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Visual ArtsPaintingCONTEMPORARY ART: MIRROR OF MONGOLIAN SOCIETY

CONTEMPORARY ART: MIRROR OF MONGOLIAN SOCIETY

The year 2020 marks thirty years since post socialist Mongolia has availed itself of the benefits from market economy and the freedom of expression of thought. Contemporary art in Mongolia has been a significant representative of the changes that shape our society. Due to lack of finances, Mongolian contemporary art today is still not at the forefront of the expansion of societal intellect. But why should anyone, let alone the government, care about what a few eccentrics have to say by pouring airag all over themselves or by running around with funny objects on their head? This article aims to present a general assessment of the themes based on some of the artworks created by forty some artists during the “Urtuu” Art Camp project. Five major challenges in Mongolian society are addressed in the artworks viewed on location and at the subsequent exhibitions in Ulaanbaatar: corruption, preservation of cultural heritage, conservation of nature, feminism and awareness. I would like to propose that the works created in “Art Camp” and the issues they raise, reflect, like a mirror, the current sentiments of the individual as a citizen in a developing democracy. They are, therefore, an essential component of public awareness and education for a healthy civil society.

Before treating the concepts presented in Art Camp, here, it is necessary to give a brief account of how and when contemporary art began in Mongolia. As evidenced in Socialist Realism, government control over art until the Democratic Revolution did not give any leeway for modern and postmodern art to develop into chronologically distinct movements in Mongolia as freely as it did in the West. It was only towards the end of the Socialist regime that the iron grip of government censorship on art began to loosen. According to an article by founder and artist Yo. Dalkh-Ochir, a group of artists and poets educated in Mongolia and Eastern Europe created the Green Horse Mongolian modern/postmodern art society in the 1980’s. In the 1990’s, Green Horse opened the first school of post/modern art in the country, and its members and graduates began to present their artworks internationally. In 1992, with the encouragement of foreign artist friends the society launched projects focused on conceptual, performance and land art known as “Art Camp” and “Land Art” projects today.

Corruption

In this year’s Art Camp, several works of art responded to the problems of corruption in Mongolia. In the Untitled conceptual performance by L. Gawaa, the audience is a passenger in a car that circles around a small ovoo on a random site in a vast steppe. The repeated motion created a dirt road that raises so much dust it is impossible for the driver to see clearly or for the passengers to stay comfortable. Gawaa’s piece is a commentary on the parliamentary election results in June, a disappointment for those candidates and voters who observed the rules honestly. So, the nauseating cycle of moral and economic poverty in Mongolia continues, an exploitation of a people with opportunities as immense as the steppes of Mongolia by a few individuals in power who rewrite the rules whenever they want it to suit their own needs.

J. Munkhjargal’s artwork also reflects the confusion of the individual facing the current realities of Mongolian society. Fairy Tale Comes True is a video art responding to the irrational expenditures of the government on trivial business. In December 2019, 34 square blocks of rock weighing around 220 kg each were placed around the Sukhbaatar Square to protect it from drunk drivers, as one official retorted. The stone barriers cost around $40,000 and were later removed. The same rock in Fairy Tale Comes True a video art performance is made of plywood. A group of men carry the “heavy” rock from the right of the framed shot into the center. Two women follow them with ritual blessing. Munkhjargal’s work comments on the promises of fairy tale endings during political campaigns that are glossed over once the candidates are elected into power. It reminds one of a Mongolian popular phrase, “the eye of sin is deceived by flour” meaning, to conceal the truth by making lazy effort in resolving the core problem. Another performance piece by Munkhjargal is to walk around with a mirrored box covering his head. It brings the viewer’s attention to a cultural blind spot: the widespread tendency to value form over content. This weakness is abundantly exploited by politicians as they demonstratively gratify short-term obligations to the detriment of long-term solutions.

Preservation of Cultural Heritage

One of the root causes of corruption is the national identity crisis over Mongolian nomadic heritage. This dilemma manifests in a confusion of split loyalties to democracy and nomadism, which entails a system of clanship, i.e. political loyalty toward a group based on familial and territorial ties. This approach undermines the government’s firmness to implement the Rule of Law.

L. Bazarsad’s video art titled From Circle to Square shows a woman in a deel standing in a steppe holding a square screen with a motion picture of a city street. The scene then switches to show her standing in a street holding a screen with a motion picture of sheep in a steppe. Bazarsad’s work echoes the public’s concern over rapidly growing urbanization and the loss of the nomadic tradition. Yet the expansive coverage of cultural heritage as a subject in contemporary art indicates that Mongolia’s lasting nomadic traditions will not fade away as it is a philosophy deeply rooted in Mongolian identity and lifestyle.

