The Art of the Steppes: The money and politics behind Mongolia’s new aesthetic

December 24, 2013 • Features, Print, Roots • Views: 1494

By John D’Amico

We walked through what looked like the entrance to an underground bunker.  Two pillars loomed above us, holding up the heavy roof; the dark steps leading us down promised state secrets or a weapons cache.  The area was desolate.  Dust blew in from a nearby construction site, one of many in the city.  Trash from the empty parking lot tumbled by.  The outskirts of Ulaanbaatar stood behind us in undifferentiated brown and grey, a few old apartments towering above.

Turns out the place was an art gallery, stocked full of the best of Mongolia’s modern art, we were told.

“We shouldn’t pay for entry.  This place is owned by a powerful politician—he doesn’t need the money,” my guide said as we turned away.

Like they would anywhere else, art and patronage go hand in hand in Mongolia, a country in the midst of record economic growth powered mostly by mineral extraction.  Its population of 2.9 million, spread across a landmass more than six times the size of the United Kingdom, now finds itself wealthier than ever.  This wealth brings new problems and opportunities for a country where around 30 percent of the population are nomadic herdsmen.  Subject to new foreign influences and propped up by new money, Mongolian art looks to change alongside the economy.

A Buddha statue illuminated by a sunset over the Mongolian steppe (D'Amico/TYG).

A Buddha statue illuminated by a sunset over the Mongolian steppe (D’Amico/TYG).

Right in the heart of Ulaanbaatar, Blue Moon Art Gallery’s clean, modern minimalism contrasted nicely with the dull colors of the outer edge of the city.  With abstract sculptures lined up around a tastefully decorated lobby, it embodied all at once Mongolia’s newfound prosperity.  Yet Uyanga, the director of the gallery and an artist herself, wasn’t satisfied.  “Artists here have talent,” she said, “but their minds are still narrow—they need to see the world.  Real art is about human feeling, but Mongolian painting is just technical so far.”  The works in the gallery proved her halfway right.  Clever parodies of Buddhism hung side by side with generic landscapes meant for mass consumption—the height of bland technical mastery.

In Mongolia, where most of the capital’s population still lives in yurts, do people really buy fine art?  Different gallerists gave me different answers.  The manager at the Zanabazar Museum, shepherding children around as they experimented with paint and crayons, saw popular interest in art on the rise: “Middle-class people want their kids to be educated.  Knowing art is respected internationally.  Society is developing, minds are growing, and families are now buying paintings instead of rugs for home decoration.”

Yet others saw art as more of a niche interest.  Batral, a program assistant at the nonprofit Arts Council of Mongolia, remarked, “There’s really two main groups of people who buy art here – people in the art world who want to support their friends, and businessmen who want to sponsor art as a legacy for the future.”  My translator added, “This is Mongolia. With the kind of money we could spend on a painting, we could get a car or a house.  Our parents especially think this way.”

In spite of financial constraints, many artists still find chances to train abroad.  In Soviet times, many Mongolian artists went to study in Russia, but now, according to a manager at the Zanabazar Museum of Art, students travel all over the world:  “The world is getting more international.  Artists here now paint in modern style but with traditional elements.  Because of globalization, we’re getting more influences from other countries, but that’s inspiring more nationalism as well.”  At an exhibition at the gallery of the Union of Mongolian Artists, next to a few impressionistic depictions of Mt. Fuji, I found a long row of paintings featuring warriors on horseback, half-naked wrestlers, and the endless steppe characteristic of the country.  One, entitled “Mongol,” depicted a row of fierce soldiers straight from the 13th century, drawn without the use of linear perspective.  It looked old and new at the same time, and seemed to reflect a sense of Mongolian pride now resurgent with the country’s economic growth.

Mongolian Mountains (D'Amico/TYG).

Mongolian Mountains (D’Amico/TYG).

