A guide to the New East

Keep calm at the biennial

Artist Taus Makhacheva wants you to relax at her spa installation

Walking into Taus Makhacheva’s latest immersive installation at the Liverpool Biennial is enough to make you confused: is this a spa, a live art experience or a therapy room? A day bed functions as both a decorative sculpture and place of rest. Lying upon it, each visitor receives a 30 minute facial treatment with various scrubs, masks and moisturisers, while a performer-beautician narrates the history of lost art — stories of paintings and sculptures that have vanished for various reasons. Hans Ulrich Obrist was notably among Makhacheva’s clients, though the artwork is available to all. By merging a beauty ritual, an installation and an art history lesson, the artist has managed to provide a powerful commentary on the way we perceive art within the ever-accelerating cycle of culture and the broader demands of modern life.

In its title —  Beautiful world, where are you? — this year’s Liverpool Biennial poses a question pertinent to our time, through videos, gardens, a list of documented deaths of migrants and refugees on the borders of Europe and even repurposed Nike trainers. We’ve seen a proliferation of biennials across the globe, each one offering a daunting labyrinth of works. In this context, Makhacheva offers an art experience which is hopeful, intimate, tactile and radically slow.

Makhacheva is an artist with a truly global-minded practice and career, which includes degrees from London’s Goldsmiths College and Royal College of Art, collaborations with institutions like the Centre Pompidou and the ICA and participation in various international biennials from Shanghai to Venice. Until recently, Makhacheva’s practice was closely linked to her roots. She devoted much of her earlier practice to exploring the traditions, hidden histories, gender roles and the landscapes of her native Dagestan. Among her best known works is a film she presented at the 2017 Venice Biennale of a tightrope walker transporting 61 artworks — borrowed from the Dagestan Museum of Fine Arts’ — from one mountain hilltop to another. As a multimedia artist, she has experimented with various modes of storytelling, from large-scale video works to miniature sculptures, staging dinners and inventing a superhero alter ego she calls Super Taus. She draws on local stories to share universal struggles.  

“For me, the biggest luxury in my life is being able to view art slowly. I think this is why I created a 30-minute long facial”

For now, though, Makhacheva is trying to recentre herself and her work after several years of experimentation. “For me, the biggest luxury in my life is being able to view art slowly. I think this is why I created a 30-minute long facial, which you can book and get the full story,” says Makhacheva of her Sculptural Signature Facial performance. We’re in her Moscow flat, where she arrived from England only last night, and is set to travel again in two days. In recent years Makhacheva has been based between Moscow and her native Dagestan, but is spending more time travelling for biennials and exhibitions all over the world. “I wanted a pause, and I wanted some kind of restoration to happen. One can’t keep up with the pace of biennials.”

Those who cannot visit the spa in person can do so through a first-person ASMR video. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response technology is familiar to most people as a bizarre genre of videos on Youtube that feature crinkling, crunching and whispering sounds. Recorded with a 3D-mic, the sounds are intended to evoke strange tingling sensations and low-grade euphoria. Lots of people use ASMR videos to help them relax or overcome insomnia. Many of these videos show a person engaged in role play, frequently as a therapist, beautician or hairdresser. Makhacheva is interested in this digitised form of intimacy. In her practice she explores the ways we relate to our bodies; the intimacy, empathy and connection we crave.

“With ASMR, it was a personal interest at first. I was hooked on these videos for half a year. Each night I'd fall asleep with those ladies next to me on the screen,” she explains. “I started thinking about this intimacy, catered individually but universally. How can you create intimacy through a screen and where does the need for it come from?”

Her Liverpool installation, ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) Spa takes place at Blackburne House, the first girls’ school in the city, which now functions as an education centre for women going through difficult times. The work of the centre and idea of self-healing achieved through seemingly trivial things, whether an ASMR video or facial, come together in this installation: “I was thinking about how you can rebuild yourself; how you can change something quite radically, or help someone do this, through very small steps.”

“I think a lot of my work is quite seductive and beautiful at first, and I use it to lure people in”

At the same time, the artist began researching art conservation and restoration techniques. “I talked to a couple of restorers and realised how similar beauty rituals like facials are to the way paintings are restored. The role of the performer who conducts the spa treatment in Sculptural Signature Facial is one of a restorer, a beautician and storyteller.”

A multifaceted enterprise, Sculptural Signature Facial was produced with the help of several collaborators: Liverpool-based writer David McDermott produced a script incorporating the history of lost art throughout the centuries; Moscow-based artist Alexander Kutovoi created the sculptural installation, which was inspired by the story of a broken sculpture found in Blackburne House after it stood empty between 1986 and 1994.

The skincare products used were created especially by Tigran Geletsyan from 22|11 Cosmetics. “There is a clay cleanser; a metal-infused toner with copper, zinc, gold and silver; a fine-grained stone scrub which has particles of granite, wood massage oil; and plaster masks which keep their shape when taken off,” Makhacheva explains. “But my favourite is the moisturiser made with linseed oil, linen and cotton — it’s basically what would happen if you put an oil painting in a blender. Each visitor will go through a series of ‘sculptural processes’ and then leave with a painting on their face.” During this one-to-one history lesson you effectively become an artwork, albeit briefly — before all the materials are taken off or washed away.

A lot of Makhacheva’s work examines the theme of disappearance: lost art, the dying skill of tightrope walking, the underappreciated regional history of Dagestan. Currently on display at Manifesta 12 in Palermo, her video installation Baida deals with a more straightforward physical disappearance: it’s based on stories of illegal fishermen navigating the invisible waters of the Caspian Sea. The work evolved out of numerous conversations between the artist and fishermen of the village of Stary Terek in Dagestan; a recurring element in their stories is the fear of falling into the sea and their bodies never being found. Their untold stories, Makhacheva admits, would not let her go until she channeled them into art.

Baida questions how you can even make work about invisible boats and sinking people,” she explains. “But it’s also about Venice, the art crowd, the way we discuss art, the way we make art, about the doubts artists go through when they conceive their work. It’s real people and their stories, Dagestan and Venice, our daily life and all the boats that we ignore.”

In Makhacheva’s world, both Caspian fisherman and Venetian artist seem to be fighting against oblivion. Narrative is the key tool to counter the threat of vanishing, or disappearing into obscurity. “Stories are incredibly important for my work; stories which I collect, stories which make me want to revisit them and use them as material,” she says. “I think a lot of my work is quite seductive and beautiful at first, and I use it to lure people in — then open their eyes to something they never knew existed.” Though Makhacheva’s practice is no longer fixed to a certain geography — the artist has moved beyond her native landscape into international waters and the digital realm — Dagestan is still palpable in her commitment to real people and their untold stories.

Text: Anastasiia Fedorova 

Liverpool Biennial 2018 runs from 14 July – 28 October. Taus Makhacheva’s ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) Spa display at Blackburne House. Tightrope will also be screened at Victoria Gallery & Museum throughout the biennial. You can find more information here

Want more stories delivered to your inbox? Sign up to our newsletter here:

More from Art

To Viktor, the spoils

How Orbán’s Hungary launched a culture war from within

New school

Your guide to the 20 young Ukrainian artists vying for the nation’s top art prize

Riga Biennial

5 ways to enrich your Baltic city break with contemporary art

Nuts to this

Almaty’s squirrel statue controversy gets to the heart of Kazakhstan’s culture crisis

Aslan Gaisumov

The Chechen artist confronting his country’s turbulent past

A war on many fronts

The story of Voina, the Russian artists who fell from grace