ON ART AND AESTHETICS: Interview with Baatarzorig Batjargal



Published by Tulika Bahadur

I have long wanted to publish something from Mongolia, as we don’t hear a lot about the area in international media. (I find Mongolia fascinating because of its place in history—chiefly known through the Mongol Empire). I feel your work is really perfect to start a conversation because it sheds light on both the past and the current situation in the country. My first question is this: how did you get into art? What/who were your influences while you were growing up? 


Greetings, I am very happy to answer your questions. They were amazing. I was born in 1983 in Ulaanbaatar. At that time, Mongolia was a country under a socialist regime. My grandfather, who was nomadic, came to Ulaanbaatar in 1930. My father was born in 1954. He belongs to the younger generation of the socialist society. My mother was born in 1961 and I am their second son. I have a brother and two younger sisters. My family is a model family, depicting life in the Republic of Mongolia in the 20th century.


In the late 1980s, when I was in school, the social environment was messy. The movement against the socialist regime was spreading globally. The days of democracy had started in Ulaanbaatar.


As a child, I was interested in drawing. I was really addicted to art, I did not concentrate on anything else. I participated in the art club in grades 5th and 6th, and after that, enrolled in a school with art as an advanced subject. My first elective module was Western classical art.


Your work addresses both “the repressions of Soviet style communism” and “the inequalities and consumerism of global capitalism”. These events took place rapidly within a century. Tell us more about how these two ideologies were executed in Mongolia and what were their effects. It would be good to get an overview from you.


The Soviet concept of building a socialist society in the world, as it began in the earlier part of 20th century, was like a tsunami. In Mongolia, it washed away the whole lifestyle and the religion around it. Mongolians moved from a nomadic way of life into sedentary civilisation. The communist regime settled in our country with great losses. From the opposite side, there was the flood of western capitalism. For Mongolians, the only way to survive was to keep adapting to the situation.


My memory of the past is not so bad as the sweet imagination of a young child has stayed within the family space. Some aspects of the communist society still exist. We are in the process of formulating a reform that can bring about a proper economic transition and true social democracy.


Since 1990, a different history path has spread, and there are people who have been adversely affected by changes in the environment. They are seeking to overcome the harshest of social lives.


Prior to the 1990s, Mongolians were divided into three main classes: 1.) Worker, 2.1) Herdsman, 2.2) Peasant and 3.) Intelligentsia. Life was lived in grey colour. At the time, in the Western world, there was this concept that personal freedom and property equal happiness. And the idea that “if a person works hard, the hard work will pay” began to spread.

The Mongolian state authorities noticed this and gave up their position in a peaceful way to their young generations who started the democratic revolution in Mongolia in 1990. Since then, some Mongolian people have found their forgotten indigenous lifestyle, religion, and Mongolian customs. But before 1990—it should be noted—although there was no freedom to express one’s thought and no private property, there was also no phenomenon of unemployment, no begging or hunger.

Well, that’s pretty much all about the social issues. Mongolia was changed from the rule of Manchu to the Kingdom, from the Kingdom to the People’s Republic of Mongolia, to the Republic of Mongolia within 100 years.


I found “Wolf Totem” quite interesting. I discovered it is also the title of a controversial 2004 semi-autobiographical novel by Chinese writer Lü Jiamin about the experiences of a young student from Beijing who finds himself sent to the countryside of Inner Mongolia in 1967, at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution. Some reviewers, I guess, have found the book “fascist” and “insulting” for the way it compares the cultures of ethnic Mongolian nomads and the Han Chinese farmers, with the former being seen as freer, the latter, more sheep-like. And the book supposedly condemns the agricultural collectivisation being imposed by the settlers on the nomads.  


So what is the story behind your painting and reference to the wolf and its reverence? And is there a connection with the book?


The Wolf Totem is a great novel that has well illustrated the steppes, symbols, life sciences, nomadic adaptations, natural laws, social changes, etc. In my Wolf Totem, the main character depicted in the middle is a symbol for the many tribes in Central Asia. It isn’t only related to Mongolians. Nomads believed that they are descendants of nature. Beast worship is a very ancient culture. There are many spirits like falcons, bears, goats, horses, the twelve animals of the zodiac, etc.


In the ancient myth about Mongolian origins, it is said that Mongolians have a wolf father and a deer mother. The concept of nomadic beauty is demonstrated appropriately by these two animals: The wolf is a perfect example of following or confronting the natural laws of an area with its four seasons and extreme weather conditions, where it warms up to +35° in the summer and colds down to -40° in the winter. Deer is another beauty of the steppe. Our ancestors compared a good man to a wolf and a good woman to a deer.


