Letter from ULAN BATORby Ellen Pearlman
Mongolian artists, freed for little over a decade from the long, dreary shadow of Soviet rule, employ a bold, in-your-face Genghis Khan kind of style that gives them my vote as the hip hop gangstas of the Asian art world. If you think I’m kidding, in 2008 after the Parliamentary elections, the losing political party got pissed off, and then, totally ripped on vodka, set fire to the National Mongolian Fine Art Gallery, an act that made headlines around the world.
Dalkha-Ochir Yondonjunai, Mashbat Sambuu and Batzorig Dugarsuren (Bazo) are the Three Musketeers of the Ulan Bator-based Blue Sun Artists Group. They and their cohorts recently ran a Fluxus-inspired (via Reverend Billy) “Art Party” candidate (Mashbat) for President of Mongolia. After trussing him up in a suit, tie, and spectacles, they slathered the walls and lampposts of downtown Ulan Bator guerrilla-style with his campaign photos and handed out Art Party flyers, even making it onto local Mongolian TV news. Not bad for a country of three million, most of whom still reside inside felt and yak hair yurts.
Gerel Dzjind literally puts his life on the line for his art. Diagnosed two years ago with stomach cancer, he dug an outline into the ground of his body lying in its grave. He then built a second grave, strewn with rocks, directly beside it. He lay down naked inside his body’s outline and held onto the stones of the tandem grave, as if the two graves were skipping off into oblivion. When he underwent the actual operation to remove his cancerous stomach, he stuck a camera in his surgeon’s hands and told him to document the entire procedure as if it were a performance—which by virtue of his saying so, it became. Gerel fortunately survived and documented all the gory details of his convalescence in his hospital bed, à la Bob Flanagan, as a continuation of the performance. Upon his recovery he fathered a child. During its gestation, Gerel sculpted a traditional Mongolian hand-carved wooden saddle into a rocking horse. He then placed his highly pregnant partner astride the horse, which flaunted an enormous, rigid penis replete with bulbous head, to celebrate the sanctity and sheer miraculousness of fertility. The use of fertility symbols in art is at least 35,000 years old, a theory reinforced by the recent discovery in the Hohle Fels Cave of the Swabian region of Germany of a super-sexualized female figure with enormous breasts and vulva. What is compelling about this Mongolian piece is that it maintains the direct link to Gerel’s indigenous origins while ratcheting up his symbolism into a contemporary dialectic, not unlike Dalkha-Ochir, who took the traditional practice of eating boiled lambs’ heads and made it into a provocative ritual in which the room’s participants sat in a circle, slicing, carving, and munching away in somber silence.
In Mongolian culture, the circle has tremendous significance as a gateway to another realm. Bazo uses circles to represent eternal motion and reincarnation by means of a primitive wooden wheel that spins oil paint onto canvas, the imperfections of splattered and melded colors producing a mesmerizing series of repeated circular forms. Yes, Damian Hirst also used a spin-art machine to splatter paint-filled balloons, but he did not possess a cultural tradition of specific tools and techniques, nor dare I say did he grow up living inside a circular yurt. Another artist with the single name Ganzu shaved his head into a tonsure, painted it blue (blue is considered sacred in Mongolia), and created performances in which he appeared naked, caked in blue pigment.
Mongolians deal with land art up close and personal. They are deeply aware of their ancient animal totems and much of their concern centers on the destruction of their fragile, tundra-like environment. The dust storms that emanate from the overgrazed hills are so ferocious that they obfuscate Beijing, 900 miles away, in an ultra-pinkish haze every spring. This has forced the Chinese government to plant millions of trees as a first line of defense against the storms. Gerel is embarking on a nine-year project spanning 360 acres to transform ravaged tree stumps left behind from illegal timber harvesting by sculpting them into pink bunny rabbits, a feat worthy of any Walter De Maria installation. In another environmental theme, Enkhbold Togmidshirev takes huge, lugubrious, raw chunks of scorched trees and places them in gallery installations, where their charcoal remains are a silent, wounded reminder of the continued degradation of the country’s fragile landscape. Although they are a small presence in the contemporary Asian art world, Mongolians more than make up for it through the ferocity and stark originality of their work.