Mystical geographies and landscapes of deep time: three artists explore Mongolia

Press release

Pinksummer: Each culture assumes different rationalities to order perception, Robert Lenoble, in Esquisse d’une Histoire de l’Idée de Nature, states that perception fights with all the objective troubles of observation and that the motivation of the dogmas is much deeper than perception itself. From 17th Century onwards the actor of the evolution of ideas concerning the concept of nature has shifted from aesthetic to science, and science has not taken into consideration the research of the final result. This methodology has given back a nature without intention, to be driven and maneuvered as any other tool, thus spreading among humans some sort of hysteria for collection and classification. It also incites a powerful form of aggression towards the environment, produced by frustration. The Natural History Museum is for sure emblematic of the attempt, if not just to fill the anxiety, at least to recover a bit of centrality. In William Hogarth Boys Peeping at the Nature, Isis is a statue on a pedestal and the boys who are trying to do a portrait of her are chubby cherubs, running away from the frame. The scene is happening in the 18th Century in the twilight of the Fine Arts Museum. Does each attempt of the classification of nature, being arbitrary and based on conjectures, show us the limit, the impossibility? Does this limit and this impossibility on which your work seems to be based, have to be grasped, beyond the post-modern fascination for the modern approach, as an invitation to renounce or as a solicitation to seek with a certain urgency new way of approaching environment, not to say nature?


Mark Dion: Well the attempt to classify nature from a western scientific standpoint is not a task arbitrary or conjectural at all. It is an attempt to find a system of classification based on nature itself which reflects and reveals evolutionary relationships. The tools for doing this themselves have evolved from the time of Linnaeus where one compared the sexual organs of plants as the basis for classification, to the more broadly encompassing comparative anatomy approach refined by Cuvier, to the new techniques and technologies of molecular taxonomy. The origins of systematics are rooted in natural theology, and so the naturalist imagined their task as one of enumerating the works of God himself. They arrogantly imagined already in the 19th Century that they were coming close the completion of the task. However, the establishment of the fact of evolution gave the process of systematics a new mandate, that of illuminating evolutionary relationships.

All societies construct taxonomies, even if they are remarkably basic, like things that fly, things that swim, things that crawl on land. Not all of these societies destroy the world around them with such ferocious efficiency. Western scholarly taxonomies are scientific in nature and strive to be natural rather than artificial. Our biologist friends are attempting to find a system of order which actually maps evolutionary relationships. It is perhaps ironic that the societies that construct the most subtle and elaborate orders are also the ones which, through a double whammy of colonialism and capitalism, have been the most overwhelmingly destructive.

If we look at what Linnaeus says in the first edition of Systema naturae (1735), “The first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves.” He goes on, “This notion consists in having a true idea of the object; objects are distinguished and known by classifying them methodically and giving them appropriate names. Therefore, classification and name-giving will be the foundation of our science.” So, I guess your question is, is classification also the foundation of domination and destruction? I think it is rather a tool, which can be employed as part of a program of plunder and degradation but can, and very often is, a tool for protection and fostering of biodiversity. Undoubtedly in the search for order in nature there has been an aspect of the pernicious search for hierarchies, natural theological nonsense and all types of mischief, but it has also been a tool in understanding evolution, wildlife conservation, and debunking pseudo sciences like eugenics. In all the time I was looking at various hierarchical systems of order, what became clear is that those who make the order are those seated firmly atop it. However, we are beyond that. There is no top, or direction for systematists today.

As artists we can explore the impulse to order in ways that are also skeptical. We can and do use humor to undercut the authoritative assumptions of those who would organize people, living things, places, and even objects in ranking. I don’t think the inclination to organize things or ideas is inherently maleficent, but couple it with supremacy, colonialism, unhindered resource extraction, capitalism, and fanaticism and we have a pretty catastrophic compact. Our job as artists is decouple ideology with science and point out where and how pseudo-science and political agendas pollute scientific discourse.

PS: In the exhibition you will present a “portrait” of the American explorer scientist Roy Chapman Andrews, who started to work in 1906 as guardian of the taxidermy department of Natural History American Museum and became, in 1934, director of the same museum, mostly thanks to his four paleontological expeditions in Mongolia, in the Gobi desert, between 1922 and 1930. It was considered amongst the biggest paleontological expeditions of the 20th Century, and was a huge spoil for the American museum. Among other things, they retrieved the fossil remains of a velociraptor, and the first fossil eggs of an oviraptor dinosaur ever found. As a matter of fact, Andrews, an expert in mammals, went to Mongolia to find the origins of mankind, based on a curious theory of his time that claimed were to be found in central Asia. Andrews, a scientist and adventurer, with a sure shot, seems to have inspired the character of Indiana Jones. Since boyhood, the explorer stood out in Wisconsin for being a great marksman and a skilled taxidermist. His autobiography is called Under a Lucky Star. Are you fascinated by the legends of dragon hunters?

