Exoticizing and Deciphering the Caucasus

For ten days the main hall of the Central Pavilion of VDNKh is covered with carpets, while mobile racks with Socialist Realism paintings of Caucasian artists are put forward on both sides of an imaginary stage, and a group of gymnasts performs five-minute acrobatic shows that reproduce the famous works of 20th century Dagestani art. The show for the mobile museum changes every night: every evening Taus comes to her small storage and selects the paintings for next day. This performance is a continuation of her last video “Rope”, where Taus Makhacheva on the one hand works with the topic of unstable situation with art in history, and, on the other hand, explores a local culture heritage: both the history of 20th century Dagestani art, and the rope village where the video was shot, show us invisible, forgotten and hard-to-replicate regional heritage. Funambulist moves from one hilltop to another carrying differently sized paintings, using them as a balance and walking with no safety net. At the “School of Kyiv” Biennale, where I met Taus two weeks ago and where she demonstrated the “Rope" for the first time, I asked her if was it scary to manage such a shoot. Taus said that every time the funambulist took a piece of art and stood on the rope over the gap, she would turn away and pray.

I’m going to the nearby ‘Caucasus’ Pavilion where I want to look at the exhibition made by anonymous art collective “Unbound” so that I can later discuss it with Taus. I only know a few things about the team: this is a friendly informal company of writers, artists, designers, musicians and curators, they research contemporary Caucasus visual language and compile its dictionary. In a stuffy small pavilion I find an anthropological collection that consists of the object found by the curators, documents, pieces of art and neofolk artifacts. This is the condensed collection of typical clichés about modern-day Caucasus: kitsch, glitter, lezginka, patriarchy, beards and Ugg boots with Chanel logo. However, there is only one artist in this exhibition, Farhad Farzaliyev, so either because of anonymity, or because of the heat, or because the authors belong to non-institutionalized environment, but the other of the objects and videos somehow got mixed up in my mind and I saw them as one continuous critical work that looks at the cultural codes of modern-day Caucasus and their further reproduction by people of non-Caucasus origin. The thing that fascinated me the most was a Youtube video of small kids, two boys and a girl, dancing at a kindergarten celebration. At some point, one of the boys begins to fight with the other and then he gloriously continues his lezginka dance to the sound of cheers and approving laughter from the mothers and preschool teachers gathered in the hall. Little kids, reproducing the model of masculinity and religious education in the ritual dance with the total approval of the community, this was really scary. I asked Taus a few questions about the “Unbound” exhibit and the Moscow Biennale as a whole.

— Taus, how do you think the approach used by art group “Unbound” is relevant today and how does it fit with the main program of Moscow Biennale of contemporary art?

— Judging from what I saw and by what has been done by the “Unbound” team, this is all about building a different world, a world that would be the Other in relation to the central part of Russia. It is the Other and it is frightening. We see both the exoticization and deciphering. But if you look carefully at the exhibition, then you see the poetic texts (I’d love to know who wrote them). This is another level of perception.

In general, the main element of the Moscow Biennale is the time you invest in it. This is the exhibition without the exhibition. This is the exhibition with no objects and where everything is in process, everything is done and everything is changing in real time. In this case, the ‘Caucasus’ Pavilion is a strange anthropological project that shows us a certain world excluded from the mainstream, or included without these explanatory texts. Obviously, this brightness, which is represented in all these works, is not my style of work. I try to work more delicately, in a poetic way, but “Unbound” absolutely rock this place out. I wouldn’t allow myself to exhibit the nipple in sequins — it’s clear enough that this is a found object, that such things exist in the Caucasus, but nevertheless this is a certain message that you project to the audience of VDHKh. At the same time the overseers told me that the visitors asked whether they can buy Chanel Ugg boots or the wardrobe.

"Unbound", ‘Caucasus’ Pavilion.

"Unbound", ‘Caucasus’ Pavilion.

I liked that “Unbound” worked not only with people from artistic environment, as I understand it. There is only one artist Farhad Farzaliyev, but others are people out of contemporary art world. For example, Shamil Omarov, the owner of design studio, produced the amazing object, a wardrobe that represents kitschy interior taste of many people from the Caucasus. There is a certain irony, that for me is probably too radical, it is too high degree, however this approach could be used. Plus the context — the “Caucasus” Pavilion at VDNKh, the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, these are the things that we’ve achieved in the last ten years in the Caucasus, a certain change of ideology, change of desires. People have a completely new lifestyle and completely new dreams.

— Do not you think that the curators using the established clichés and images of the Caucasus (beard, lezginka and sport), operate within the same discourse, and thus do not go beyond its borders?

— Of course, you can look at it that way, but again, if you invest some time in the process, the text will show you that there’s something beyond the set of clichés and stereotypes. Palace with the sparkling gems. If you perceive it as a shop, it remains as a shop. But if you really spend the time, the optics can be changed.

— Why do you think that today anonymity and/or fake critical statements are so popular? Why did not curators declare themselves?

— I don“t know, maybe it is certain freedom. I can’t be responsible for them. I often think that for the last two years in Russia I’ve been living in a movie with a completely mixed reality. You watch the news and do not understand whether it”s news or novel or fiction film. The artists are especially attuned to this. It’s possible that these phantoms inherent to our time are the stuff that legends are made of. This is a mirror of our time. It’s rather ugly, but, unfortunately, quite objective.

— Today, almost half of the Biennale is already over. How do you feel?

— Generally speaking, the whole Biennale is out of market. I am very happy that the exhibition is radically different from the all biennales I’ve visited before, because you usually see a vicious circle: the same artists that send the same works with incredible insurance, in incredible crates and with lots of instructions. In general, the whole process is very much connected to the art market and supported by certain galleries. Here, everything is absolutely different. I’m learning a lot here, communicating with colleagues and listening the lectures. The only critical feedback I might have is that people don’t want to invest their time in this, and that’s exactly what they need to do. It is very sad that I see so few colleagues here. On the one hand, I don’t visit the openings of my colleagues, on the other hand I want to listen to the lectures, discussions, watch performances that are made here. It’s not just about having fun at the opening parties. I want to have some real conversations, some real dialogues, because there are so many good and experimental works. For example, Fabrice Huber draws portraits with oil. It is generally outside of his artistic practice, but he really enjoys it.

— Is it true that you gave him the oil? Is it Dagestani oil?

— Yes, it is Dagestani oil. it was difficult for the Biennale team to find oil in Moscow. In fact, Dagestan has a lot of it. I just made a hole in the pipe and it poured out. I got four bottles and brought it to him. Speaking of bottles, these are four different bottles and four different-coloured oils. I did not know about it. Fabrice told me that different wells, even if they are as close as a couple yards from each other, the oil is different in colour.

Text: Maria Kramar.