In his seminal essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940), Walter Benjamin analyzed the dynamics at play in the construction of history, criticizing how certain discourses are created by those in power, neglecting a mass of individuals. By questioning traditional forms of history-making, the work of Taus Makhacheva may be read in terms of the historical critique championed by Benjamin. A Russian citizen educated in London with origins in the Avar ethnic group of the northern Caucasus in the Republic of Dagestan, Makhacheva adds her own status as a globalized, transcultural individual to these kinds of analyses, exploring the friction between subjective understandings and pre-established ideas. Her interest in how the individual relates to dominant narratives led to the development of her performance-based practice, whereby the bodily movements of the performer (at times Makhacheva herself) embody the artist’s investigations of the daily social norms of a life on the borderline between the traditional and the contemporary.
Rekhen (Flock, 2009) is a two-channel video installation that follows a figure covered in a shepherd’s sheepskin trying to fit in with a flock of sheep. The animals hesitate between fear and curiosity toward the outsider, who is permanently expelled from the group after some brief moments of acceptance. Rekhen makes use of traditional elements such as the sheepskin to formulate a sharp comment on the invisible and unspoken rules of a community, questioning how far one should and can go in order to belong. Gamsutl (2012) is a video-performance set on an ancient Avarian settlement, carved out of the side of a mountain. It portrays a young man re-enacting a series of movements that quote from contemporary Western performance as well as from Franz Roubaud’s 19th-century paintings of the Caucasian War and a 1930s North Ossetian dance that combines folk elements with aspects of the Soviet socialist experience. The site and the protagonist echo the hybrid nature of the conditions Makhacheva explores, becoming metaphors for multilayered and contradictory narratives: the site as a monument, a ruin and a natural landscape, and likewise the protagonist as an invader, a defender and a farmer.
The Caucasus is a region known for centuries-long power struggles related to its position between Europe, Asia and the Middle East. This history of conflict is still unfolding and can be observed in the multiple checkpoints that populate the roads in and around Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, where the exhibition was held. Makhacheva analyzes this trajectory of violence by linking past issues to current events. The Fast and the Furious (2011) is a video and photographic series that looks at the street-racing subculture in Makhachkala: every Saturday night, young drivers meet at a highway to either race or watch; only men are allowed to take part. Makhacheva’s attempt to be accepted into this community led her to mimic its codes, modifying her 4x4 by covering it with fur. Let me be part of a narrative (2012) is a three-channel video installation that combines archival documentary material about the famous Dagestani wrestler Ali Aliyev with modern dog-fighting competitions in the region, another primarily male pastime. If the car culture of The Fast and the Furious belongs to the lineage of the Dzhigitovka, a traditional horse-riding technique popular during the Caucasian war and later appropriated by Russian Cossacks, the dog fights are deeply embedded in the Caucasian tradition of wrestling that made Dagestan famous during Soviet times. These works succeed in tracing a history of how masculine aggression and competition is displaced toward game-like situations, while identifying specific codes of behaviour such as the exclusion of women.
The exhibition’s title, ‘Story Demands to be Continued’, points to Makhacheva’s interest in replacing a traditional and unified reading of the past with multiple vantage points, understanding history as something that is constantly unfolding and being negotiated. Returning to Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Makhacheva’s exhibition succeeds at ‘brushing against the grain’, at turning history into stories by carving the lives of ordinary people into the dominant discourse.
First published in Issue 160