Interview: Masha Komarova
Photo: Sasha Mademoiselle
Findings and discoveries
Stories of soviet circuses captured on photos that are yellow from time or patents for forgotten cars that were never built - the most seemingly unobvious things become the starting points for the works of the artist Taus Makhacheva. She dives into the archives, retrieves the fragments of forgotten stories and transforms them so much in her works that you freeze at the sight of them. It happens at the Venice and Liverpool Biennial, and at the Yokohama Triennial - it seems no major festival of modern art is complete without works of the artist from Dagestan. We talked with Taus about how to find objects and stories hidden from everyone.
What kind of necklace are you wearing? It’s beautiful.
This is my work for the Belgian Frans Masereel Centrum. They came up with the Solitude program about getting experience from art at home, rather than through screens, and invited different artists. For example, Nora Turato made a puzzle. Patrick Van Caeckenbergh created a chewing gum where a combined image of virus and space was printed. I wanted to make a piece of jewelry and some kind of a set, a small museum that you can carry with you. So, it turned out to be a necklace with seven pendants, all of which are dedicated to skills that may be useful to us in the future. There is a pendant that looks like two identical gems, found in different parts of the planet, which, in theory, is impossible - it is about a phenomenon when two people come up with the same idea with one accord. On the other pendant, there is a print of a crystal that underlies all of our screens.
Did you do individual research for every object or did you just pull one thread and it led you to all these things?
We did research on every object. But actually, it all started because of my mother’s article “Jewelry, their Meaning and Functions. Definition of a Class of Phenomena and Methods of Analysis”. She is an art critic, she has written a lot about decorative and applied art, contemporary art, about modern jewelry art.
Who helps you with the research?
I do several projects at the same time. It is impossible to do them all by myself. I have five people in my studio and I often outsource for my research. In this project Angelika Baryshnikova, Christina Chernyavskaya and Andrey Efitz helped me. Andrey wrote a wonderful text, which is signed by his name.
How did you set them the task? You said: “I want to make a series of jewelry that would be associated with something interesting”?
Something like that. First of all, I collect references and say: “Find something about traditional jewelry, about jewelry that was made by contemporary artists”. We also studied some new feelings like mirror synesthesia. Overall, I look through a lot of things. At first, my colleagues sent me Google docs about various jewelry: for protection from evil spirits, for weddings, Indian, which is put on different chakras. Then just historical jewelry, tiny ones, where a hair or an eye of a loved one was painted, and mourning rings. In general, it all started very widely and then something seemed interesting to me: “Let’s take a deeper look at this”. Then we discussed everything with Anya and Sasha from Mineral Weather jewelry brand with whom we did all of this. They drew, searched for shapes, we were coming up with something. At some point everything worked out.
Elle cover with Taus, a toy of the artist's alter-ego “Super Taus” and other details we found in the workshop.
It seems to me that you collect strange, outlandish things. For the series of silk-screen printings with Shaltai Editions you made embossing with images of Soviet patents for inventions that never saw the light of the day. Cameras for underwater photography, an electromagnetic time relay which is supposed to adapt the speed of time in different temperatures - all these things lie in the ocean of oblivion. How did you find them?
Andrey did it! He discovered a site with an incredible number of Soviet patents, simply an online library. We stumbled upon it when we did the research for “Quantitative Infinity of the Problem".
«Quantitative Infinity of the Problem" was recently shown at the Yokohama Triennial. In this work, Taus reflects on how society determines our relationship with the body.1
What non-obvious places did you visit in the process of the research? I read that you have been in the village of tightrope walkers, attended buccal massage courses. A magical place for me is the archive of film and photo documents, where you go, stretch out your hand and take out some treasure.
It’s fantastic, really. To be honest, now I’m trying to get into the storage of the Toy Museum named after N. D. Bartram in Sergiev Posad. I don’t know if I will succeed or not.
Footage of Soviet circus performers from the film and photo archive became the starting point for creating a performance “About the benefits of using pyramids in cultural education, strengthening of national consciousness and formation of moral and ethical guidelines”.2
What do you want to find there?
I don’t know. At the beginning of the century its founder Nikolay Bartram made such toys, it is just fantastic! Now I want to make a toy for the Hands exhibition in ADKDW in Cologne, it’s supervised by Ala Unit and Madhusri Dutta. But actually, you named all these places but I can’t remember them specifically, because they aren’t obvious to me. This is the world of my interests.