MD: Roy Chapman Andrews was not only an explorer paleontologist, but he was a writer of children’s books on natural science. He wrote books on Dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, whales and other natural history topics. Some of these were illustrated by Rudolf Zallenger who I later studied with at Hartford Art School.

As a curious child growing up in bookless home, I frequented the book mobile, a library on wheels which visited different neighborhoods allowing access to books for kids. Here I encountered the works of Roy Chapman Andrews. In those days (later 1960’s) there was very little on dinosaurs one could easily find, and not even many dinosaur toys. Like many children I was utterly obsessed with dinosaurs and finding the books of Roy Chapman Andrews was incredibly important to me. It is through these books that I first learned of a place so far away called Mongolia.

So, in having the good fortune to work with RedHero and travel with Tugludur, Duke, Paolo, Alice, Mateo and Dana in Mongolia, my mind was once more on dinosaurs. Indeed, many of our encounters with scientist and museum professionals in Mongolia have been with paleontologists. Mongolia remains one of the world’s dinosaur hotspots.

I also have a long and deep relationship with the American Museum of Natural History. So, I was able to visit the marvelous archive and research library and see the actual photos from the 1922 expedition to Mongolia lead by Andrews. In many ways Andrews is part of a pantheon of late 19th and early 20th century naturalist I have produced work around. These would include figures such as William Beebe and David Fairchild, who also represent a transition from the European naturalist tradition to the new era of evolutionary biology. These figures are far from flawless paragons of contemporary progressive values and must be viewed in the context of their historic period.

Roy Chapman Andrews in many ways is the template for the macho scientist adventurer that became a figure in both scientific journalism (National Geographic Magazine) and popular culture (books like She and fictional heroes like Indiana Jones). In a sense my work, which turns him into both a specimen and an action figure is a way to playfully critique the status of this historic model which shaped the picture of the world painted for people like myself in childhood.

There is much to untangle in the legacy of Andrews. First of all, his mission was not to find dinosaurs but rather to find the origins of humans. Around this time, many in the field of natural history and particularly those at The American Museum had quite pernicious racist and white suprematist beliefs regarding the origins of human. They were very invested in the notion of race. I have the impression that much of the motivation to find the origins of the white race in Mongolia was a response to the evidence that pointed to Africa as the site of the birth of humankind. Once dinosaurs and particularly dinosaur eggs were uncovered the emphasis of the mission changed or at least the spin about the expedition changed.

PS: Your reflections on nature, the environment and society develop primarily, across food. In fact, the human species evolved through nourishment: from the Australopithecus to the different kinds of homo, until the sapiens, it seems diet has changed a lot. It is sure that we owe to the discovery of the fire, cooking and the culinary arts, making food easier to digest, the ability to dedicate ourselves with relatively enough calm to cultivate culture and E/earth. In fact, being omnivorous allowed man to colonize the planet. In contemporary times, food coming from crops and intensive farming is responsible for much of the pollution that causes climate change as well as the extraction and usage of fossil fuel. Even though you work with biologists and social scientists, you tend to define your analysis methods purely a-scientific. However, you demonstrated, by cooking meals and preparing night banquets monitored from cameras that native wild animals, as well as man, tend to choose readymade food, rather than hunting or harvesting. Raccoons, foxes and hawks enter more and more frequently densely populated urban areas: you interpreted such a territory overlapping, the overlapping of the tamed one devoted to humans with the wilderness, as a sign of destruction related to the Anthropocene. When we asked the artist Peter Fend how can we get back in respect of the approaching ecological catastrophe, he answered with no hesitation that we should go back to pre-Neolitic, meaning go back to fishing, hunting and collecting. Anorexia, subtle contemporary disease, that in the Western world hits more and more teenager of both genders, is described as a contradiction of the nature of things. Food rejection, typical of anorexia, speaking of boundaries to go through, seems to depend on the inability to distinguish the line between fact and fiction, visible reality and the psyche’s invisible one, hunger and emotion. Can food become fatal without boundaries between domestic and wild?

