Home » Art, Issue 4, Toono

Eating sheep’s head in Ulaanbaatar

[10 November 2010 | Б.Жаргалан]

It is mid-May (2009) in UB, early spring. The fickleness of the Mongolian spring is notorious: while the sun may shine happily in the morning, it can easily give way to an impromptu snowstorm by the evening without so much as a warning. On one such inexplicable spring day, the nation held its breath for the widely-anticipated television debate between Nambaryn Enkhbayar, the incumbent President running for re-election on behalf of the ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, and the ex-prime minister Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj of the Democratic Party, who rallied his supporters with mantra of change à la Barack Obama.

As the two candidates battled it out on television, another candidate was busy campaigning on the streets of UB. Blue Sun group, a contemporary art association founded in 2005, has “nominated” one of its members, the artist Sambuugiin Mashbat, to run for President from the fictitious Art Party of Mongolia. The artists put up fliers and posters advertising their candidate around the city as bewildered pedestrians looked on. The flyers, which parodied traditional election-style posters with a solemn-looking photograph of the candidate along with a catchy slogan, encouraged people to “Dig into your head! We do have (Oyu and Tavan) Tolgoi”, a pun on “Tolgoi”, the word for “head” in Mongolian. While the future of Oyu Tolgoi, a world-class copper deposit in the Gobi, and the adjacent coal-rich Tavan Tolgoi, has been the apple of contention in Mongolian politics for many years, Blue Sun artists have taken a decidedly humorous approach in tackling the thorny subject. The group had even held a press conference announcing Mashbat’s candidacy to the media, and the entire performance was accompanied by an exhibition at the Blue Sun art gallery, a small underground space in the basement of an old apartment complex in downtown UB devoted to avant-garde works. Although mainstream media, let alone the two candidates, have taken little notice of the Art Party and its platform, artists and hipsters in the know made a point of gathering at the Blue Sun gallery to cast their vote for art, while Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj went on to win the election on May 24, 2009.

While the “Art Party” project is one of the first cases of Mongolian artists directly participating in the political discourse, the history of Mongolian art has always been deeply intertwined with the country’s political fortunes. In the early 20th century, as Mongolia became a socialist republic, Buddhist art and traditional Mongolian painting, the prevailing aesthetic norms of the time, were abandoned under the Soviet influence in favor of a predominantly western style of representation. Since the 1940s aspiring art students from all corners of Mongolia attended fine art academies in Moscow and Leningrad, bringing back extensive knowledge of the academic tradition. In the following years, many of these artists have become poster boys for state-prescribed Socialist realism, painting portraits of party leaders and idyllic country scenes. However, even then some artists managed to produce novel works that did not quite fit the mold of Socialist realism. In 1968 an exhibition by a group of artists, including State Laureate Artist Ochiryn Tsevegjav, Gombyn Soosai and Puntsagnamjiliin Baldandorj, was shut down by the government because it featured abstract paintings deemed to be “capitalist art”. According to art historian Tsultemiin Uranchimeg, this historic exhibition has ushered in a new era of freedom of thought and expression for the next generation of artists. As the political climate gradually thawed, artists began to experiment with various non-figurative styles, increasingly turning towards abstraction, expressionism and conceptual art.

