Since the spread of COVID-19 the world has seen 10.5 million cases of illness and lost 512,000 people so far. In Mongolia, as of today, thanks to the timely actions by the government and the heroic efforts of health care professionals, there are no deaths, 220 people are sick (who came from out of country), and 175 people have recovered. Due to the strict isolation of those who are infected, the situation in the country is kept under control. Therefore, society in general is circumspect but relatively free to conduct daily life. Since the government’s announcement of lockdown on February 13th, schools, museums, libraries and theaters are closed, even though their reopening at the end of each month was announced several times before. Currently, public institutions are expected to reopen on July 15thAs shows and events are cancelled or indefinitely postponed, cultural life in the country remains at a standstill. Those of us who are lucky enough to stay safe, worry about sustenance over a longer period of time. During this time of crisis, three different art exhibitions in private galleries have come as a surprise relief to help nurse our listless minds in quarantine.

Harmonious Vibes is a show by D.Ochir and E.Tuvshintur (Altan Khaan Gallery, June 12 – July 14). Ochir is a sculptor. His specialty is metalwork. Tuvshintur is an artist who primarily works with leather. This show has an esoteric vibe that focuses on the spiritual, shamanic qualities of art. Tuvshintur’s rhombus canvases with leather spirals symbolize the unending flow of life-force energy, change and expansion. Ochir’s welded as well as miniature, abstract sculptures in mixed media channel the animal spirit: tiger, bull, lion, the four harmonious animals (elephant, monkey, hare and bird). A small sculpture of Chinggis Khaan praying to the sky was particularly cute. Most impressive out of these works were Tuvshintur’s landscape of the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park and Ochir’s welded sculpture of a horsehead with a flaming mane. The quality of craftsmanship and creative resolution in both did not disappoint. Given the roughness of the media used, the artists’ skills rendered a graceful outcome that emits harmonious vibes. I hope that further attention to detail by these talented artists will continue to produce even more polished works in the future.

Parallel is a joint exhibition by six artists: B.Bat-Orgil, B.Bat-Erdene, Ts.Davaajargal, D.Dorjderem, S.Ganzug, J.Gantulga (MN17 Art Gallery, February 22nd – end date unspecified). They are part of the Mongolian contemporary art movement called “Human Nature Love Freedom”. In the dark space of the gallery, our eyes are challenged to palpate vast sheets of felt that encompass black canvases with microbial volcanos protruding. A giant face of an infant bulging out of a white wall presented as a work-in-progress reflects the most amount of light amidst other pieces: experiential sculptures, installations, bricolages, video art and digital prints that seem to be set less clearly into the foreground. Particularly interesting was a cosmic sound design that perfectly accompanies a sculpture evoking a military maquette of a tiny armada of spaceships. My visit coincided with an exclusive party for a trendy young generation of visitors. Their face masks and creative fashion statements added extra volume to the respectful and rebellious atmosphere.

Journey is a solo exhibition by the graphic artist and printmaker Z.Uyanga (Norphei Art Gallery, June 23 to 30). She specially trained in printmaking (Repin Academy of Arts, 1989) and has been teaching her craft at the University of Arts and Culture. This show is a retrospective of her selected works from 1989 through 2018, including unique prints from the 1994 “Mongol Queens” series and two prints from 1994 and 2006 that were selected by the Union of Mongolian Artists as part of their annual show of best artworks. The diversity of the subject matter attests to the artist’s rich oeuvre: dancers in boldly contoured action, women in traditional Mongolian Khalkha wife’s dress and hairdo, still lifes with spectral flowers, battle scenes from medieval Mongolian history. The expressiveness achieved by superimposed layers of bright colors and etchings were potent, especially in the arresting simplicity of the silk screen cave paintings.

Viewing these three shows reminded me why art matters during these uncertain times, why artists who exhibit their works when visitors and buyers have become as scarce as water in a desert, take the trouble to create and put forth their art into a world that is too shocked and scared to concern itself with the “non-essential business” of art. I think it is because art helps us to gain wider perspective.

As governments scratch their heads over how to revive the economy in the aftermath of the pandemic, and as medical professionals work hard to prevent the disease from reigniting in the future, artists will preserve the cultural memory of these times of hardship. Through their creations, they will show that humanity came to terms with its current reality, chose to set aside their differences and joined forces to proceed with hope that the future will be better than the present.

The Black Plague that killed over 50 million people in Medieval Europe instigated a Renaissance of Culture and Innovation during the subsequent centuries, wrote Swiss Historian Jacob Burckhardt in 1878 in the Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Presently, the devastations of COVID-19 are fortunately not as massive as those of the Black Death, relatively speaking. It may take historians half a millennium to draw conclusions like Burckhardt did at the end of the 19th century. Or it may not.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the impending global shift to a new “normal” after COVID-19. Our unconditional generosity and kindness towards one another will play a crucial role in this transformation. That is why artists are sharing their work despite the difficult circumstances. Art helps us to stay kind. That is why art matters.

By Ariunaa Jargalsaikhan
Published in UB Post on July 1st, 2020