Can National Art Museums be judged only by the quality of their art? I didn’t quite know what to expect as I entered the Mongolian National Museum of Modern Art or MNNMA, hidden in a Soviet style building behind the cultural palace on Ulaanbaatar’s massive Sukhbaatar square (or Chinngis Khan square, as it is also known as). The museum houses more or less what the nomadic nation can boast of modern art, which, I soon discovered, is somewhat limited.
Still I am glad I went, not so much for the art I saw but for what that art told me about the society it was produced in. In that sense, the hour it took to go through the modest collection at the museum on Sukhbaatar Square, took me a long way in understanding modern Mongolia.
The first thing that comes to my mind when describing the collection is not only that it is modest in size, but also that it is modest in quality. A part for a couple of gems, the art I saw was unengaging. Not that I came with high expectations but if I had any, they weren’t really met.
The second is that is leaves no doubt of Mongolia’s two-track passage to modernity, the Soviet and the Chinese heritages: Mongolia was ruled by the Chinese for several hundred years (the Chinese wall was built as a defence against the Mongols), before it became a somewhat odd child out in the Soviet fold. As in architecture (a stroll around the central parts of Ulaanbaatar leaves no doubt of the country’s political history) both Soviet and Chinese cultures have left their mark on the art scene. Futurism as well as social realism, typical Communist era styles, are both well represented in the collection in the MNNMA. Dolgorjav Bold’s Stars sky, the horses fighting in Oskie Tregaev’s painting with the same name, or E. Djamjave’s My Sloe-Eye are three examples.
Next to these figure works clearly influenced by Asian tastes and techniques. Have a look at Joy of Countryside and compare it to the other works. There is no doubt that culturally, Mongolia is also an Asian country.
Do not, however, fall in the trap of calling this Chinese-style painting – you’ll risk being lynched. Mongolians, I found in my two months there, largely despise the Chinese. Their contempt is almost pitiful because it is intertwined with an almost childish desire for recognition of Mongolian uniqueness in a modern, non-aligned world. That is, if you will, my third take away from the MNMMA: The collection depicts a country that still struggles to find its place in the modern world.
The chief artistic expression of this desire for recognition is, sadly, a murky mix of tasteless nationalism centred on the omnipresent Chinngis Khan, and undefined folkloristic art. Have a look at Human by Ennktaiyan or Secret History of Mongolia by D. Gaanbaatar , and you’ll see what I mean. The latter title makes little sense, considering that this enormous painting, the largest artwork in the entire collection, depicts the unmistakable face of Chinngis Khan. If there’s something the Mongols don’t make a secret of, it is their veneration for their national hero.
Probably they make so much of Chinngis because they have little else to make reference to. A nation, even if they are clearly defined in ethnic and linguistic terms, need stories, heroes, battles, to construct their identity on. The Mongols have build and keep adding bricks to their national house entirely on the shoulders of the Medieval hero. Nobody disputes the greatness of the Mongol empire, but the monotonous glorification of it in modern, and much less significant Mongolia, feels more like a cover-up of an empty national identity treasury that the emblem of a solid nation-state.
Perhaps that’s where the crunch point is for the Mongols. Mongolian culture, with its strong nomadic traditions, fits uneasily with modernity. Ulaanbaatar, the capital, is an excellent example. The soulless city is a visual rape of the stern nature it has intruded on. Nothing about Ulaanbaatar, apart, perhaps, from the uncontrollable outskirts, or ger-districts where people live in stark poverty, fits even remotely with the landscape that surrounds it. Absolutely nothing.
Much like the city that houses it, the collection of artwork Mongolian National Museum of Modern Art reveals an image of a country that struggles to fit in with its surroundings and a country that is still searching for its own identity because it has had identities bestowed upon it for most of its history. The chaos is aptly captured in one of the above mentioned hidden gems – Baatarzorig’s The Coral Island.
Are there any exceptions to this detrimental artistic -cum-political story in the MNMMA, you may want to ask. Yes, there is. One piece of art stands out, not so much for its quality as for the unpolitical nature of its object. Saynbayard’s sculpture 90 Degree is the first piece I laid eyes on as I entered and the one I remember the best. As you tour Mongolia, you’ll notice that people in general, at least by most European standards, are rude, sometimes outright hostile, and difficult to get in touch with. That’s true for the adults but for some reason not for the children. Mongolian children are the happiest, friendliest, most curious and joyful creatures you’ll ever meet. Not only are there a lot of them, they always smile and laugh and play and seem to have no bond on them in any way. I won’t attempt at explaining this, I don’t know why, but I know that in the very mixed experience that a two-month stay in Mongolia was, the best of my memories is of Mongolian children. I was so happy to see that they too, along with the murky political identity-issues, are reflected in the museum’s collection.
Art is always a reflection of the society that gave birth to it, either because it is depicted directly or because it provoked certain feelings and emotions in the artist that are expressed through art. I guess that if a national art museum can be judged not only by the quality of its art but by the preciseness with which it reflects that nation’s culture, the MNMMA is well worth a visit. If it can’t, there is, sadly, little other reason to go.