«I would like to think that we can find spiritually in almost anything whether if it is nature or not.
Our mind holds a great deal of force giving power what we choose to.»
As I told you at the end of the interview with Saleh Lo, a Mauritanian artist engaged in the fight against slavery and discrimination, today we will leave for the land of nomads, the Altai mountains, the taiga and the Gobi Desert: Mongolia.
As big as Italy five times, Mongolia is the country with the lowest population density in the world. Its inhabitants are almost perfectly divided between the residents of Ulan Bator and the nomadic shepherds who travel with their caravans at least 15 times a year, in search of new pastures or water for their livestock. This very ancient lifestyle has ensured that the bond between man, nature and spirit has been preserved up to the present day. If on the one hand this has enriched the wisdom and deep knowledge of the essence of nature, on the other it has imposed precise rules of survival. To move and adapt to seasonal cycles, nomads have always had to invent ingenious solutions. Constant mobility has had an impact on thought, on art and on the possibility of developing a wide repertoire of written culture. However, this limitation made the ancestral bond of the Mongols with their territory and their ancient customs even stronger and deeper. Art, literature and philosophy have developed in the minds of all Mongols, creating a very interesting combination to explore: temporality and spirituality. In a world where everything is evolving rapidly, how can we keep our human and spiritual heritage unchanged and ‘’manageable’’? This is a challenge that no one can escape, but it is also very important to observe the behavior of other cultures and societies. The cultural world of Mongolia was faced with this problem: how to translate the vast, unique and complex oral heritage into a contemporary cultural form? I asked the contemporary artist Jantsankhorol Erdenebayar, aka Jantsa.
Born into a family of artists - his father is Erdenebayar Monkhor, a well-known painter who often uses the figure of the horse, while his mother is Munkhtsetseg Javkhaajav, an artist who shows through his subjects the strength of women - Jantsa has always been fascinated by his roots and the philosophy of his people. For his talent and his strong sensitivity, as well as having exhibited in Ulan Bator, Shanghai, Los Angeles, New York and Singapore, Jantsa was chosen to represent Mongolia at the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale (2019).
Jantsa, how did your artistic career start?
Growing up in an artist family definitely gave me the push. However, if one does not have the will, even with the best impulse, he goes nowhere. I think living organisms have a natural desire to survive, to sustain or to become better in whatever situation. Consequently, desire is what keeps us going, growing and acquiring experiences of different levels. This also applies to the desire to express thoughts and ideas, to share them and to communicate through them.
What is the philosophy of your art?
I may be a bit lazy at times and I like to sink into my comfort zone, but I try to think with a clear and conscious mind, and make good use of it. To me, the idea of comfort zone is like a current immunity of a body which, however, when it is faced new conditions or changes, whether it likes it or not, over time it starts to accept and become one with the change. Like ice that melts and changes according to the shape of the container it’s in. My works deal with ideas of resistance in ways that usually end up not resisting but growing into a different phase that is better or worse but the continuation of the matter. For that matter my works relate to ideas of maintenance, preservation, and acceptance of time.
What relationship do you have with the concept of ‘’time’’?
The ability of time to reveal true nature of things is amazing. It applies to both physical and invisible matter. Also, its power to heal or how it degrades the notions of danger, stress, pain. Time makes us think about what was before, and what will be then. I think time is very tricky. It also comes with its idea of “waiting” which can make things interesting or painful. In some cases, time is what we resist. My works try to grapple with temporality of time.
For your works you use both biodegradable and non-decomposable materials. What significance lies in the choice of subjects?
I find it interesting how non-organic materials mimic the look of a nature, or certain parts of nature scenes like camouflage. Polyurethane foam for instance is a material that has a very organic shape and used for quick solutions of repair in a household. It expands and fills in any hollow spaces, seals holes in a building, in result brings us warmth and comfort away from harsh weathers outside. It is a temporary solution to sustain our life, which in time it weakens and become brittle. I guess what I’m interested is how perceptions can be fooled by appearance of things, but in the end having a similar result through time.