We also have the ancient cult that considers every mountain, water, the sun, the moon, the sky, the stars, the winds and everything that surrounds us as a god.


The Chinese author tried to describe a society or human lifestyle as a Mongolian person. The wolf represented the strong and weak ratios of the law of nature. The Mongolian attitudes to the book are diverse and there are many perspectives. The public reaction to the film with the same name was rated negatively as well. People also had an unpleasant reaction to Sergei Bodrov’s film entitled Mongol. In my opinion, this is about individual freedom, the capacity of the mind, the size of understanding.


As you go through various regimes, you portray a range of characters—artists, intellectuals, politicians and oligarchs. How do you decide how to compose your paintings?


My characters are divided into two general groups. One part is the image of the spirit or abstract space and the other one is the actual image of the world. My body and myself will only exist for a certain period. That period is governed by three times—the past, present, and future. My body has a soul. As for the soul, it is not controlled by the gravitational forces of our planet, it is governed by the sixth sense. This is a very abstract concept. The action that is happening in my paintings is taking place somewhere in a dream world. It can be said that characters are created within the work, depending on the content of the work. Real characters are those who play a significant role and have an impact on human life—good or bad.


In the centre of “Smoke” is Vajrapani, a bodhisattva/wrathful deity recognisable by the vajra—diamond thunderbolt—in his right hand. A traditional image of transformation and purification, the deity seems almost to disappear in the clouds of smoke around him, made up of intricately wrought figures and objects. This brings me to a question on the role and position of Buddhism in Mongolia. How has it changed over time?


I would be glad to answer this question. Vajrapani or god “Ochirvaani” is considered a divine being that looks after Mongolia. Buddhism is a leading religion in Mongolia. But religion doesn’t answer the demand for peace of mind. This is because most of the people worship god blindly. That is why bad and good outcomes become the basic concepts of religious morality.


We have gone through many stages of society in the past hundred years. Everybody has their own sense of happiness and sadness. The title of the painting explores social concerns. It seems that people are walking in smoke, putting their intentions and everything on someone else’s shoulder.


What disturbs you most about contemporary Mongolian society that you’d like to eliminate or improve?


The Mongolians who migrated from the Tenger Mountains to the Khyangan Mountains and the Lake Baikal to the Himalayan Mountains, are now divided into 4-5 ethnic groups. Our fairy tales, literature, beliefs about cultural beauty are the same but not the language. The bizarre, invisible wall between us is getting thicker and taller with each passing day. That is certainly something that could be improved.


Cultural tradition is endangered elsewhere as well. The Middle East, Western European countries and so on.


What is the best thing, do you think, that Mongolia—in all its historical and cultural value—has to offer to the world?

Traditionally, Mongolians didn’t have private ownership of land due to a different understanding of prosperity. Mongolian value lies in our nomadic cultural heritage.


As I mentioned above, Mongolians have adapted and changed with the harsh climate of Central Asia as a demand of their life. Mankind has an instinct and can recognise the space where he is in. Every place on our planet affords its own unique cognitive experience. No experience is above or below, more or less. We have a history of 4000 years that is rich in evidence and rare findings. We consume different types of foods, speak diverse languages. This is an exquisite feeling that could be communicated at the world stage.


What are you working on right now or what are some big ideas that you are considering?

Recent productions I have been working on are related to climate change. The drastic advancement of humanity disturbs me. We are on a planet with limited resources. We are governed by a great law of nature. Humanity has gone against this law. I worry that we are also going against social law.


Disproportionate demand is diminishing natural resources. Of course, there is an explanation for the needs. It will turn into a big black hole that covers modern life, economics, law, science and more…because we have the freedom to dream where to go and what to do. But we are still governed by the law of nature.


My work is provoked by all these reflections. There are several other topics that I am obsessed with. For example, dreams, hidden spaces and parallel worlds.


Anything more you’d like to add?


Thank you very much for being sympathetic about my creations and ideas. Our ancestors perceived the notions of happiness and freedom and left us a precious cultural legacy. And I believe that this subconscious awareness has influenced you through my works slightly. Finally, we should ask—what languages, customs and cultures are being forgotten elsewhere in the planet? Is there something that we knew before that we no longer know? We belong to one home planet…


See interview here