Taus Makhacheva is the unseen ringleader of her circus in Charivari, an installation that stands as both an effigy to a bygone platform and as scaffolding to a performance of fantasy.
First presented in 2019, the installation has been revised for A Space of Celebration, a retrospective of her work spanning 13 years, running until August 14 at the Jameel Arts Centre.
Charivari is a good example of the mirth and playfulness that runs through most of the Russian-born artist’s works. It also exhibits her propensity to spring towards the uncanny from stories rooted in the North Caucasus and beyond.
The workpays homage to the Baku State Circus and explores the rich circus tradition of the former Soviet Union. It alludes to a platform that was used to project state narratives and, ironically, as the exhibition explains, also provided “a safe space for banter and freedom of expression”.
The original version of the installation featured 3D models of performers and circus props. The one at Jameel Arts Centre, however, presents a flatter variation.
This “flat-pack version”, as Makhacheva calls it, was designed for practical and logistical reasons, but it also evokes something that the original perhaps does not.
There are specific points throughout the space where the circus materialises best. Outside of these vantage points, the circus starts to vanish in a 2D blind spot, giving it an uncanny resonance.
A silver-caped acrobat, bodiless snake charmer and a shapeshifting horse are among the cast of unruly characters that inhabit Makhacheva’s circus. Along with the mixed-media installation, an audio track plays in the exhibition space, narrating stories of the circus characters in several languages, including English and Arabic.
“There are 10 different stories,” Makhacheva says. “There’s a story of a circus canteen, where everything is made from crude oil. There’s a story of a strong woman accountant, another of a clown, then the director of the circus, the wife of the director of the circus, the daughter of the director of the circus and the husband of the daughter of the director of the circus.”
The stories, Makhacheva says, hint at the family relationships present in the Caucasus and beyond. “All of them depict, tangle or untangle something,” she says.
Charivari, like most works in Makhacheva’s oeuvre, was created through a range of collaborators. The circus was designed with architect Maria Serova. The stories were written by Russian Booker Prize-winner Alexander Snegirev. There are also credits for costume design and production, as well as research and voice actors, all of whom the artist has made a point to list in the installation’s information panel.
Similar credit panels are installed alongside all of the exhibited works. Makhacheva says it was important to acknowledge the people who took part and informed the work because what the exhibition celebrates, above all, is an artistic methodology that absorbs as much as it lends.
“It is also showing these extended conversations that are happening,” Makhacheva says.
“It relates to my bigger curiosity where I make art from a position that all that’s been done before me, belongs to me. I am just making the next step within this historical flow. But that means if I’m taking that position, if I’m allowing myself to juggle so freely with other artistic methodologies, that my methodology will also be absorbed in a similar manner.”
Makhacheva gives Charivari as an example. Part of the reason why a “flat-pack” variation installation was conceived is because the original version is on display at the Fries Museum in the Netherlands. As an extension to the exhibition, theatre students in Leeuwarden conceived a performance within the circus.
“It was a completely different work within the framework of the show,” Makhacheva says. “It was almost a play. They perform, switch off my sound, play their own script then they move into the room with tightropes, somebody walks behind the screen, they narrate. It was beautiful. It was exactly sort of what I was hoping for.”
Charivari is only one facet in a kaleidoscope of works and collaborations in the artist’s oeuvre, most of which is on display in A Space of Celebration. The works show Makhacheva flitting between disparate methodologies and even identities as she entwines the real with the uncanny.
In 19 A Day, the first work to be seen in the show, Makhacheva is a wedding crasher.
Working in collaboration with photographer Shamil Gadzhidadaev, she attended 19 weddings in a single day. Pretending to be an invited guest, she congratulated the newlyweds, danced and ate with them. The work presents a series of photographs that document this ceremonious hopscotch as well as a video, which features, in an otherworldly fashion, two bulbous ghostly figures — presumably a bride and groom — moving smoothly about a well-decked-out but empty marriage hall.
The newest work in A Space of Celebration is a site-specific commission titled Zero Buoyancy. Made of an inflatable polyurethane membrane, it is set up in the courtyard of the centre and presents a large buoyant shape alluding to the bladder of a fish.
“It relates to the state that fish have, called neutral buoyancy or zero buoyancy, where they can stay in one place and with no effort,” Makhacheva says. “They do so with the help of their bladder, a very curious organ, which contracts and expands with air.”
Makhacheva says she has wanted to do an inflatable installation for some time and that her retrospective at Jameel Arts Centre provided the perfect opportunity. Zero Buoyancy was, in a way, her fantastical and transformative touch on the institution.
“The workings with an institution and the dance that I perform whenever I work with an institution is also kind of very important,” she says. “And in a way, what this does is it transforms Art Jameel into a fish, which is able to be in different layers of water depending on what art it is filled with.”
The circle of galleries that make up A Space of Celebrationgive the feeling of stepping into a carousel, moving around more than a decade’s worth of research and leaping towards fantasy.
From the Quantitative Infinity of the Objective, a gallery space transformed into an imperfect gymnastics training area, to the work presented by Makhacheva’s alter-ego Super Taus and the Superhero Sighting Society, A Space of Celebration presents a buoyant methodology that instils mirth while goading viewer participation.