The truth is, it is not places but people I meet who give me the most important discoveries. When you talk to a restorer you understand that the process of facial care is similar to a restoration of a painting. When you talk to a tightrope walker, he tells you it’s important for him to participate in a project because his skills are disappearing. When we talk with a geologist, he explains at what temperatures and at what depths rocks are formed. You understand that in the sculpture of a giant crystal that you make, you combine 3-4 depths, down to the Earth's crust where some remnants of meteorites are left. (For the joint project of Taus and Alexander Kutovoy ASMR Spa, an installation was built in the form of a spa where you could take facial treatments while lying on sculptures that resemble the ruins of ancient statues. The care cosmetics were invented by Tigran Gelettsyan from brand 22|11. The whole line was sculptural: cleansing cream with clay, tonic with metal extracts, cream with mineral granite and the last step was moisturizing cream with cotton and flax extract - the participant was invited to try to “absorb” components of an oil painting. Taus’s project with a tightrope walker, who carries paintings from one storage to another crossing a chasm, was shown at the Venice Biennial. And the crystals the artist is talking about will appear next to the Beregovoy block in Moscow. - Ed.) в Москве. — Ред.)
You once said that you want to make an artwork dedicated to your grandfather - the Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov.
I still want to make it. I already talked about it so much, it’s not ready and I feel very guilty. I want to disguise myself as him, walk through Makhachkala looking like him, to gaze at his monument. Such a fantasy about our lives, how we are going to live after death, and how people will remember us.
Do you feel anything special when you walk outside and see your grandfather’s monument or it has always been in your life and you got used to it?
No. It is allowed to build city monuments only after death. There are even some regulations – maybe 10-20 years after, I don’t remember. When he was alive, I didn't walk by his giant monument on an avenue named after him. After his death Lenin avenue was renamed into Gamzatov avenue, then the library was named after him, then his bronze monument appeared.
How do you feel?
I don’t know. I wave at him. Not only wave, I like to make appointments near his monument when I am in Makhachkala. You walk past him, look at him and feel warmer. He was very generous with love. My mom once told me a story that really helped me and I tell it to my friends in difficult times. Of course, Soviet time was hard, some people wrote denunciations against him. My mom asked him once: “Dad, you knew these people were telling on you, why did you even shake hands with them?” He said: “You know, Patya, I just wanted to write”. At that moment I understood very clearly that when you sink in this ”do not shake hands”, into some heavy world of gossip, all your creative energy disappears. Maybe, I hear something, sometimes read some hater’s comments, but I try to exclude all this from my life as much as possible because it can paralyze.
You have lived in London, Makhachkala, Moscow. Now you spend a lot of time in Dubai. How do you feel in each of these cities? What’s the difference between Taus in Moscow, Taus in Makhachkala, Taus in London?
Someone said to me that I became moody in Dagestan. I don’t know if it is true or not, but I've started keeping an eye on it.
Why do you think so?
Probably a family history gave me confidence there. I allowed myself a little more. Maybe I can describe it through the body. In Dagestan I just go through the doors; in Moscow I make a call to walk through the doors; in London, in Dubai, I would maybe call, check online and also ask someone. But meanwhile, some doors in Dagestan were closed in front of me like nowhere else.
Do you still collect old signs and postcards from Makhachkala?
I’m collecting signs slowly. If I see something on Instagram or my friends send me something, I ask people I know to pick them up, we pay, they remove and bring them to the storage. I don’t collect postcards anymore. This collection is a posthumous gift to the museum MuHKA in Antwerp. It is stored there now.
So, when you die, they'll still have the postcards?
Yes. I decided so. I wanted to own this collection, but I didn’t want to engage with its storage. So, I gave it to the museum.
Do you have any other commitments before death?
With Maria Istomina, my great keeper of the archive, we are very seriously engaged in archiving, this work is exactly for the period after death. During the pandemic, we started to call each other in Zoom once a week and sort everything out. Now we go through all the letters in mail to find my forgotten works, exhibitions, commitments. We are now in 2011.
All this is a fantasy about the immortality of art and I dissolve in it completely. I truly think that these things will live longer than me, and it makes me incredibly happy and content. Once I gave an interview to Sasha Rudyk and told him that after I shot “Tightrope”, I was a little less afraid to get on the plane and fly because I felt that I had created something important.
Taus’s archive. Documentation of every project is stored in a separate box.
Let’s talk about other people’s works. What amazed you recently?
There is a work named Plancha by the artist Teresa Margolles. I saw it a long time ago but remembered recently. The work is almost invisible: drops of water, by which useless bodies were washed after autopsies in a morgue in Mexico City, fall on red-hot metal plates. They fall literally once a minute. These plates were so hot that drops immediately evaporated into a haze. I don’t know how not to freeze in front of such work.
You froze because you were touched by the story?
I froze because of that and also because of the image that the artist created. Yes, probably, this is right. I freeze because of the image and the form of poetry that another person created to describe this pain. It’s painful for us to watch this news. It’s one of the ways of showing empathy, pain and talking about what’s happening. And of course, I freeze because this death becomes a part of me, because being there I inhale all that steam. It’s a fascinating molecular journey. This story becomes a part of my body too.
1The work was created with the support of the Pinchuk Art Centre and the Organizing Committee for the Yokohama T
2The work was created with the support of the patron program of the Cosmoscow International Contemporary Art Fair and the Van Abbemuseum. Photo: Ivan Erofeev