Performance, land and digital art are some of the diverse aspects of Mongolian contemporary art heavily influenced by shamanic rituals, religious myths and indigenous cultures specific to the country and beyond. Embattled by the current pandemic and ongoing ecological crisis, this could be the kind of art the world needs right now.
TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
In January this year, Mongolian performance artist Ganzug Sedbazar, in collaboration with sound artist and renowned musician Davaajargal Tsaschikher, performed Lullaby for Mother Nature (presciently titled given the trajectory of this year) at TKG+, an acclaimed Taiwanese art gallery with experimental ambitions. This was in conjunction with a book launch by Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai and a citywide Gallery Night prior to the regional art fair Taipei Dangdai.
In Mongolia, for centuries nomads have been known to perform important ceremonies and rituals for scared or sick infants to dispel demons. One such custom involves singing the words “Don’t fear”—or “Buu ai” in their native language—to the infant for reassurance. In time, the phrase “Buu ai” was transformed to “Buuvei” or lullaby.
Inspired by this indigenous tradition, the artists reinterpreted this ritual to highlight the ecologically destructive paths of the current technological evolution through a visceral and primordial ritualistic performance involving the human body, sand, soil, earth and sound. Even upon entering the space, hours after the performance, one could sense this profound sense of esoteric earthiness permeating the air.
In addition to its ancient rituals and traditions related to indigenous shamanism, Mongolia is also associated with Tibetan Buddhism. One of the more intriguing aspects of this religious influence is Shambhala, a mythical kingdom.
For centuries, many believed that Mongolia is the Northern Land of Shambhala, even though The Guidebook to Shambhala, written in the mid-18th century by the Sixth Panchen Lama (1738–1780), explained that the physical journey to Shambhala could only take one so far. To reach the fabled land, one needed to perform an enormous amount of spiritual practices. In other words, the journey to Shambhala was actually an inner quest.
Danzan Rabjaa (1803–1856), the Fifth Noyon Incarnate Lama, spent much of his older years building a sacred Shambhala site near Khamaryn Khiid, an important monastery and place of pilgrimage for Mongolians and Buddhists in the Gobi Desert. First constructed in 1853, the site became well-known across Mongolia and Central Asia. It was created as a portal for spiritual access to Shambhala’s enlightened nature and opportunities to better oneself.
Following its destruction in the 1930s, the site visible today is an exact replica of the original layout, comprising stupas and sculptures spread out expansively across the sands, somewhat reminiscent of the land art installations that Mongolia is most known for in the art world. LAM 360°, also known as Land Art Mongolia, is a biennial art festival in Mongolia with a retinue of international art curators and directors that have also been involved in its previous editions such as Mori Art Museum former director Fumio Nanjo.
Yet throughout history, many foreign myths have become entangled with the legend of Shambhala, some with the intention of garnering military or political support, such as the identification of Russia, Mongolia, or Japan as Shambhala. The notion of this mythical place even found its way into Western occult movements, other systems of belief, and most concerning of all, racist ideologies.
This distortion of prejudice and historicization is something we are all very familiar with. It is how we often view our existence, as individuals and societies, till today. Perhaps especially so today as we are living in the middle of a public health crisis—even the decision to leave the house or meet someone has to be contemplated as a possible risk and rightfully so. But such a lifestyle also has a way of fragmenting our reality and skewing our perceptions, till fear is the only lens we know. Perhaps it is the prerogative of art to compel us to put down our distorted viewfinders, even for just a few precious, scarce moments.
One of the few artists currently producing work that compels us to do exactly this is multimedia artist Timur Si-Qin. He is of German and Mongolian-Chinese heritage and grew up in Beijing and America. Si-Qin is part of a new generation of artists associated with “New Materialism,” which proposes that objects and materials assert their own power over the viewer, independent of subjective cultural interpretations.
As part of “Focus Group II: Paratexts,” a recent online exhibition of video art by Georgetown, Washington D.C. gallery Von Ammon Co., Si-Qin’s “Campaign for a New Protocol” proposes a new religion based on honoring our place in the physical world. The clip is a virtual reality immersion of natural desert landscapes with sweeping views of mountains and valleys as a backdrop to an A.I. voice questioning our contemporary lifestyle. It can also be found as an introductory video on his website newpeace.faith, that includes a white paper titled A New Protocol.
While all this may appear like whimsical digital art with a trendy New Age twist to the outwardly progressive but conservative-at-heart art world insider, Si-Qin’s art is in fact an authentic expression influenced by his own inherited and experienced connections with indigenous cultures and lands. While his father is an ethnic Mongolian, after his mother remarried, he grew up with his San Carlos Apache stepfather and sisters in Arizona. The artist described it as a “unique experience to have, as not many outsiders get to experience both the deep beauty and heartbreaking darkness of the Indigenous American experience. The experience left me with the recognition…of the urgency of the Indigenous message for ecological reciprocity today.”
The current pandemic is just the latest in a series of crises and failings on our existing path as a civilization. The mindset required to embark on a radical and urgent process of evaluation and experimentation cannot be found in contemporary Western societies or Asian societies obsessed with displaying a Western veneer. It can only be found amongst individuals and communities that value ecological and spiritual sustainability as intrinsic to their everyday world and inherent history. Mongolian culture, and the kind of contemporary art it inspires, provides only a glimpse into this diverse, ancient and indigenous world we have long forgotten in our so-called pursuit of creative innovation and material progress.