Taus Makhacheva, Baida, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 15 minutes 31 seconds. Installation view. Photo: Judita Kuniskyte.

Taus Makhacheva, Baida, 2017,
HD video, color, sound, 15 minutes
31 seconds. Installation view. Photo: Judita Kuniskyte.

Taus Makhacheva

Taus Makhacheva, Baida, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 15 minutes 31 seconds. Installation view. Photo: Judita Kuniskyte.

The title of Taus Makhacheva’s exhibition “BaidÀ” is a pun: Without the accent on the A, the word refers to a name for a cheap boat used by poachers fishing in the Caspian Sea for beluga (European sturgeon), but with the accent added, it becomes Russian slang for a nonsensical or unbelievable story. The fish, an endangered species, remains the source of two treasured products: caviar and isinglass. (The latter, made from the fish’s swim bladder, is used to consolidate paint and is highly valued by art conservators.) Because of the sturgeon’s protected status, fishing for it is not only precarious but at times illegal—yet high unemployment in the region inevitably draws fishermen to poaching. Makhacheva, though, refuses to judge the workers engaged in this trade. Instead, having interviewed some of them in Dagestan, she drew a parallel between the precarity of their labor and her own as an artist—she is likewise the maker of a luxury good.

The video piece exhibited in one room of the gallery, titled Baida (note the lack of accent), 2017, shows footage of dark, choppy waters seen from a motorboat. The dialogue among the boatman and three other people whom we cannot see concerns the search for the site of a performance organized by Makhacheva for the Venice Biennale. But the performance is an imaginary event; it never took place. As it turns out, the conversation we hear is fake, too. Makhacheva shot the scene in the Caspian Sea, not the Venetian Lagoon, as is implied, and she overdubbed the footage with dialogue recorded in London and scripted by Tim Etchells, a British artist and writer. Still, the video is anchored in reality. The performance may never have happened, but at the most recent Biennale Makhacheva really did announce that something would take place at a certain watery spot whose coordinates she provided.

The video’s dialogue includes some chilling asides amid the cynical art-world banter. Somewhere between their complaints about feeling hungry and sleepy, or in need of a drink, the protagonists mention sturgeon poachers strapping themselves to their unstable boats to stay afloat so that they can be found in case they die. The imaginary denizens also exchange judgmental comments about Makhacheva and ask whether her piece is sufficiently realist and elaborate, whether it is close enough to the tragedy. In this dense narrative, dominated by corporeal needs and desires, neither the lives of the fishermen nor Makhacheva’s art really matters. The piece radiates an overwhelming sense of disillusionment. 

In the gallery’s second room, one saw the sturgeon itself— or more precisely the dried flakes of its swim bladder—displayed on a table, next to a scale and some artisanal-looking paper bags, as if ready to be sold. On the same table sat Caspian Sea—Industrial pressing mold, 2018: a pair of molds, one iron and one silicone, both in the shape of the titular body of water. While standing in this room, one no longer heard the sound of the waves. Thanks to both the austere minimalism of the table and the silence surrounding it, this quiet corner of the gallery felt solemn and almost sacrosanct. Depicted in the other room as potentially life-threatening, the seas were much safer here; they had been reduced to a shape that could be multiplied and used to make something pleasant, like a cake. The danger had become abstract and aestheticized, so we could think about eating undisturbed.