In the late 1980s, at a time when first independent political movements were being formed, a number of artist collectives emerged. The most prominent of these was the Green horse group, founded by artists Batbayaryn Gansukh, Yondonjunain Dalkh-Ochir, Sambuugin Mashbat and Galsandorjiin Erdenebileg in 1989. In the spirit of early modernists, Green horse artists issued a manifesto that proclaimed their art to be free and open-minded. They also boldly asserted that “art should not be governed by any one theory”. The founding members of Green horse, who were unified by their commitment to new forms of art, have formed the collective after being repeatedly excluded from exhibitions held at the Exhibition Hall of the Union of Mongolian Artists (UMA), the only exhibition space available to artists at the time. As a result, they chose to show their works independently in order to escape censorship. Their first exhibition, aptly titled “Action-1”, took place in 1990, a turbulent year for Mongolia both politically and intellectually. Works exhibited at “Action-1” not only dramatically departed from the accepted norms of artistic representation but also explored such previously taboo subjects as the legend of “The He-Wolf and Beautiful Deer” (1988), the mythical progenitors of the Mongolian race. Subsequently, in 1991, works by Green horse artists reached a western audience at an exhibition entitled “Green horse” at the Goethe 53 art gallery in Munich, Germany. The Green horse group was soon followed by similar art collectives, giving rise to a vibrant contemporary art scene in Ulaanbaatar in the 1990s. The founders of Green horse eventually established an art school by the same name to provide aspiring young artists with an alternative to state-funded art colleges that still adhered to outdated methods of instruction. As the only truly independent art school at the time, the Green horse school was imperative in exposing students to contemporary art practices during its brief existence (1995-1999).

Although the number of actively engaged artists proliferated in the 1990s, the art scene continued to suffer from the lack of art galleries and exhibition spaces. The UMA Exhibition Hall (later renamed art gallery) remained the only option for artists to publicly show their work. However, only handpicked members of the Union of Mongolian Artists could book space at the gallery, which made the space virtually unavailable to young artists. In 1995, Yondonjunain Dalkh-ochir, one of the founders of “Green horse”, briefly managed an art club/exhibition space dedicated to his idol Joseph Beuys. The venue, which hosted exhibitions, poetry readings, music performances as well as raucous parties, soon became an alternative platform for emerging artists. Unfortunately, the Beuys club was forced to shut down due to financial troubles only several months after opening.

Since the UMA art gallery was the only exhibition space available to artists throughout the early years of Mongolian contemporary art, the development of a viable art market was somewhat restricted. Nonetheless, a number of artists, who began to sow the seeds of abstraction in the 1980s, rose to local prominence in the following decade. Radnaagiin Duinkhorjav, Dolgorjavyn Bold, Chultemiin Boldbaatar, identical brothers Tsultemiin Enkhjin and Munkhjin, Tsagaandariin Enkhjargal and Shagdarjavyn Chimeddorj, among others, began to exhibit widely both in Mongolia and abroad, greatly influencing both the viewing public and the next generation of artists. Most of these artists were educated abroad, at art academies of the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. For instance, Dolgorjavyn Bold, who turned to abstract art in the late 1980s, graduated from the Repin Academy of Art, while Tsultemiin Enkhjin, who currently heads the Union of Mongolian Artists, has a degree from the East German “Hochschule fuer Bildende Kuenste”. One of the most influential artists of his generation, Radnaagiin Duinkhorjav, who passed away in 1996, remains an idiosyncratic figure in Mongolian contemporary art, and his vast canvases filled with mythical characters continue to inspire.

Female artists have also played an important role in modernizing Mongolian art. Ser-odyn Sarantsatsralt is an influential contemporary artist, whose installations and video works have found a welcome audience both in Mongolia and abroad. The first female artist to earn the title of State Laureate Artist, Sarantsatsralt is a media darling, and her crazy hairstyles and candid interviews are just as famous as her art. Trained as a sculptor, Sarantsatsralt frequently collaborates with her husband Damdinsurengiin Bat-Erdene, who is also a sculptor. Another highly successful artistic duo is the husband and wife team of Monkhoryn Erdenebayar and Jalkhaajavyn Munkhtsetseg. Known for his instantly recognizable style, Erdenebayar creates semi-abstract paintings of horses, often executed in bright red and burgundy. Horses are such an important part of Mongolian culture and livelihood that almost every Mongolian artist has painted a horse at some point of his or her career. However, Erdenebayar is probably one of the very few artists, who have perfected this subject, creating a signature style of portrayal. In a similar fashion, his wife Munkhtsetseg paints portraits of female figures adorned with traditional Mongolian hairstyles (popularized by the character of Queen Amidala in the Star Wars series). Both Erdenebayar and Munkhtsetseg have signed with Teo+Namfah art gallery based in Bangkok, Thailand, and have shown their work in solo exhibitions throughout Asia.