Most of your abstract sculptures are bulky. Is their size somehow related to the fact that, in the past, one of the limits of Mongolian artistic production was the impossibility of transporting objects that were not basic? Can this '' ancient '' limitation, derived from the nomadic lifestyle, be seen today as a stimulus for the younger generations to keep alive the intangible heritages inherited from your long and important oral tradition?
It is true that the traditional Mongolian way of life in the past was very minimal, but minimal in a way of no nonsense due to its mobility. Everything had to be practical, meaningful and, above all, in harmony with nature. This made the simplest things extraordinary, for example wooden and silver accessories or tools with its fine details and ornaments, also the puzzle like logic behind it. In my work I try to incorporate oral traditions, inasmuch I try to locate the mentality and logic behind them. While I was fascinated by my own culture, I noticed similar patterns in other cultures too. For me the differences between them were the surrounding environments and conditions given to people, other than that we all try to solve the problem. For example, during my stay in Venice, I wandered around hardware stores and small markets to find out about the common issues and usual problems local people might have in their households and in general. Having limitations and problems are in a way very affective, they lead us to new solutions and new ways of looking at things. I believe that is what let us grow and get to know ourselves more along the journey.
I live in a country, Italy, where written culture is predominant. However, there are other cultures that have not had, for reasons of a different nature, the opportunity to develop a large-scale written culture. Many believe that this is synonymous with a lack of civilization and culture. Mongolia is a nomadic nation in which oral culture is predominant. However, it is certainly not devoid of culture…
This is what I think one of the doings of “time”. Things gradually change over time; great nations once rise and go to sleep to be forgotten and awaken again when the time comes. The inventions of Mongols and what it offered to the old world was incredible. In terms of Mongolian Empire and its diverse multi-cultural influences in arts, culture, religions were on much bigger scale and had no limitations to advanced levels of ingenuity, sensitivity towards prosperity. There is quite a lot of written literature and history by Mongolians, but the oral traditions are just more. For example, The Secret History of the Mongols - the oldest literary work in the Mongolian language surviving to date - is one of the oldest written literary works that shows how complex and nuanced the oral and written literature was tied together. An example of oral heritage: families try to overcome the long winter with its short days, so that they invite traveling folklore artists to get to know the heritage for the youngsters. Also, before going to sleep parents would give to their kids all sorts of riddles that are super imaginative but very much tied to letting them learn about their everyday life and surroundings. For example, some riddles are very anatomically visualizing, and through this the knowledge is passed on, children get familiar how animal and human bodies work, where are the organs are located and connected. To me it’s no surprise that this sort of knowledge being applied to mechanics and engineering. But my view of what it can offer is may be the unique ways of resourcefulness and nuance with surroundings. I’m sure every culture has their own unique ways to connect to nature, and Mongolian way is only one of them, but I feel like the balance between the spiritual and the practical connection is fascinating that can be seen in smallest details. Mongolian believe that rivers and mountains have a spiritual owner who protect, nurture and give to the nature.
Mongolia has a number of UNESCO-recognized intangible heritages, including Urtiin Duu - the long song - the traditional production technique of Airag - fermented mare's milk, also known by the Russian name of ‘’kumys’’ - the practices of worship of sacred places, falconry, the ritual of persuasion for camels - to encourage a female camel to accept a newborn baby or to adopt an orphan - and the Khöömei - throat singing. Is it possible to translate these ancient and complex oral traditions into a contemporary art form?
As long as we are talking about human experiences, I think it is always possible to find a way to interpret or represent no matter how distant or abstract the idea is. It may not be easy, but that is what makes it challenging and worth taking the risk. When the heartbeat of a human is in calm state, we tend to accept ideas more and let our heart open. As long as we touch each other through any form of art, or any means of communications I believe we can share anything we want.
You participated as a representative of your country in the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale. Thinking about Mongolia, the first things that come to mind are the infinite spaces and the sense of freedom. However, the Mongolian pavilion was in the narrow alleys of Calle del Forno, in an atmosphere reminiscent of an ancestral cave. Why the choice of that narrow place as a location?