The Copycat Art Problem

Despite increasing interest at home and abroad, sales remain a problem.  Batral said that the Arts Council, through its Red Ger Art Gallery, does not sell work that often, but other art galleries seem to prosper.  The Union of Mongolian Artists often sells ten to fifteen paintings every week, to a diverse clientele.  “Both foreigners and Mongolians, especially businessmen, buy around the same amount” the manager there said.  Artists support each other as well, by buying each others’ work when business dries up.  Some wind up working in art-production facilities tied to certain politicians, reproducing work on the same theme.  In one showroom, I saw a whole series of camel paintings, some green, some blue, but otherwise identical.

Uyanga identified what she thought of as the main problem: lack of money, both from patrons and from sales.  “We get no support from the government.  There’s no money to develop our art at the international level.” Despite this limitation, Mongolian artists, even the young ones, often choose to live off their art, and Uyanga believes it helps make Mongolian art aesthetically superior: “Mongolian artists are really exceptional.  In the West, many paint part time while working another job, while in Mongolia, the majority only paint to support themselves.”

But some people think that this paint-to-live mentality comes at a serious cost.  One foreign-born gallery owner explained how artists she sponsored often make copies of their work for commercial use even if it destroys the value of the original at auction. They manage to pay their bills, but it stunts their artistic career. Like Uyanga, she believed promotion was essential for international recognition, but her experiences with artists have left her disillusioned.  She blames the culture: “No one honors contracts.  If they make a work for exhibition, they don’t care about the value of it being unique or the costs I bear to make sure their art gets out there.”  She told stories of artists copying some of their best work to sell on the cheap, just for alcohol or basic living expenses.  The artists that succeed, she said, rely on contacts in the government.  When working with her, however, they often break agreements, taking her sponsorship money but then choosing to go freelance.

Sales practices in most galleries I went to, however, struck me as more organized and conventional than her stories suggested. In most cases, the galleries take a 20 to 30 percent commission for each work.  For new artists, works can sell for as little as 200,000 to 300,000 togrogs ($180 to $280), while the more experienced and famous sell pieces for 10 to 30 million ($9,000 to $28,000).  One work, a painting by an established artist, reportedly fetched $1 million at auction.  That’s chump change in the art world, but in a country with an average monthly wage of around $200, only wealthy businessmen and foreign investors can collect art in earnest.  “They often buy it to decorate their new offices, and some just use it as an investment,” Batral said.

Sunset over the Mongolian steppe (D'Amico/TYG).

Sunset over the Mongolian steppe (D’Amico/TYG).

A National Aesthetic

Most of the people I spoke to believe that Mongolian art will gain popularity at home and abroad, for a variety of reasons.  As a staff member at the Modern Art Gallery of Mongolia put it: “Mongolian art is unique – it’s a mix of European and Asian style unseen in the rest of the world.”

National pride underpins much of the prevailing confidence.  Many of the Mongolian gallerists and artists I spoke to see Mongolia’s traditions – the tough nomadic lifestyle and proud military history – and beautiful landscapes as natural inspiration.  Another employee at the Arts Council, Batgerel, stated with confidence, “The mixing of Mongolian traditional styles with modern art will be really popular in five years, for sure.”  The “traditional” in Mongolian art makes it an object for patriotism and national identity.  “People tend to buy more modern art, but the classical art is thought to be the ‘real Mongolian art'” said the manager at Zanabazar.

With a resource-hungry China to their south and international investment powering much of their economy, some Mongolians feel the need to claim control over their cultural heritage. “In the last few years, many Mongolians are buying more paintings just to keep art in Mongolia and out of foreign hands” said Erdambataar, the owner of Blue Moon.

Globalization, nationalism, and new cash now look to push Mongolian art into the limelight. Artists and collectors feel the need to shape Mongolia’s identity in the face of foreign influence.  Indeed, nationalism and xenophobia gave many of my conversations about the future of art an existential edge.  Explaining new developments in art inevitably drew comparisons to the current political situation.  In the words of one gallerist, “Mongolians are becoming more original because they want to save our culture.”

John D’Amico ’15 is an East Asian Studies major in Pierson College. He can be reached at john.c.damico@yale.edu

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One Response to The Art of the Steppes: The money and politics behind Mongolia’s new aesthetic

  1. Paul Trefry says:

    An amazing look behind the current in one of the world’s least known cultures. “Thank You” to the writer.