The Mongolian art world today is still dominated by these artists, the ones who have made a name for themselves in the 1990s, and their work can be found at the National Museum of Modern Art, the UMA art gallery or on the walls of prestigious offices in UB. The collections of most local art connoisseurs (whose number is still very small) include a sprinkling of their work plus or minus a few other names. Consequently, most of these artists enjoy an established relationship with local collectors, bypassing art galleries and dealers. The art market per se began to develop only in recent years as first commercial galleries were established. The Red Ger gallery, an initiative of the Arts Council of Mongolia, was established in 2003 with a mandate of providing a market platform for local artists. Although not a commercial art gallery in the strict sense of the word, the Red Ger has been instrumental in promoting the works of Mongolian artists to a local audience. Several other small galleries/art boutiques, including Chingis art gallery, Vessels of Honor gallery, Valiant art gallery and Pearl art gallery, among others, followed suit, catering to an audience of wealthy locals and expats. Since Mongolian political, economic and intellectual elite is concentrated in Ulaanbaatar, where almost 50 percent of the population lives, galleries are also clustered around downtown UB.

The artist-run Blue Sun gallery, the host of the aforementioned “Art Party” exhibition, was established in 2005. It resembles any other edgy art collective space anywhere else in the world except that it still remains on the fringes of the local art scene. The founder of Blue Sun, Yondonjunain Dalkh-ochir, has been on the forefront of Mongolian contemporary art since co-founding the Green horse group in 1989, and he endows his space with incredible creative energy. One of the most important exhibitions hosted by Blue Sun gallery was a performance piece by Dalkh-ochir entitled “Eating sheep’s head” (2005), in which a group of people sat around a table and each ate a sheep’s head. The solemn performance, an arresting comment on consumerist culture and a deft allusion to Mongolia’s nomadic heritage, was filmed as artists invited the audience to partake in their feast. One of the first Mongolian artists to experiment with performance art, Dalkh-ochir was also instrumental in introducing land art to Mongolia. He has organized several Art Camps, whereby invited local and international artists work on location to create works of art based on the local landscape. As an artist, Dalkh-ochir is quite well known in international circles; most recently, his work has been shown at the critically acclaimed Third Guangzhou Triennial.

XanaduART gallery, one of the first Mongolian art galleries based on the Western gallery model, was established in 2006. It closely cooperates with the Blue Sun gallery in promoting cutting-edge Mongolian contemporary art to a wider audience. As UB’s only art gallery exclusively devoted to contemporary art, XanaduART gallery has been able to tap into the previously unexplored creative undercurrent of Mongolian art. In recent years, many promising young artists, such as Dugarsurengiin Batzorig (Bazo), Davaagiin Dorjderem and Tsulbaataryn Odgerel, have held their first solo shows at XanaduART. Since 2007, XanaduART gallery has been running an artist studio program, whereby 10 artists are chosen annually to inhabit XanaduART-owned studio spaces in the industrial area of UB. Resident artists are chosen through the gallery’s annual art competition that targets emerging artists.

Born in 1981, the up-and-coming artist Davaagiin Dorjderem is one of XanaduART gallery’s resident artists, whose work has been enthusiastically received by both local and international audiences. His mixed media piece entitled “Voice in the space” (2006) received the People’s Choice Award from the Signature Art Prize organized by the APB Foundation and Singapore Art Museum in 2008. In this work, Dorjderem portrays the life of a fetus in a mother’s womb, from the moment of conception until it is given birth. “Voice in the space” expresses the artist’s belief that man’s pre-birth life in the womb represents man’s freest state. The issues of individual identity and self-definition are at the core of Dorjderem’s work. This is representative of the younger generation of artists, who were brought up during the transition, as old values were cast off but new ones had yet to be instituted. One of the new faces of Mongolian contemporary art, Dorjderem represented Mongolia at the Fukuoka Triennial held in September, 2009.

