FLANKED BY the Caucasus Mountains on the highest plateau in Dagestan, the village of Tsovkra-1 has parlayed the perils of its topography into a peculiar claim to fame: that every able-bodied member of its roughly four-hundred-person population can walk a tightrope. While locals say that this skill was first developed simply as a way to traverse the region’s slopes and crevices, tightrope walking is now considered an integral part of the republic’s cultural heritage.
It is no wonder, then, that the artist Taus Makhacheva chose to site her recent piece, Tightrope, 2015, just outside Tsovkra-1. Filmed using drone-mounted cameras, the video opens with a low-slung shot of the titular wire, which spans an abyss between twin hilltops. Stationed on one summit is a simple black metal rack full of paintings and works on paper, standing on edge in a line that ascends according to height. The opposite crest is crowned with a cube-shaped shelving system composed of overlapping squares and rectangles made from the same black metal. When viewed from the side, the structure reads like a Mondrian grid, an alien element of geometric order within the rocky terrain. Over the course of seventy-three minutes, a tightrope walker methodically transports the artworks from the first hilltop to the second, eventually sliding each picture into its allotted place within the cube.
The work is an exercise in extreme art handlingbut it is also more than that. At face value, Tightrope functions as a primer on the cultural history of Dagestan. The pictures used in the performance were copied from the collection of the P. S. Gamzatova Dagestan Museum of Fine Arts. Ideologically rooted in multiple museum-building initiatives from the turn of the century, the institution was only officially established in the late 1950s, after prodding from the Soviet Ministry of Culture, which helped pad the collection by redistributing holdings from collections in Moscow and Tbilisi, as well as from the local museum of arts and crafts. The institution mingles paintings from Dagestan-based masters alongside a condensed canon of Soviet staples, from Ivan Aivazovsky and Isaac Levitan to Aleksandra Ekster and Aleksandr Rodchenko. A separate collection presents nineteenth-century images of the Caucasus by Russian painters, who churned out romanticized depictions of the region’s rugged landscape and tumultuous history to feed on the empire’s hunger for exoticism. A copy of one of these, Franz Roubaud’s Assault of Aul Gimry, 1891an image showing the Russian Empire’s brutal quashing of Ghazi Muhammad’s forces in a pivotal 1832 battle in the Caucasian Waris one of the first paintings to cross the wire in Tightrope.
But the pictures are not the only thing on display in the video; the tightrope walker, Rasul Abakarov, represents the fifth generation of his family to practice the craft. As he shuffles across the wire, the funambulist arches one arm over his head, keeping the other extended, and thenop!flips his position, as if dancing. Each successive trip has its own choreography. For some crossings, Abakarov carries two works in his hands; other times he mounts multiple paintings on a long balancing pole. One undated oil paintingIosif Mollaev’s parlor scene of Dagestan’s revered national poet, Rasul Gamzatov (Makhacheva’s grandfather), paying a social call to Fidel Castro, while a portrait of Lenin looks on approvinglyis too large to balance, so Abakarov dangles the frame from a carabiner, which he nudges across the wire with his toes.
Tightrope debuted last September as part of the Kyiv Biennial. The same set of copied artworks also appeared in another work performed simultaneously in Kyiv and at the concurrent Sixth Moscow Biennale, its ostentatious title satirizing Soviet academic traditions: On the Benefits of Pyramids in Cultural Education, Strengthening of National Consciousness, and the Formation of Moral and Ethical Guideposts, 2015. For this new piece, the artist again drew on cultural traditions of acrobatic display, recruiting a young team of trainees from Moscow’s state-run circus school, which was founded in 1929 as an auxiliary organ of the nationalized circus. Each day, Makhacheva’s performers would incorporate the artworks into a series of routines, cantilevering their bodies into increasingly convoluted human pyramids.
