Hold Your Horses by Taus Makhacheva brings a selection of the artist’s 2010-2019 performance, video, objects and installation works to The Tetley, including a series of collaborative projects with the Superhero Sighting Society, The Unbound collective and Makhacheva’s alter-ego, Super Taus.
Makhacheva’s work playfully spotlights the meeting of different cultures and traditions and the geographical scope of Hold Your Horses reflects both the artist’s own ancestral origins in Moscow and the Caucasus region of Dagestan, and her works’ concern with mapping the physical and conceptual topographies of landscape, art production and human activity.
The Society’s titular work, ‘Superhero Sighting Society’ (2019), takes centre stage in The Tetley’s atrium with five models of unclimbed mountains from Pakistan, Tibet and India positioned squat across the floor like giant crumpled pages from an atlas. A pair of speakers and bench on the far wall beckon visitors to navigate the valleys and to sit and survey this assembled mountain range. The speakers emit a dual channel narration of multi-lingual reports of superhero sightings across the globe. English language translations are provided in an accompanying A4 book. As a separate experience, reading these is worth a good thirty minutes of your time, yet there is a rare value in just sitting, lit stark from the skylights above, listening to audio accounts you cannot often understand as you play at omnipotence over mountains no human has yet climbed. The aural and visual sweetly combine in this work to highlight how our frenzied inhabitation of the everyday can impede our ability to appreciate a more contemplative, remote, yet universal view.
Ironically, the superheroes are sometimes the weakness in this work about strength. Anticipating stories of grave resilience and civil disruption, I baulked at some of the more glib tales, in particular a group of superheroes in Bristol (UK) who remove the apostrophes that a local vigilante grammar pedant, known as The Apostrophiser, has inserted. You cannot make someone super by calling them so and though the work clearly carries a playful tone, it also insists on locating real superheroes reacting to real and everyday catalysts and it doesn’t consistently do this.
Across the corridor, galleries 3-8 document Makhacheva’s explorations through the Caucasus region of Russia. In gallery 4, the video work ‘Gamsutl’ (2012) takes its name from the abandoned hill-top settlement on screen. A figure in theatre blacks assumes choreographed poses that emulate the inanimate: objects and cracks in the landscape; and the once animate: farmer, warrior, invader – his allegiance switching between human and non-human muses as if to highlight their opposing wills. But my gaze was utterly gripped by the muscular rock tumbling through the deserted houses. It appeared fluid and capable of suffocating the buildings, of eventually restoring itself – a theme that repeats through multiple works in this exhibition. ‘Tightrope’ (2015) in gallery 6 shows Rasul Abakarov, a 5th generation tightrope walker, methodically transporting replicas of paintings found in the Dagestani Museum of Fine Art from a toast-rack container on one promontory, across a ravine to a Mondrian-like storage cage on the other. The work comments legitimately on notions of artistic precarity, culture-value and acquisition priorities and joins ‘Gamsutl’ and ‘Superhero Sighting Society’ in stressing the comic futility and transience of human endeavour.
A selection of visitors will have the opportunity to experience the live performance ‘ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) Spa, Sculptural Signature Facial’ (2018) in gallery 2 on two separate weekends (the first performance took place on the 16 February 2020. The second performance planned for the 25 March is cancelled in line with guidance from the UK Government and Public Health England following the COVID-19 pandemic). ASMR refers to a tingling in the head that some people claim to experience in response to sensory stimulus. A first-person perspective ASMR video of the facial treatment runs as a virtual alternative throughout the exhibition in the adjacent gallery 1. Commissioned for Liverpool Biennial 2018, the live performance involves a thirty-minute appointment with beauty therapist ‘Helen’, played by performer Juliet Davis-Dufayard, who gives a unique facial treatment to willing participants. I was one of these willing participants on the first weekend performance in February. Lying upon a broken artwork now requisitioned as a salon couch, cosmetics mixed with wood, plaster and stone were routinely applied and removed from my skin as Helen delivered writer David McDermott’s hypnotic, alienating monologue recounting a previous appointment with an art restorer. Effaced by the text, I lay immobilised as a linseed and canvas mask was applied, removed and displayed to finally render me as ‘art’. Contrary to Makhacheva’s intention, I did not feel restored but erased, and yet I was glad. The work generated a theatrical ‘distancing effect’ in me, and as my image (mask) was taken I realised that this obliteration of self was key to the artistic experience. The impact of this multi-layered, multi-sensory live performance was undeniably acute and lingering. I recommend experiencing it if you can.
Multiple voices and viewpoints ring out from this exhibition; not only the voices positioned within the art works but the chorus of those who join forces to create them. It is Makhacheva’s name on the door but once inside, this is a peopled landscape, multiple characters pin-balling around the Tetley’s ante-rooms like a giant boarding house of captive souls she’s invited and platformed. Her work relies on this synthesis. She appears foremost a conceptual artist whose ideas determine the mode of working and the working partner. Sometimes it is the visitor who is invited to collaborate, as in ‘Superhero Sighting Society’ where the unscaled mountains, wittily diminished, require spectators to preside over them, and in ‘ASMR Spa, Sculptural Signature Facial’ where the visitor not only performs the role of beautician’s client but also the work of art.
These collaborations highlight a communality and good-humoured gregariousness in Makhacheva’s projects, resulting in a rich and enjoyable exhibition. They also reinforce her centrality, evoking an album of duets where the status of the ‘star’ is repeatedly reinforced by the impermanence of the others. In Hold Your Horses, each work is a totemic indicator of Makhacheva’s role as conceiver and creator and she remains the conspicuous presence in each space, revealing how she is deftly engaged, like many artists, in an epic act of ontological exploration – and ultimately, self-creation.
Pamela Crowe is an artist and writer based in Leeds.
Taus Makhacheva: Hold Your Horses is at The Tetley 7 February to 10 May 2020
N.B. The second performance of the ‘ASMR spa, sculptural signature facial’ programmed on the 25 March is cancelled in line with guidance from the UK Government and Public Health England following the COVID-19 pandemic.