In Mongolia, the very existence of an avant-garde comes as a surprise.
The work of the Russian and Chinese avant-gardes has attracted considerable global attention in the last decade, and so from a purely geographical standpoint it makes sense that Mongolia, wedged between superpowers, would have an avant-garde of significant interest. From all other standpoints, the idea seems wildly implausible. In the first place, Mongolia is a non-chattel society whose artistic output has historically been restricted to religious images. Secondly, the 20th-century civilization of Mongolia is mostly not recognizably of the 20th century elsewhere. Thirdly, most of the country’s population are nomads too busy with their herding to think about an “avant-garde.” Finally, the very concept of conveying intellectual constructs through visual images is an idea that is anathema to central Asian cultures, and Mongolia was isolated diplomatically for years and was closed to tourists for most of this century.
So the very existence of a Mongolian avant-garde was a surprise, and its elaborate internal structures were wholly unanticipated. I managed to get a few leads from friends in the capital city of Ulan Baatar, and the artists themselves helped organize tours of their studios. I went around with Ariunaa, the director of the Soros Center in Ulan Baatar. (The network of Soros centers, dedicated to the principle of an open society, has provided a focus for artistic communities in many non-first world countries.) Mongolian culture is relatively cooperative, and I did not have the experience – so common in Moscow, Beijing, and New York – of artists telling me why their particular activities were more important or interesting than those of other artists. Indeed, I found artists who were warmly supportive of one another, who felt that the diversity within their community made it more credible.
Though atrocities took place in Mongolia during the Communist period, most citizens remained preoccupied with nonpolitical matters, and the idea of a dissident avant-garde working in a symbolic language to undermine the dominant politics of the place did not exist. As in most previously Communist countries, there are “official” artists who have worked in sanctioned styles for the government and then there are newer artists who have broken with the Communist mainstream. Some of the artists who were official have now joined the world of the unofficial. Certainly there is not, among the avant-garde, the kind of scorn for official artists that existed in neighboring lands. Artists now know something of the art of the West through magazines and newspapers brought by visitors or held in the archive of the Soros Foundation. Such information is relatively new for them, however. During the many years before glasnost, they had to rely on information from Moscow to know of shifts even in the work of official Soviet artists, and they lived in a cultural vacuum.
These artists use none of the elaborate systems of playful reference and encoded meaning that the Moscow and Beijing avant-gardes have separately established. They grew up in a country of almost unimaginable beauty, perhaps the only place I have ever been where the landscape is more beautiful than great art. They grew up in a place that had none of the clutter of artistic traditions, that had never had a visual revolution, a place that looks very much now as it must have looked a thousand years ago. Few Mongolians outside Ulan Baatar wear Western dress; few have TVs; few have last names; and few engage in the production of visual material outside the country’s yellow-hat Buddhist monasteries. And so the art feels clear and utterly free. It is open, full of spaces, unrestricted, many-colored. Sometimes the subjects are grim or sad, but the manner of depicting them still smacks of discovery, as though there were something wonderful simply in communicating through color and form.
The most prominent of Mongolia’s many avant-garde artistic groups is the Greenhorse, based in the Greenhorse Academy, a converted warehouse just east of the center of Ulan Baatar. Founded by artists, who run it as a serious educational institution, the Greenhorse is an alternative to the official art academy. Students have to apply; they have to be accepted; and once accepted, they follow a rigid curriculum. They have studios in the Greenhorse building; the Greenhorse Café, next door, sells work by members of the school all year round.
The Sky Society, another group, mounts one commercial exhibition each year. Its members, again a tight circle, have a manifesto: “Art workers must express ideas and meaning freely, without any restrictions or dogmatism, and make their work the property of the public. We must introduce to Mongolian society, with the techniques we have mastered, unlimited thinking and true pluralism.” The idea, which sounds curiously Leninist, is actually in the spirit of a nomadic society in which, outside the capital and a few provincial centers, there is no private ownership of land.
I saw the work of the Sky Society at a “Short Introduction Trade Exhibition,” at which work was for sale to “fill art workers with enthusiasm and improvement of their financial condition, as well as an action to draw state and public attention to the paintings.” There are few Mongolian purchasers for this work, but the artists sell a certain amount to friends, and foreigners and diplomats often buy such material. The prices the artists get vary wildly – work sometimes goes to friends for a pittance, though in principle most of the art is marked at between $500 and $2,500. To make a living, some artists have day jobs; others are supported by their families.
The artists are now very playful in their imitations of Western models and in the ways in which they apply a Mongolian sensibility to them. A virtuoso whose work I saw had done one painting in the style of Chagall’s flying cow-period, one in the style of Pollock, and one in the style of Twombly (whose work he liked but whose name he couldn’t remember). I saw work by another in the style of Warhol – repeating silkscreens in bright colors depicting the eye of the great Buddha of the Gandan Monastery. Other work, however, was free of such influences. I saw paintings of great color fields, expressionist portraits of animals, sculpture made of wood and bones and rope, and charming folk-style pictures of traditional life, some of them ironic, some of them earnest. I also saw landscape pictures, and one blinding painting of the snow. I saw dozens and dozens of horses, painted with bright colors, in impressionistic and expressionistic styles. I noted the essential qualities of this work, the same as the qualities of the land and its people: an unrestrained use of color and a sense of great vistas. These were artists who could capture largeness in every stroke and gesture.
When I got to the last studio, I talked to the artist for a little while about his work. While we were talking, the room began to fill up – a few Greenhorse people and two Sky people and some movie people and the painter I’d liked at the university that morning and the one whose studio seemed to be in the middle of no place. They thanked me for coming, and produced cups and a bottle of champagne. They each said their names: Myagmarjau, Gansuku, Gandau, Khuyag-Ochir, Shicirbaatar, Battushig, Bayan-Munkh, and Erdenebileg. In this festive atmosphere, I felt as though we could all share credit for the incredible fact that people can make things and those things can be art.