Examples include, B. Chinbat’s Nomadism – a Heartbeat, J. Purevsuren’s The Crossroads of the Cardinal Directions, D. Badam’s Snakes – the Deities of Nature, I. Sainbayan’s Amar Baina uu? D. Narandulam’s Song Performance 2020,  T. Enkhbold’s Blue Awakening, Ts. Tuvshinjargal’s 12.8.2020, G. Lkhagvasuren’s Thread. These works raise awareness of nomadic heritage and incite reflection and desire to protect it. In a prosperous democratic system like that of Japan’s, the preservation of cultural heritage is upheld by laws as an inherent value of democracy.

In Mongolia, however, modern democracy is in dire need of separation from nomadic traditions to protect it from being a method of corruption.

Conservation of Nature

According to the country’s plan for the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we are aspiring to be placed among the top 30 countries in the green economy index. But the current rate at which Mongolians are using its nonrenewable resources, we will need 4 planets to sustain our lifestyle by the year 2030. If this fact is not the toughest signal for Mongolia that prides itself on a harmonious relationship with its pristine nature, which we refer to as our mother, then some of the artworks such as B. Enhtuya’s Gaia, Ts. Solongo’s Rainbow Illusion, B. Bat-Erdene Baag’s Merge, U. Narbayasgalan’s Restart, L. Munguntsetseg’s Yesterday could help us understand more.

B. Enhtuya’s Gaia is an interactive work of land art that speaks to the problems of climate change and the production of unsustainable waste. About half a thousand red plastic bags lay across a steppe making up the outline of a womb. The work critiques capitalism’s consumer culture and human greed as the artwork spreads across the landscape like the waste that Mongolians traveling in the countryside have grown too accustomed to seeing. The question of not being bothered to pick up our waste is indicative of the poor level of manners and common sense. If Mongolians sought to use our own minds as urgently as our natural resources, one third of the population would not be living below the poverty level today, pit latrines would not be a reality for almost half of the population, and Mongolia would not be placing second to last in economic competitiveness.

Ts. Solongo’s Rainbow Illusion, in which a stream of black cloth and plastic sheets laying in a dried-up riverbed look like a river from a distance as the wet materials shine and sparkle in the sun. Her work is about the illusion of prosperity that manmade objects and synthetic materials create while they replace organic goods and destroy the real source of precious nonrenewable wealth.

The widespread use of plastic bags and synthetic materials is one of the many environmental hazards contributing to soil contamination. The anthropogenic disturbance causing serious environmental imbalance in Mongolia and in the world is a threat that will destroy us and our plastic if we do not exercise our minds and create systems to manage and reduce our own ecological footprint.

Feminism

The mother figure is a potent symbol of nature in both Mongolian tradition and modern-day culture. Therefore, the significance of women’s roles in Mongolian society is commonly acknowledged and well respected for the most part. Gender equality is also reflected in Mongolia’s constitution where it states, “Women and men have equal rights in the social, political, cultural, economic life and family relations.” Some of the artworks created at Art Camp have touched upon a woman’s view and her place in society.

Meira’s Mirror Part 1, Reflection Part 2 is a mixed media painting that depicts the way a girl is seen from the outside and how she sees herself when looking at a mirror. In Mirror Part 1, a girl with long pigtails looks at the reflection of her smile as floating eyes and faces in the background connect to the contours of her figure. Purple, green and yellow colors are contained within her shape. In Reflection Part 2, flowers and grass scatter across a yellow, peach, magenta background in a composition of abstract free-floating perpendicularly set hands, eyes and faces. This work presents an opportunity to think about how popular culture, fashion magazines and trends in social media can reflect only a partial view of a woman’s world, and further inspires the question of why there is not enough diversity in female superheroes for little girls to dream of becoming.

Little girls are socially conditioned to take on the role of a wife and a mother. S. Khulan’s Playing House a conceptual performance brings into focus the disproportionate number of single mother households in Mongolia by showing how playing house stays a childhood game for boys whereas for many girls it becomes a reality later in life. Ts. Nyamdulam’s Expectation, a conceptual performance where the artist sits next to a telephone waiting for it to ring, her change of dresses indicating the passage of time, critiques the passive role that women have been traditionally conditioned to adopt in society. Participation of women at decision making levels both in private and public sectors is still slow to pick up due to the omission of gender-based differences in approaches to family and career responsibilities. Yet women’s equal participation in decision-making is vital to developing a healthy civil society. N. Sunderia’s Woman with Wings FoldedWoman with Wings Spread, a conceptual performance piece gives a glimpse into how the world would feel like if important decisions reflected women’s perspectives equally.

