Taus Makhacheva’s Performative Follies

Originally published in Frieze, October 2018.

‘Weird’, ‘absurd’ and ‘ridiculous’ is how artist Taus Makhacheva describes her own work. Makhacheva is speaking to me about Ring Road (2018), commissioned for the recent edition of Cosmoscow art fair in Moscow, Russia, which took place in September. The work involves a proposal for a circular motorway around a mountain peak in rural Dagestan, the Russian federal republic to which Makhacheva, who was born in Moscow, traces her origins. But Makhacheva’s motorway is a little different: should it ever be built, it would be completely unconnected to existing road networks, and therefore utterly useless as a piece of transport infrastructure. ‘Completely ridiculous’, she laughs.

Makhacheva’s idea had its first public iteration in a 2015 exhibition, ‘Myth’, organized by curatorial agency Arts Territory at Center for Contemporary Art, Tbilisi, and Europe House Georgia. There, it consisted of digitally produced blueprints. Primarily, Makhacheva was looking to ask questions about the politics of large-scale infrastructure projects, with specific reference to those of the Soviet Union: ‘When one country conquers another, the first thing it often does is build different roads, different arteries as a way to carry out political change and domination’, she told me. But the work also critiqued the way humans exist within and against the natural environment. ‘I was travelling through the landscapes of Dagestan and thinking what an aggressive gesture it is to take a bit of the flesh out of a mountain’. She also describes it as a ‘tease’ – a way of poking some fun at ‘a highly performative society when it comes to masculinity’ by presenting a perfect road on which to live out some gasoline-fuelled drive-time fantasy, but making it totally inaccessible.

During Cosmoscow, Makhacheva exhibited a mock-up of the proposed road placed upon a pedestal in the very centre of the venue: a thirty-kilo mountain model, made from dolomite, a sedimentary carbonate rock, with a road-shaped ring sliced out around the upper half. A ‘solid, art-world, art-fair object’ is how Makhacheva describes the piece, made in collaboration with sculptor Aleksey Selivanov and stonemason Sergey Solovyev. Nonetheless, despite the art fair context, this object is not for sale: anyone wishing to take possession of the dolomite sculpture must sign a contract, legally binding under legislation of the Russian Federation. The contract commits them to build the motorway around a specified mountain, the Makhnot peak, near the village of Bolshoy Gotsatl (coordinates: 42.5247222°, 46.8905556°). The contract, legislative information and geographical details were exhibited alongside a preliminary geological survey and cost estimate (130 million roubles, about GBP£1.5 million) in glass-topped vitrines adjacent to the dolomite model. Today, Ring Road is both more real and further from reality than ever.

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