Beauty School: A Conversation with Taus Makhacheva

View of Taus Makhacheva's installation Sculptural Signature Facial, 2018, at the Liverpool Biennial. Photo Mark McNulty.

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“Beautiful World, Where Are You?” is the unwieldy and ambivalent theme of the tenth Liverpool Biennial, which opened on July 14 and runs through October 28. It’s taken from a line of Friedrich Schiller’s 1788 poem “The Gods of Greece.” Schiller’s poem, which he wrote at a time when Europe was in upheaval and the specter of revolution loomed over France, conveys both a sense of mourning for a lost order and hope for the future. The curators believe that his sentiment is relevant again today.

Most of the forty participating artists have chosen to focus on the notion of disappearance implicit in the theme. Toronto-based Abbas Akhavan, for example, made a monumental sculpture, Variations on Ghost (2017), modeled after the claws of a Lamassu, the protective human-headed winged lion deity depicted in ancient Assyrian sculptures, several of which have been destroyed by ISIS.

Russian artist Taus Makhacheva, however, has taken a more poetic approach. Visitors to her immersive installation Signature Sculptural Facial—the price of entry is twenty-five pounds, advance booking required—recline on bulky, white plaster furniture fashioned by Alexander Kutuvoi, while receiving a facial from a hired beautician. Did I mention that the beautician will also narrate scripted stories using ASMR techniques? (For those unfamiliar with ASMR, it’s a phenomenon whereby practitioners arouse a state of heightened euphoric calm in their largely online audience using such stimuli as whispers to trigger a tingling sensation that travels over the scalp or other parts of the body.)

Spa-as-art hardly seems like an effective response to geopolitical turmoil. And if your first reaction to the project is skepticism—as mine was—the invocation of precedents in the field of relational aesthetics, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s meals, will offer little consolation. Yet there is more to Makhacheva’s project than meets the eye. For one thing, her spa is installed at Blackburne House, a local institution with a long tradition of providing education and support to women, many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds. Her choice of location suggests that she intends the work to be empowering or restorative.

Makhacheva, who was born in Moscow, trained at Goldsmiths College and the Royal College of Art, where she graduated with an MA in photography in 2013. She has garnered international attention for multilayered performance-based videos and installations that largely focus on the history and culture of Dagestan, a federal subject of Russia located in the Caucasus mountains. (Makhacheva’s grandfather Rasul Gamzatov is Dagestan’s most celebrated poet.)

In the video Gamsutl (2012), for instance, a figure, shot on camera from afar, seems to merge into the ruins of an ancient Avarian mountaintop settlement in Dagestan as he alternately strikes poses from Franz Roubaud’s nineteenth-century paintings of the Caucasian War and performs Dance of the Collective Farm Brigade Leader, a Soviet-era dance number.

Makhacheva is also presenting her mesmerizing 2015 video Tightrope at the Liverpool Biennial. The film follows the anxiety-inducing trajectory of a tightrope walker as he carries sixty-one copies of masterworks from the P. S. Gamzatova Dagestan Museum of Fine Art between two rocky crests of a canyon. In more recent works, she has shifted her attention away from Dagestan to address the art world’s idiosyncrasies and the nature of creativity.

Makhacheva spoke with me via Skype from Moscow. We discussed her spa project and how it connects to her broader practice, among other subjects.

ELIZABETH FULLERTON  What was the genesis of Signature Sculptural Facial?

TAUS MAKHACHEVA  I wanted to create a work that offered different types of experiences. The spa is physical, since the beautician works on your body. And it’s visual, because you come into a space filled with sculptural fragments. It’s also narrative: a beautician tells you stories from a script.

There’s a poetic undertone too. As I spoke with conservators, I came to realize how similar the process of a facial is to that of restoring a sculpture or a painting. After filling in the cracks in a sculpture, a conservator applies a protective layer, which is similar to what a beautician does with moisturizers. I started thinking of visitors to the spa as artworks there for repair.

FULLERTON  How does the history of Blackburne House inform your project?

MAKHACHEVA  Blackburne House, formerly a girls’ school, was abandoned in 1986. When it was reopened in 1992, a sculpture which looked like a classical Greek copy was found shattered on the floor. We’ve modelled our spa furniture on what we imagine those destroyed pieces would look like if they were enlarged.

FULLERTON  How did your collaboration with Kutuvoi influence Signature Sculptural Facial?