This year in August, 10,000 women were awarded the Order of Exceptional Mothers of Mongolia. That the government is recognizing the heroism of mothers is laudable. However, besides mothering, women fulfill many other important duties in society. Ensuring a safe and comfortable environment for parents to raise children by providing better quality education, infrastructure and healthcare would help. In Iceland, for example, new fathers are given 3 months of paid leave. Companies are measured and rewarded based on their monitoring and implementation of gender equality requirements in their business culture. In kindergartens, boys and girls are separated for an hour a day so teachers can focus on instilling assertiveness in girls and gentleness in boys. Such practices, studies have shown, are helping change Iceland into a nation that embodies gender equality. In Mongolia, increasing salaries and creating better working conditions for traditionally female-dominated professions such as teaching, nursing and healing, would be more helpful to mothers than a medal and some $50 per child.

Awareness

We need to recognize that ceremoniously handing out medals and cash in lieu of follow through on promises does not alleviate the problems that people have to battle against. If the government focused on providing solid frameworks that are conducive to creating high quality content, then the form would take care of itself. Recognition of the disparity between how things appear and how they are in reality requires awareness. Some of the artworks created at Art Camp suggest what awareness feels like.

  • J. Ariuntuya’s Blue Meeting, is a labyrinth made of blue cloth at the center of which is a mirror that the viewer can see themselves in. The same work when moved to a gallery space has turned into a white cloth with a tree in the middle that replaced the mirror, showing how self-reflection can transform into inspiration.
  • G. Enkhjargal’s Ataman-2 is a video in which the artist performs a ritual of forgiveness by meditating and then cleansing her energy with airag.
  • R. Chinzorig’s The Eye refers to the all-seeing third eye of wisdom. Like a field of flowers, awareness blossoms all over the steppe moving us to see the wisdom within ourselves and the natural world.
  • T. Odgarig’s 3:30AM, an installation and a recorded sound art piece reveals an intimate account of the artist’s own thought process and the mind observing itself, which validates the viewer’s own perceptions and experiences inside the mind.
  • D. Bayartsetseg’s Island, a video art showing the quiet passage of time as shadows of a rocky hill reflect in a river peacefully moving with the sunlight.
  • Uugantsatsral’s Lock, an art installation presents a woman trapped in a plastic bag labeled “fear” and standing uncomfortably against the clear blue sky. It raises awareness of how our own fear is what keeps us trapped and limits our potential to grow.
  • D. Batkholboo’s Gas, speaks to the impermanence of the elements of life.
  • N. Sunderia’s Egg and Fledgling, a performance art piece in which an egg that requires care and patience to hatch, is broken by throwing it against a concrete wall. The work speaks to how the current social constructs destroy the creative potential of youth before they get a chance to fully develop.
  • M. Munkh-Erdene’s Location, a conceptual performance expresses the disorientation of the individual in a globalized, digital world where information overload and short attention span forces him toward self-actualization.

Viewing works such as these raises awareness of one’s existence and the way in which one shows up in the world. Awareness is a prerequisite for taking responsibility and inspired action. The issues addressed in the artworks at Art Camp raise awareness of some of the challenges that lay ahead on Mongolia’s road to development. They prompt the viewer to contemplate on the country’s need to focus on transparency, independent rural development, conservation of nature and cultural heritage, providing an environment for equal opportunity and mutual respect. Solutions to these challenges can be unlocked by first acknowledging and waking up to the urgency of the problems we face.

If the government would include the arts and sciences in its institutional reforms by developing policies to financially support these sectors, to build a contemporary art museum of high quality, where citizens can freely engage with friends and family in an intellectual conversation about the world through art, it would be a practical investment into a healthy civil society. Museums like MoMA, Guggenheim and Whitney are arguably the largest generators of tourism revenue in New York City.

Mongolia has enough land to construct an international level museum of contemporary art in a new location without having to destroy existing historical architecture nor having to sacrifice playgrounds for parking lots. Mongolians have a limitless opportunity to live better by using the talents and creative skills within our own minds. We need to change the way we see the world. Contemporary art can help us. We can start by understanding and valuing it a little more.

The “Blue Sun” Contemporary Art Center and the Mongolia Artists’ Residency Studios realized the Urtuu Art Camp Project in August 2020. The above works can be viewed during the upcoming exhibition organized by the Mongolian Arts Council at Art Space in Edelweiss Hotel starting from November 6th.

References:

By Ariunaa Jargalsaikhan
Published in UB Post on October 19, 2020
Ulaanbaatar

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