– Autumn/Winter 2017

Early Contemporary Art in Post-Soviet Mongolia: Where is the Green Horse Galloping Now?

Tsendpurev Tsegmid

Tsevegjav Ochir, Ekhiin tsagaan setgel (Mother’s White Mind), 1968, oil on canvas, 78 × 57cm. Courtesy the Mongolian National Art Gallery, Ulaanbaatar

1998 was my first year as an art student. I was only eighteen years old. Art in Mongolia was taught as something you learn how to make. There were rules to follow: art was meant to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. At the time, I was studying Mongol zurag, a strict form of miniature painting derived from Buddhist thangka art, and the idea of producing artworks beyond the borders of my stretched cotton was unimaginable for me.1 This changed when Dalkh-Ochir,2 one of the founding members of the Green Horse Society, started to visit our art

  1. See my ‘Let’s go back to the beginning: From Mongol Zurag to photography’, in ‘Stranger’s Identity Explored through Contemporary Art Practice: In-Between Mongolia and the UK’, unpublished doctoral thesis, Leeds: Leeds Beckett University, 2013, available at https://archive.org/details/ TsendpurevTsegmidPhDThesis2Parts2013 (last accessed on 11 June 2017).

  2. Throughout this essay, I will refer to the founders by their first names. In Mongolia, while a person’s full name usually appears on official documents, it is common practice to use only a person’s first name in other documents. The surname alone is never used to refer to a person. The Western practice of passing down surnames does not exist in Mongolia, where, rather than a grandfather and grandson sharing their surname, the grandson takes his father’s first name as his surname.

  3. In Buddhist art a green horse is depicted ridden by Maidar, the Buddha of Future. This is just one amongst many portrayals of Maidar.

  4. Galsansukh Baatar, ‘Green Horse or Art Is To be Extinguished, Long Live Art’, in Green Horse Society (ed.), Nogoon Mori: Setgekhui ruu Khiisen Alkham / Green Horse: A Step into the Thinking (trans. Oyunbayar Namsrai and Deirdre Tynan), Ulaanbaatar: Khaan Printing, 2002, p.9.

  5. Andrew Solomon, ‘Nomad’s Land’, Artnews, March 1999, available at http://andrewsolomon.com/ articles/nomads-land/ (last accessed on 11 June 2017).

  6. Uranchimeg Tsultem, ‘Contemporary Art Youth of Green Horse’, in GHS (ed.), Green Horse: A Step into the Thinking, op. cit., p.11.

  7. Enkhbold Tseren is the only GHS founder who is no longer with us. There is no or very little published information on his career except in the GHS publication (ibid.), which includes his CV and texts he wrote.

  8. A better translation of the Mongolian word  Bц is ‘process’ rather than ‘action’.

  9. The publication was created by the founding members of the society with a grant from the Open Society Forum – Mongolia. Gansukh Batbayar worked as the main contributor and project manager; it was designed by Erdenebileg Galsandorj; Oyunbayar Namsrai and Deirdre Tynan translated it. I observed numerous inconsistencies in the English translations of the essays. However, I am quoting from those translations here as the inconsistencies are not misleading. The publication is available at https://archive.org/details/218810180MongolianModernArtGreenHorseSocietyCatalogue2002
    VANJILArtsCentre (last accessed on 11 June 2017).

  10. VAC is a small professional arts organisation established in 2013 that aims to contribute to the development of contemporary art practices, offering professional services and working with artists. See the centre’s website, available at http://www.vac-artscentre-mongolia.org/ (last accessed on 27 June 2017)

  11. Ernst H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, London: Phaidon, 2011, p.483. Though the book is widely seen as one of the must-reads of art history, it offers less than a page of information about socialist art. The history of socialist art is not confined to former members of the USSR. For example, Mongolia was not a formal part of Soviet Union, but it adopted socialism and the art and culture of the country was heavily influenced by this system.

  12. See http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/socialist-realism (last accessed on 12 June 2017).

  13. This planning tradition is still in operation in the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.

  14. Over thirty of Tsevegjav Ochir’s paintings are in the collection of the Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery, the country’s biggest state-run gallery.

  15. The main aspect of Socialist Realism was overemphasis on the positive and the intentional suppression of the actual reality of the system – but this is not to say that the attractive landscape pictured did not exist then. A large part of the Mongolian countryside remains unspoilt, renowned for its rugged beauty and diverse landscapes. Two-thirds of the population still lives in rural areas and their main income comes from livestock management.

  16. Gerelmaa Baasanjav, ‘Capitalist Art: The Repressed Thinking’, To   M/The Brief, vol.6–7, no.261–62, February 2015, pp.66–71.

  17. Ibid., p.66.

  18. GHS (ed.), Green Horse: A Step Into the Thinking, op. cit., p.4.

  19. Caroline Humphrey, A Monastery in Time: The Making of Mongolian Buddhism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012, p.17.

  20. See Uradyn E. Bulag, Nationalism and Hybridity in Mongolia, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, p.52.

  21. William R. Heaton, ‘Mongolia in 1990: Upheaval, Reform, But No Revolution’, A Survey of Asia, vol.31, no.1, Jan 1991, pp.50–56.

  22. Conversation with the artist, 24 November 2013. All translations mine unless otherwise noted.

  23. Conversation with the artist, 20 December 2013.

  24. Gansukh Batbayar, ‘We Formed from I’, in GHS (ed.), Green Horse: A Step Into the Thinking, op. cit., p.4.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Ibid., p.9.

  27. GHS (ed.), Green Horse: A Step Into the Thinking, op. cit., p.4.

  28. Mashbat Sambuu declined my request for an interview.

  29. The UMA organises numerous annual group exhibitions, including ‘Spring’, ‘Autumn’ and ‘The Best Artwork of the Year’.

  30. GHS (ed.), Green Horse: A Step Into the Thinking, op. cit., p.5.

  31. Conversation with the artist, 20 December 2013.

  32. Ibid.

  33. Conversation with the artist, 23 November 2013.

  34. GHS (ed.), Green Horse: A Step Into the Thinking, op. cit., p.3. The original translation was: ‘Art must be freethinking, which does not be governed by any theory and view.’ To fully interpret the meaning of the sentence, I used my own translated version.

  35. This attitude was described to me by various sources (informally). I have not yet had the opportunity to discuss it with former officials at the four institutions.

  36. Ibid., p.12.

  37. Conversation with the artist, 29 April 2017.

  38. Conversation with the artist, 4 May 2017.

  39. Uranchimeg Tsultem is one of only a few English-speaking Mongolian art historians and curators. More information on her research is available at http://arthistory.berkeley.edu/mobile/people/ person/2038826-uranchimeg-orna-tsultem (last accessed on 15 June 2017). See her ‘Contemporary Art Youth of Green Horse’, in GHS (ed.), Green Horse: A Step into the Thinking, op. cit., pp.10–11; and ‘Modernity and Tradition in Mongolian Contemporary Art’, in Saara Hacklin and Annu Wilenius (ed.), Bare House: Pori – Rotterdam –Ulaanbaatar = Nücgėn Bajšin, Pori, Finland: Pori Art Museum, 2011, pp.142–55.

  40. Conversation with the artist, 26 April 2017.

  41. This is a taboo subject among the remaining GHS founders. Despite several attempts to clarify exactly what happened, I have not been able to identify the year or the number of students who died.