One of the best things about LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL, which returns in July for its 10th edition, is the opportunities it provides for experiencing contemporary art from across the globe. Beautiful World, Where Are You? (as this year’s edition is titled) is not a showcase of art about Liverpool, but that does not mean the city does not become part of the work. “It’s the city which creates the frame for everything we present,” explains Liverpool Biennial’s director, Sally Tallant. “Either literally, because it’s inside the buildings or in the streets, or that by being here, the kind of narratives that emerge and the histories that define this place and our city become the starting point for thinking. I always talk about Liverpool as being a brain that the artists plug into; it has lots of different kinds of knowledge.”
Out of everything that will take over the city for the summer, however, TAUS MAKHACHEVA’s project is perhaps one of this Biennial’s most ambitious in terms of considering what the audience experience of art actually is. This isn’t the first time Makhacheva’s work will have appeared at a Liverpool Biennial: she came as the representative for the Dagestan city of Makhachkala in 2012’s City States. She’s an artist gaining an increasingly high international profile, and a person about whom Tallant is very excited: “I think she’s really fantastic artist, very dynamic. It’s a great moment in her career and for Liverpool Biennial to be hosting her.”
Alongside a screening of her stunning 2015 film Tightrope at St George’s Hall, Makhacheva is designing a new multi-disciplinary installation for Blackburne House: a spa, where visitors can (should they so wish) be treated to a full facial. This is a new way of quite literally absorbing art: the treatment will include a specially formulated moisturising cream named Painting In A Tube after its art-based ingredients. “Basically, if you put a painting in a blender and tried to make a cream out of it, it’s what would come out,” Makhacheva laughs, over a cup of tea and a break from the final preparations for the installation’s sculptural elements at Edge Hill’s Metal space.
“I’ll start with a story,” she begins. “It’s only this year that I think I understood abstract painting, that I really sort of felt that it makes you present in front of it and that’s what it’s about, it’s about the nowness. But I personally prefer works that make you travel, that tell a story, that force you to dream and take you elsewhere.” The idea of the spa is to take people on this journey, to spend some time completely transported by sensual stimulation.
Much of Makhacheva’s previous work has been set in the nature of her native Dagestan. In Tightrope, the land’s incredible rock formations and big skies offer important context. The spa seems, on first glance, to be born from an entirely different concept, based on the small and intimate rather than the grand panorama. In fact, Tightrope and the spa are two sides of the same coin.
The undercurrents of meaning in the spa that we discuss flow deep, but two in particular repeatedly rise to the surface. One is the concept of “making time, about today’s relationship with time and just accepting your own time and letting people know that’s your time”. It was a very deliberate decision to create an environment that takes half an hour to fully experience. With time an increasingly precious commodity in our busy lives, and with the temptation for Biennial installations to simply be ticked off a list as ‘seen’, the spa demands you slow down and make time for a different, empathetic kind of contemplation.
Time spent here, then, is to be time well spent. To ensure this, Makhacheva has included multi-disciplinary features to provide a sensory idyll of some kind or other for all visitors. She is fascinated by the phenomenon of ASMR videos, widely available online and specifically designed to stimulate the sense in particular ways. “ASMR, for me, is this very peculiar phenomenon about how to create this intimacy through screens with complete strangers. There’s this comfort and presence… that you somehow warm to.” Meanwhile, more direct experiential contact can be made with the beauticians themselves, who will double as storytellers recalling Biennial’s past and the history of artworks which have come to be taken for granted as part of the city’s landscape.
Another recurring theme of our discussion is that of destruction. It’s a concept inherent in the theme of Beautiful World, Where Are You?, which was a title chosen to reflect the sense of instability of recent global conditions. “With these changes which are happening, it’s destabilising for everyone to think about what this new world might look like,” explains Tallant, while also explaining why Liverpool is the perfect place for artistic contemplation of the subject. “It’s a port city, an international city and we are all global citizens.” The perfect city, then, in which to explore what this uncertainty means via perspectives from an international art community.
This concept of destruction will be physically represented through furniture made in collaboration with sculptor Alexander Kutuvoi, resulting from their experiments in physical destruction. “We bought one sort of classical bust – which feeds into beauty, perfection – from ancient Greece,” says Makhacheva. “We made moulds and we started breaking them. We made copies of the one that we bought and we broke about 20 heads to find perfect shards, and the shards got enlarged.” Those enlargements will form the very furniture that guests lie back and relax on.
Hand-in-hand with destruction goes rebuilding – an apt enough theme in a city which has experienced its fair share of each. Makhacheva has been very inspired by studying and working with conservators: “The idea of a conservator is so similar to the beautician. This notion that the person lying on the beautician’s table… you are also a sculpture being repaired, remodelled.” She also talks about taking inspiration from Blackburne House itself. “It’s a very interesting space, the way they rebuild and give new skills to women who are sometimes in complicated situations.”
And another, more positive destruction is also on Makhacheva’s mind – the destruction of barriers which hold people back from being able to access art. If one form of destruction is that of arts from school curricula, she hopes the spa might encourage engagement from people who may not typically want to access art: “It’s much more personal, trying to break down a screen for any audience member that might come.” This is one reason why it was important to place the stories which are told in the mouths of the beauticians, with scripts written by local writer David McDermott. “Usually it’s someone you might not consider intellectual, so we’re twisting that. You should never underestimate anyone.”
Multi-disciplinary, contemporary ideas, yet highly accessible. The Biennial is all about bringing new and exciting work into the architecture of the city, and Makhacheva’s ideas are a perfect manifestation of what this might look like.
Words: Julia Johnson / messylines.com
Photography: Tightrope (film still), 2015. Image courtesy the artist.
Liverpool Biennial runs between 14th July and 28th October. Taus Makhacheva’s installation for this year’s Biennial will take place at Blackburne House.