Taus Makhacheva
Vababai, Vadadai!, 2015/2018
Audio installation
Courtesy of the artists
Taus Makhacheva's works are a meeting ground where artistic creativity mingles with cultural and anthropological research. Both her artistic and research interests focus on her native Dagestan, its original traditions and way of life, and, as the anthropologists say, its habitus. In traditional society, the living patterns and traditions (that is, the usual subject matter for cultural anthropology) are what enables human beings to distinguish themselves from nature, to take on a social identity, and to realise their humanity. This is precisely why traditional culture turns to nature for its images, metaphors and sacral meanings. It is therefore quite natural that these two principles – nature and culture – feature constantly in the works of Makhacheva. In one of them we see paintings against the backdrop of a mountainous landscape – a landscape so calculatedly picturesque that it is perceived not as a reality but as yet another artistic convention in itself. In another, we watch somebody imitating the actions of a horse, and doing so with such accuracy that the suspicion arises that we are faced rather with a trained animal imitating a person trying to mimic an animal. In one of her early performances, Makhacheva applied a sophisticated ornament to her face, and in another, later work, gave culinary confections the appearance of art objects. By this, following the paradigm of cultural anthropology, she demonstrates that nature does not exist in and of itself, but that we are acquainted with the natural only in so far as it is described and depicted by human beings. Nature is an aggregate of signs.

Hence it is fully consistent that Makhacheva turns in a whole series of works to the most fundamental sign system of all – to language. It is, of course, customary to divide language into its written and spoken forms, where the first is an obvious product of culture, and the second is something rooted in human corporeality, in lived experience, i.e. in nature. And it is to speech that Makhacheva's present work refers. "Vababai Vadadai!" is, after all, an ejaculation broadcast over loudspeakers, and the sound to which the work may be reduced. There is no clearly recognisable meaning to this particular spoken utterance. It is – as the artist puts it – a kind of "exclamation outside of time", or "a couple of words that burst out of the past and memory, but which are very much full of life." Indeed, this catchphrase can find associations in our imagination with languages that do exist but with which we are unfamiliar, or to the most varied traditions and layers of culture, to folklore, to avant-garde absurdity, and so forth. Consequently, if speech is the equivalent of nature, and literacy is culture, then the present work, like others by Makhacheva, shows that speech and nature do not precede culture and writing, but are created by them. Jacques Derrida once wrote on this theme, insisting that an oral statement is subject to the written medium, in so far as it does not so much refer to a referent, but to other signs. Moreover, the peculiarity of the exclamation in question here – its potential semantic richness in the absence of any specific meaning – can be explained in terms of another of Derrida's musings. Vababai Vadadai! acknowledges in itself that which the French philosopher called archi-écriture, or proto-writing, i.e. the literacy that is the condition for writing. With her utterly simple gesture, Makhacheva introduces us to the state of language at the moment of its birth, when it was born but not yet formed; it already has melodic sound but lacks articulation, because it is still poised at a point between nature and culture.

Finally, as the artist states, this proto-language is uttered in her work in the voices of "solid and hard Dagestani men". That is, it sounds from a certain place – the place to whose study Makhacheva dedicates her work. As such, her work is about the fact that each place is original and unique, while sharing a certain fundamental baseline level with all other places. We shall call this proto-place.

Viktor Misiano
artistic director of the project: Viktor Misiano
National Center for Contemporary Arts
Moscow Museum of Modern Art
Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center
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