I am developing for the Riga Biennial, also is completely stripped of Dagestan. It’s about speed and frustrations we have of the inner production speed and outside demand speed and this is also something quite different. So we will have to wait and see what evolves, but what I found the most exciting is this potentiality to include expertise of other people.

Taus Makhacheva, Tightrope (film still), 2015. Image courtesy the artist