These performances took place in the Moscow Biennale’s main venue, Pavilion No. 1 of the Exhibition of Economic Achievements, better known as VDNKh. Completed in the 1939 as the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition and expanded in subsequent decades, this world’s fair–style expo park originally featured pavilions dedicated to agriculture, industry, and the various Soviet republics. In the ’60s, as part of Khrushchev’s push to promote a unified population, nationally identified pavilions were replaced by showcases of Space Race–inspired technology. This willful erasure of cultural difference particularly affected the northern Caucasus, especially Dagestan, which, with more than thirty ethnicities among its three million inhabitants and fourteen officially recognized languages, is home to the most heterogeneous population in the Russian Federation. Despite enjoying relatively more autonomy in the post-Soviet era, today Dagestan’s institutions must still compete for resources within the larger federal framework, where they are rarely prioritized. If Tightrope underscores the precariousness of this specific cultural heritage, then On the Benefits trotted that same legacy out like so many trophies on display, props to emphasize the greater accomplishment of the empire. But as the performers’ bodies register different pressures in each piecethe tightrope walker faces the unpredictability of the elements, while the threat to the human pyramid comes from within, as the entire structure could topple should any one of its components falterthese works, too, suggest that neither local tradition nor state-sponsored spectacle is as monolithic as it may seem.
Indeed, between the poles, Makhacheva attempts a balancing act of her own. Descended from the Avars, the predominant ethnic group within Dagestan, but born in Moscow, educated in London, and currently splitting her time between Moscow and Makhachkala, the artist uses her objects, films, and performances as a means to reinscribe herself within a national narrative in a context where the “nation” does not exist. While aspects of this approach might suggest self-Orientalizing, Makhacheva offsets this charge through the dry humor at play in works such as Growth, 2014, a fleet of needlepoint embroideries that tracks the region’s changing ideological tides through isolated trends in facial hair, and Landscape, 2013–, a miniature mountain range made up of wooden noses, modeled after the real features of a sampling of the Caucasus’s population (incidentally reflecting recent advances in affordable rhinoplasty). Earlier works test the limits of identification within a cultural or physical landscape through experiments with costuming, camouflage, and choreography. The sixteen-minute video Gamsutl, 2012, fixes on a lone figure in an abandoned mountain town. Splicing poses borrowed from Roubaud’s battle paintings with steps from the “Dance of the Collective Farm Brigade Leader,” a ’30s-era sequence of dance moves abstracted from collective farmwork like shucking corn or driving a tractor, the performer increasingly draws his cues directly from his environment, dangling off the walls of the fortress or standing against a cracked boulder as if imitating its fissure. Similar acts of camouflage fuel Rekhen (its title is the Avar word for “flock”), 2009, in which a figure huddled under a sheepskin coat attempts to blend with a justifiably suspicious herd; A Space of Celebration, 2009, in which two characters shuffle through four of Makhachkala’s elaborate wedding halls, dressed as ornamental folded napkins; and The Fast and the Furious, 2011, a piece that tracked Makhacheva’s infiltration of the macho world of street racing via a 4x4 decked out in secondhand furs.
For the three-channel video installation Let Me Be Part of a Narrative, 2012, Makhacheva drops the disguises to explore the northern Caucasus’s culture of dogfighting. More about breeding than brutality, the fights reportedly originated as a kind of test for sheepdogs and last only until one of the animals shows a sign of fear. Makhacheva’s footage of tournament matches and interviews with dog owners fills two screens, while the third loops excerpts of a Soviet-era documentary on Ali Aliev, a five-time world champion freestyle wrestler who was the first Dagestani competitor to participate in the Olympics. The language framing both types of competition is nearly interchangeable. Just as each canine is tasked with upholding the reputation of its village, Aliev is gently scolded as “the little man from the little country” who pushed his body to its limits for his nation and his empire. To be “part of a narrative,” he turned himself into a living trophy, the kind Makhacheva continues to collect and deploy. In doing so, she stakes her own claim to shaping cultural narrativesbut she positions herself as narrator, not prop.
Kate Sutton is a writer based in Zagreb, Croatia.