MAKHACHEVA  The sculptural elements were his idea. We initially talked about making furniture from sculptures modelled on several human body parts—legs, arms, torso—but that seemed too literal. He instead suggested that we use shards of a classical head, like the kind that people learn to draw from. This also relates to the way beauty is taught and thought of generally; after all, classical sculpture has informed our sense of what beauty is.

FULLERTON  Could you talk me through the cosmetic products which were specially developed for this installation by the Moscow-based company 22|11 Cosmetics? What was your role in this part of the project?

MAKHACHEVA  I wanted there to be a connection between the raw materials of the beauty products and those commonly used to make sculptures. Visitors to the spa are first treated with a clay cleanser. The next stage of treatment involves a toner infused with gold and silver essences—the same metals used in early Christian sculptures. Next the beautician applies a scrub made of different stone particles, in a reference to the function of a sculpture grinder. This is followed by the application of a massage oil containing different woods. Then the layering of a plaster mask. For the last stage of the process, the beautician uses a “Ready to Paint Moisturizer,” which has essence of cotton and linen—a metaphor for a canvas—as well as linseed oil, the substance oil paint is made from. We’re also making a box set of all these products which will be available to buy.

FULLERTON  While the visitors are “repaired,” their relaxation will be enhanced by the use of ASMR. What drew you to this practice?

MAKHACHEVA  I was mesmerized by ASMR videos online. I was reflecting on contemporary intimacies in the digital age. ASMR is a very strange simulated experience because the videos address you very personally though they are really meant for mass consumption. In one video I saw, an ASMR artist pretends that you’ve been in the woods; then she acts as though she is looking over your scratches, giving you soup, and caring for you. I was fascinated by that. For the Venice Biennale I made an ASMR-ish video of me stroking my twenty-five-terabyte hard drive.

FULLERTON  What does the beautician’s script entail?

MAKHACHEVA  The script, written by [television drama writer] David McDermott, includes stories about artworks that have disappeared throughout history, such as Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture House (1993), which was demolished by the local council eleven weeks after it was erected in Bow, East London, and Frida Kahlo’s painting The Wounded Table (1940), which was lost in 1955. Part of the narrative concerns a neurological phenomenon called mirror synesthesia in which you feel pain when you see someone in pain. Some people have a similar empathy for objects: so if you see a damaged artwork you might hurt. An ASMR video of the procedure being enacted will also be screened in the space.

FULLERTON  There is a general intellectual snobbishness about beauty treatments being superficial. Yet there is also a line of feminist thought that rejects the social pressure exerted on women to conform to conventional standards of beauty.

MAKHACHEVA  When he was working on the script, David and I talked a lot about the common misconceptions around beauticians and about why the knowledge acquired by people who work with the body is often devalued. His script opposes this tendency by endowing the character of the beautician with complexity and intelligence.

That said, I think there’s a difference between a facial, which is a therapeutic procedure, and getting fake eyelashes and Botox shots. My work is less about attractiveness than it is about art, reparation, or conservation. Through this piece—and my work, generally—I’m also trying to slow people down. Even Hans Ulrich Obrist took the treatment and I think of him as someone who never stops.

FULLERTON  Your works often engage with people who possess an expertise beyond the art world, like the beautician and the tightrope walker. Is there an ethical issue here?

MAKHACHEVA  It’s a good question. I get excited about bringing expertise from different fields into contemporary art. For this work I learned several types of facial massages so I could better understand the choreography of the facial treatment procedure. The people I work with always get credited and paid. The ticket revenue from this project will go to paying the performers and additional security personnel at the venue.

FULLERTON  Recent projects such as Signature Sculptural Facial seem to mark a departure from your previous body of work revolving around your cultural heritage.

MAKHACHEVA  I think a lot of my works are aesthetically seductive. This one lures you in with the promise of relaxing you. In other works the seductiveness is there but in a different way. The destruction of art is another line that unites my practice. Do artworks live on through in the collective memory or through their destroyed fragments?

 FULLERTON  Inherent in Tightrope is the tension between death and survival—of the tightrope walker, of his craft, and of the paintings.

MAKHACHEVA  Rasul [Abakarov, the tightrope walker] felt that there was a parallel between the risk posed to the artworks he was carrying and to his skill, for which there’s much less demand today than there was during the Soviet era. He is descended from five generations of funambulists. He’ll teach the craft to his son, who may or may not continue it.

At first we were going to shoot with a security rope. But Rasul decided against it. The tension was high.

FULLERTON  You probably needed a lot of ASMR relaxation after that.

MAKHACHEVA  Exactly. Now I’m thinking of spas, no more life-threatening works! I just want to caress and whisper.