When I was first visiting possible spaces for the exhibition that narrow alley and the space struck me the most and left a deep impression, because the experience of visiting the exhibition starts even beyond the actual exhibition space, in other words I felt that the exhibition could be not limited by the walls but extend through that alleys and visitors’ experience of walking through that narrow alley. It affects mentally for the person walking down the narrow passage, makes them more aware of the surrounding, and possibilities of being stuck or running into a dead end, and how to get out of there. And once you enter the show the interior of the venue does seem like a cave a bit, that aspect too was attractive to me to work with, as I had to work with traditional throat singing elements and low tone sounds the space was perfect for the atmosphere. In a way I wanted to create some sort of cluster, almost make the visitors uncomfortable, but offer an alternative through the limitless yet ephemeral sounds component of the exhibition. Eventually visitors walk through the installations, as if overcoming barriers/struggles and come out through the exit located on the other end of the narrow passage, with the throat singing elements still playing in their mind.
Could you tell us the meaning of the Mongolia Pavilion ‘’A Temporality’’?
It is like a small offering of a journey, where juxtapositions of opposites meet at one point, such as infinite and finite, hard and soft, organic and man-made, vastness and clusters, invisible and visible, etc. Inasmuch as It’s about the opposites, it’s also about acceptance and harmony, as the things we try to hold on to always seem to perish away. But the question is whether they circle around or not, can we let it revisit to us or do we reconnect with them?
Originally, the Mongols practiced throat singing as a means of communicating with their inner self, their surroundings, and animals. The sounds differed according to the environment, minds, bodies and evolved spirits of the people who emitted them. In this case you have found yourself in a very confined space. What have you tried to prove with this experiment? What synergy was created between the space you set up, the throat singers and the German sound curator Carsten Nicolai?
I’m profoundly grateful that ideas I hold in my work has reflected with miss Gantuya Badamgarav’s - curator of the show - idea of this project combining such abstract concept of traditional vocal heritage with visual arts, and finding its way through sound curating of Carsten Nicolai. At first it seemed overwhelming just to think of the concept, but it was visible that there was an undeniable connection between my previous works and what’s about to come together. So, I decided to let things unravel to me as I go along. And I think it paid off. The absence of infinite in terms of space was offered through the sound, and the vagueness of sounds was offered through the installations. The ideas of what is not there and what could be there were juxtaposed. Outcome of the different disciplines as a result of coming together is very nuanced. I think it complemented each other, in way how Mongolians find harmony with nature. It was sort of giving an offering in that space and in return to receive a moment where everything is finding its way.
In the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale, Mongolian art presented itself as attentive to new expressive techniques and capable of enclosing the essence of ancestral culture, civil conscience and sensitivity towards the social problems of Mongolia. So, is art in Mongolia also an instrument of civil progress?
There has been an intriguing art scene in Mongolia since way back. There has been incredible traditional arts and crafts, and there has been Soviet influenced time with its propaganda arts too. And then early 90’s has become the cornerstone for Mongolian contemporary art to find its voice and identity. It is trying to find its way along with the rapid pace of the nation’s development and time in general as any other art anywhere.
In previous interviews we have dealt with the issue of discrimination and the cancellation of cultural identities. Currently in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR), we are faced an attempt by the Chinese authorities to physically and culturally remove the Mongolian inhabitants from the region. Many protests went unheard or escalated into violence. What do you think about it? Was the Mongolian ethnicity victim of discrimination, exclusion or cultural cancellation?
Mongolia was forced by the Soviet to adopt Cyrillic script even though we had our own Mongolian script. It is a beautiful scrip that reflects our tradition, culture, and most importantly carries the overall mentality and philosophy of Mongols. After arrival of democracy in the 90’s we could go back to our own script, but until now we haven’t done it yet, even with all the freedom we have. So, for me, I can’t say anything to the Inner Mongolians in China about the issue. I feel like we are not in a position to give opinion, because we the democratic Mongolians haven’t done anything to protect that heritage. After adopting the Cyrillic, there was a period in time we wanted to become like others, only recently we’re starting to think that it is imperative to have something unique from others.