In fact, Dorjderem is a fitting representative of the new generation of Mongolian artists, who were born in the eighties or later. If their predecessors mainly looked to the west for inspiration, the younger generation is very much influenced by Mongolian tradition and history. Some, like Dagvasambuugiin Uuriintuya, have turned to Mongol zurag, a unique medium that duly attests to the great history of the Mongols. As such, Mongol zurag is an amalgam of different influences – it is at once a mix of shamanistic nomadic culture of the early Mongols, Buddhist art, the Khitan tradition as well as the Persian miniature style and the Chinese guó huà school. Uuriintuya’s series of paintings featuring countless flying cranes is exemplary of her distinctly contemporary take upon the tradition of Mongol zurag. The artist makes masterful use of Mongol zurag’s flat composition style: in her painting entitled “The current time”, she depicts a bird’s eye view of the plains with flocks of cranes flying above traditional Mongolian gers arranged in a neat geometric pattern. However, the logical arrangement of the gers is disturbed by the random flight of the birds. The crane is a symbolic figure in Asian mythology, and Uuriintuya’s work can be interpreted as a depiction of Mongolia’s current state of flux as traditions collide and fundamental change takes place.

Of course, the future of these artists is tightly linked with current market conditions. Although Western-style art galleries began to emerge, the Mongolian art market has yet to mature. A secondary art market is virtually non-existent, and pricing can be highly arbitrary and non-transparent. It is said that some of the top artists can fetch up to USD 20,000-30,000 for a single piece, however even their works can be acquired for as little as one thousand dollars in a studio visit. Nevertheless, the recent economic boom in Mongolia has greatly aided the artistic community as newly-minted millionaires seek to increase their cachet by buying works of art. Driven by growing public interest in contemporary art, some of the biggest collectors have established private museums for their collections. For instance, Parliament member Batjargalyn Batbayar’s impressive collection of Mongolian contemporary art, built around the oeuvre of his childhood friend Shagdarjavyn Chimeddorj, is available for public view at the Badamkhand Museum of Art, dedicated to Batbayar’s late wife. The MP’s collection also includes works by several well-known international artists, including the Chinese master Qi Bashi. Tsagaandariin Enkhtuvshin, another long-time collector of Mongolian art and brother of the artist Tsagaandariin Enkhjargal, has recently founded the Tsagaandarium museum in partnership with MCS, whose directors also hold a large collection of art. Moreover, President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj is an avid collector and the founder of “Elbeg” art gallery, which showcases a rotating display of works from his private collection. Besides private collectors, several Mongolian corporations have also established permanent collections of art. The largest of these is the Khan Bank of Mongolia, which is committed to supporting Mongolian fine arts through the Khan Bank Collection of Art and the Khan Bank Art gallery, a non-profit space that hosts exhibitions by local artists. Khan Bank’s CEO Peter Morrow also holds a sizeable personal collection of contemporary art. He is one of the many expat foreigners based in Mongolia with an avid interest in the Mongolian art scene.

Despite the increasing number of private collectors, Ulaanbaatar, the epicenter of the Mongolian art world, still lacks a contemporary art museum. While the National Museum of Modern Art makes annual contemporary art acquisitions, its poor funding inhibits it from acquiring the best new works by top artists. Since private collectors are only interested in buying paintings and sculptures, there is virtually no local market for works in other media, such as installations and video art. However, art organizations have recently begun lobbying the government for increased funding and policy reform, and artists hope that things will change for the better in the future.

After years of development, Mongolian contemporary art may finally reach a global audience as artists earn growing recognition abroad. As the summer fades away, thousands of tourists will have visited Mongolia, seeking inspiration in its vast steppes. Along with them, Mongolian artists will be reimagining their history and tradition, seeking a new narrative behind their easels. May the summer be long!

Leave a comment

Smile, and be nice.