Taus Makhacheva fondly remembers the first time she watched Hitler cutting into a cake shaped like the Caspian Sea.
"The narration goes something like: 'Nazi bastards want to get to Baku oil!' Then a slice of Baku is cut out of Azerbaijan and sauce is poured. I think it's the most creative propaganda tape I've ever seen."
A visual artist whose work considers the shifting post-Soviet identities in her home region of Dagestan, Taus discovered the tape by accident, in the Russian State Documentary Film & Photo Archive in Krasnogorsk, during research for a video piece on the abandoned mountain village of Gamsutl. The Soviet propaganda film claimed it to be German propaganda, a dramatization of Hitler's intention to conquer the Caucasus' oil-rich territories.
"I showed it to a couple of editors who said it's fake. There's not a single frame where Hitler and the cake are in the same frame."
Taus recreated Hitler's cake during a performance art festival in Sweden. The cake—the moistest of geopolitical metaphors, with a gooey liquid center of Caspian Sea—was presented to guests in the "peace room" of 16th-century Uppsala Castle. A chocolate-sponge replica of a Russian Federation map was later served in Moscow, offered to people "based on the regions they wanted to consume."
The performance was the artist's first foray into "food art," a medium that is often interventional, playing with the senses as well as social constructs. Around the same time, Taus discovered Instagram and began collecting images of cakes posted by small bakeries in Dagestan.
"Instagram is a major mode of communication in Dagestan and it's used a lot to advertise. Local makeup artists have hundreds of thousands of followers."
Cakes resembling Chanel bags, MAC makeup palettes, Jimmy Choos, and other luxury goods seemed to radiate with the glacéed desires of a generation. A republic in Russia's North Caucasus, Dagestan's localized corruption and previous conflicts with Chechnya and Islamic militants has led to a stagnant economy. Are the cakes a form of fantasy, or an expression of status? A multilayered, cream-filled totem? One of the bakers Taus spoke to tried to convince a grandmother not to order for her 13-year-old grandson a cake in the shape of a briefcase full of money.
Her documentation led to a "curated dessert table," a lineup of fake designer cakes: an Hermès belt, a YSL wallet, and the menacing yellow eyes of Fendi's Peekaboo bag.
"It's playful, enjoyable, light, and edible, yet meaningful as well. There's always some kind of subversion going on," the artist explains. "It takes as a starting point a certain local folklore—a local manifestation of priorities—and then it continues further as a commentary on general economic and social situations."
Last summer, Taus commissioned a friend in Baku to make a classic black Chanel bag cake, including an edible logo. Transported by another friend, the cake was flown to London for a "conceptualized dinner" at the Delfina Foundation, near Buckingham Palace, as part of its "Politics of Food" program.
"It's a weird way of passing food, which also became part of the work. As a child I always traveled with boxes of frozen meat that my grandma used to give us to take to Moscow."
The Chanel cake was served as part of a four-course meal that offered a chronological journey and political commentary through Dagestan's dining history. A traditional village dish of beans, sausages, meats, and flatbread was served with apricot compote and keepsake "moustache spoons," tilted at an angle for men with moustaches. Taus smuggled a kilo of caviar from Dagestan to London for a course dedicated to her memories of the Soviet Union. The caviar, to the mild horror of her guests, was ceremoniously dumped it into a vat of mashed potatoes. Growing up on the sturgeon-rich coast of the Caspian Sea, she says caviar became so common "we used it instead of salt."
"The ladies at the foundation gasped when I tipped the caviar into the potato and said, 'No, not all of it!'"
Taus' most recent performance took place at this year's Art Dubai, as part of a dinner also hosted by the Delfina Foundation. Titled "The Wedding Project", each course was created by a different artist, based on a 10th-century Arabic text's varying definitions of love, from hawa (attraction) to huyum (insanity). Taus was assigned "dessert and disorder." Edible cutlery and plates were served to the Dubai guest list, along with an edible napkin made from "a marshmallow-y thing." The cake, however, was made from wood.
A sophisticated party trick? Or a comment on our hollow fascination with food as a lifestyle statement as we ignore plummeting resources and wealth inequality, and value appearance and anticipation over experience? Sweetly subversive, the result was Instagrammed to the nines, and the wooden cake kept as a collector's item.
Talking to Taus, it's clear that her food projects and performances, although political, offer a light diversion, an , from her more resolutely wrought work. Or, in her words: "Maybe you could say… they're easier to digest?"