When The Tetley gallery in Leeds opened Taus Makhacheva’s exhibition ‘Hold Your Horses’, the world was still aggressively galloping forward. No one knew that in a month’s time the pandemic stasis would impose the idiom’s meaning on life as we know it. Yet, the works included in the exhibition explore several themes that seem to be critical at this point. In her performances, installations and videos, the artist gives voice to her personal connection to the Caucasus region, uses humour as a way to access problematic notions in this particular cultural and geographical context, but engages with wider issues of history making, hegemonic power, cultural identities and satirises the art world’s precarious nature.
In his essay on the absolute potential of the creative mind and a polemic on the concept of superpower, Lawrence Liang wrote that “the most subversive power we possess is our imagination—it penetrates walls, stops bullets, flies across the world, and in it we are all light as air”. The multi-channel sound installation ‘Superhero Sighting Society’ (2019), the focal point of the exhibition installed in the Leeds Beckett Atrium, adopts Liang’s idea. Conceived and created together with the curator and researcher Sabih Ahmed and Makhacheva’s alter ego, Super Taus, the work aims to paint a new world map of superhero sightings. The imagined arrangement is diverse and varied as opposed to the existing US-centric tendency, when it comes to superheroes; it is informal and dismissive of the strict distinctions between the real and the fictional. In the reality of a pandemic, restricted freedom of movement and authoritarian leaders proceeding with greedy power-grabbing, Makhacheva’s call to rethink the idea of a twenty-first century superhero appears particularly urgent. Through ‘Superhero Sighting Society’ (2019) the artist develops one of her central interests, the often invisible and unrecognised acts of everyday heroism.
Videos ‘Untitled 1’ (2014) and ‘Untitled 2’ (2016) witness Super Taus’s “life-affirmative” practices as a form of resistance to the prevailing hyper-masculine culture. Super Taus is a rural Dagestani female archetype, who reveals her extreme physical strength in picturesque situations, alongside her determination to push the spatial limits currently available to women in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Related cultural constraints are explored through Makhacheva’s Caucasian wedding-themed works. Through the performative act of crashing as many weddings as possible in one day (‘19 A Day’, 2012) and testing the spatial potentials of traditional bridal garments (‘A Space of Celebration’, 2009), the artist playfully investigates the absurd peculiarities of a wedding, a key life event in many cultures.
The artist’s inward-facing satire and her collaboration with other artists is a recurrent motif throughout the display. The authorship in the ‘Unbound Collection’ (2015–present) is blurred as the artefacts’ origin is assigned to an informal group titled The Unbound, whose members come from the “creative circles of the Caucasus”. The artistic and anthropological interests of the group’s members yielded a series of video clips, images, reflections on popular culture, stories and found objects, as absurd as ‘Gabi’s Cap’, a faux Armani beanie, interpreted as a symbol of wealth and beauty, or a series of rhinestone-embellished ‘Dummy Seat Belt Buckle Clips’ used to stop the no-seatbelt alarm from sounding and thus turning “a simple car into a luxury vehicle and testifying to the driver’s fine taste and creative mind”. A satirical explanatory text accompanies each artefact and pokes at traditions, masculinity and the diffusion of Western pop and luxury fashion aesthetics into ordinary life in the post-Soviet region. The conceptual qualities of the ‘Unbound Collection’ (2015–present) come across as hilarious and yet intelligent resistance to the group’s own cultural ties and to the hegemonic cultural influences and their proliferation into ordinary life and folklore.
Makhacheva uses real stories as a starting point and the archival material as a catalyst for re-enactment, dismantling what has been taken for granted and of constructing new potentialities of collective memory and commemoration. In ‘Gamsutl’ (2012) the artist teases out the notion of territorial and cultural invasion through re-enactments of paintings reflecting a historical event, the Caucasian War, which resulted in Russia’s annexation of the areas of the North Caucasus, and subsequent ethnic cleansing. Using a non-verbal form of articulation, the work proposes an alternative narrative and different possibilities of a seemingly predetermined future. Similarly, a preposterous approach is applied in ‘Tightrope’ (2017) and ‘Baida’ (2017), both exhibited at the Venice Biennial in 2017, where the artist critiques the art world through grotesque re-enactments of the precarious realities of invisible work and contentious situations, in which artists and art institutions often have to make fundamental choices.
The curating of ‘Hold Your Horses’ is an attempt to accommodate the full scope of Makhacheva’s multi-dimensional practice comprising video, performance, mixed-media installations, group works and commissions by various art biennials and foundations. The ‘ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) Spa, Sculptural Signature Facial’ (2018) was commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial in 2018 and installed in a charitable education centre for local and vulnerable women. Created as a sculptural installation in collaboration with the artist Alexander Kutovoi, the work aims to devise closeness with the materiality of artworks and make participants empathise with artworks that have been destroyed. Given the contextual specificity of the commission, this artwork seems to have lost some of the powerful layers of its meaning. If it had not been included, the gallery would have missed an opportunity to offer a strong sensory experience. However, given the spatial limitations of The Tetley, the rest of the exhibition would have been afforded more room to breathe. This would have intensified visitors’ affective connection to the provocative agency of the works, their potential to propose counter-narratives and develop a more tangible vision of new and more just power structures.