You were born into a family of artists. For young Mongolians who have not had the same fate as you, is there possibility, through family and school education, to approach art? Does the government invest in this sector, for example by creating courses, museums or exhibitions?
Every time a visitor coming to Mongolia, when they exposed to the art scene here, they’re surprised. It’s understandable that some people’s expectations are already put forward. There has been a natural growth in an art scene in Mongolia. There programs to preserve or reintroduce arts and heritages, but there is almost no support from the government that truly help on contemporary art. But, even without any help it is actually surprising that a good number of artists have been producing their work and finding their ways on their own. There are possibilities open to study art at art universities or other institutions. But there is an issue of how to sustain as a professional artist afterwards, having an unestablished market and art museums. But regardless of the issue, I think one becomes a true artist by oneself.
What does it mean to give a fixed and regular space to art in a cultural context of nomadism and of lack of communication between artists?
Nomadism is like a sophisticated engineered way of lifestyle that we used to live, but only few percent of the people continue. Most people moved to the city lifestyle, but they carry the mentality and spirit of the intelligence they used to live. At the same time, it is the way of thinking in a manner of surviving four seasons, so there might be a great deal of uncertainties and unexpectedness that had to keep in mind. This aspect might have affected on the characters of how people communicate.
One of the effects of the pandemic on the art world has been the creation of virtual tours. However, as a lover of culture and travel, I disagree with those who say that this virtual mode can be a replacement resource to be used even after the end of the pandemic, but that it should only be temporary. This is especially true for journeys that are based on real contact between men and between cultures. What do you think about it? How important is the interaction between individuals and art in a physical space?
I think Interaction with art in real space and time would never lose its essence, because it’s a very natural thing for us to feel the sensation through our body and what is in front of us. But as real as it is, the virtual space is almost becoming normal in our lives. So, even though it cannot replace the real, I think we can explore what it can offer and if it can extend our ways of sharing ideas and see what sort of meanings or meaninglessness it might offer.
Nowadays the interaction between human being, nature and spirit is almost extinct. Do you think this loss of interaction will also affect Mongolian culture?
I think there is one thing that we cannot escape, is true, but in art we can hide it or camouflage it with ideas and let it discover by others. I would like to think that we can find spiritually in almost anything whether if it is nature or not. Our mind holds a great deal of force giving power what we choose to.
Do you believe that the frenetic rhythms that are imposed on us risk undermining the natural need of the individual to have a time for what has no utilitarian purposes? Is there still a need for spirituality?
Like the natural instinct of survival, I think spirituality is essential for us to survive. It doesn’t have to relate to religions. One needs to believe in something, to think that one is not alone, and to believe that there are other connections and relations that are not only visible.
To conclude, do you believe that travel, intended as an exploration not only of a place, but as a discovery or rediscovery of a set of human heritages, can be a good way to cultivate our collective identity?
Like I was saying earlier, I like to visit hardware stores and small markets wherever I travel, I believe that it gives a great deal of insight on how we are similar and have similar problems to solve. Traveling increases our attention, makes us see what we normally wouldn’t recognize, and ignites our survival instincts to safely go back home. When we come back home after traveling, it also allows us to see what valuable and worth noticing things we have back home too. To have something to tell and share is one of the greatest things we can do.
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I thank Jantsa for sharing his very interesting perspective with us. His reflections are charged with sensitivity, just like his art. For those wishing to follow Jantsa's future projects (hoping he will soon return to Italy with his art), you can visit his personal website.
In the next interview we will remain in an ancestral atmosphere, descending into the subsoil of Naples to discover the Catacombs of Saint Gennaro and Saint Gaudioso. We will be guided by Vincenzo Porzio, head of communication for the La Paranza cooperative, creator of the cultural, social and economic rebirth of the Rione Sanità, a neighborhood that until a few years ago was known in the news only for episodes of crime.