Dana Sherwood: Domestication; the taming, colonizing and exploitation of nature is about control. Just as we try and control our territories to keep invaders of all kinds out, we keep out the pests, deer, raccoons, rodents and other critters. We control our bodies, the internal microcosm of the universe. It is a reflection of the human survival instinct to control. The human psyche has adapted to this hoarding and protecting mentality since the advent of agriculture. Spending time with traditional nomadic people in Mongolia revealed a stark contrast to contemporary, human-centric life and its survivalist ethos that is harmful to the ecology of the planet. Impressed with the more balanced, symbiotic relationship the nomads have with the natural world inspired me to embark on a new body of work that engages with nature, horses in particular, to co-create an energetic, invisible, inaudible language that engages in a more subtle way with the earth and its inhabitants. Inspired by the shamanic past and its resurgence in contemporary Mongolia, I explored ways of connecting to nature though the invisible realm of the senses.

PS: For the exhibition at Pinksummer you will present a brand-new video, based on communication between human and non-human as a paradigm of collaboration that prescinds from language, since once, quoting Wittgenstein, you stated that even if a lion could speak, we wouldn’t have any possibility of comprehension. You defined the wild animals of your video, your drawings and watercolors as collaborators and you reflect on inter-species communication as a possibility of avoiding ecological catastrophe. You said in Mongolia you have been influenced by shamanism, a social practice links to the sacred, seeing the shaman as the one who knows (saman) how to communicate with the spirits of ancillary animals, and with the world of energies, to bring back harmony and therefore the beauty of the world, because beauty has never been separated from morality in their tradition. Just reaching a balance with the natural world and with energy supported by its harmony, we can heal and thrive. You compared the role of the artist with the one of the shamans. Doesn’t the sacred, in the aesthetic tradition, mean overcoming the transience of time and the boundaries/confinement of language?

DS: My first rule of art making is: embrace fear and the loss of control. From my earliest projects working with wild and domesticated animals I have struggled with the concept of control and the expectations put upon animals to act in accord with my artistic vision. This was a mistake. Every time I planned my videos in this way; seeing the animals as my performers, and expecting them to follow my direction, my efforts were somehow frustrated. I struggled with this for a long time until, while making a video in Demark, I found myself thwarted again and again by the red deer who refused to appear on camera and partake of the food prepared especially for them. It was unexpected, as I had been told that these deer were very tame from being fed by the hunters year-round. Reluctantly, I decided to make this frustration the subject of the video, The Wild and the Tame which ended up being much more compelling than the original plan. There is a quote from Robert Smithson about the process of making art that I resonate with, especially in these situations. It states, (in reference to traveling in Central America) “All those guide books are of no use. You must travel at random, like the first Mayans, you risk getting lost in the thickets, but that is the only way to make art.” In this way, I approached the video for this exhibition: See/Sight Equus Mongolia. Instead of using food to entice the horses to participate I attempted to communicate with them energetically based on my research into the shamanic ceremonies of Mongolia and the Americas. I also studied equine communication and healing through energy work. In a way I became the shaman, but also the baby, making its first attempts at speech. The video is shot on a camera that I modified to film in Infra-red, which is a light spectrum invisible to the human eye, making the invisible visible and transmuting energy into art.

PS: When NASA some years ago presented the project of using laser light to increment the speed of the transition of data in downlink and uplink, especially towards distant places in the solar system, the scientific community seemed to split, because the usage of that very powerful optic system could have made the Earth visible to alien predators from remote galaxies, as if that was the jungle. You translated the poem Khan Kharanqui of Altai region of Mongolia in “SAA”, a binary language invented by scientists, conceived in order to communicate with aliens and manipulated by artists, or better by the artist, by you. “SAA” language, inspired by Arecibo message, transmitted from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in November 1974, was addressed to the globular mass of Hercules M13, 25.000 light years away. It was composed by 1679 binary numbers, produced by the prime numbers 23 and 73. By ordering the message in rows and columns, anybody, also an alien from M13, could have obtained a cryptogram with the ability to release information. A sort of extremely synthetic universal language. In 2001 someone thought to have found the alien answer to Arecibo message, in the wheat pictogram of Chilbonton in England. You wrote that the poem was suitable to be translated in “SAA” language because it deals with heterogenous communication practices and also with trips to different dimensions and also because the magical events contained by the poem were strictly connected to the Mongolian measurement system, essentially of binary nature. We know that shamans in Mongolia are divided into white and black, the former will ascend to the sky, the latter, will go down to the underworld. They both have a positive social role, though. We know that Mongolian cosmogony includes 99 gods, the same number of the distance in years from the Earth to the place where the dark Khan Kharangui confined the beloved princess in the poem. What do you mean when you state that a lot of things in Mongolia have a binary meaning? Tell us about your project 81 Meters Backwards to the Darkest Dark. Is it an attempt of actualization and universalization of the old Mongolian poem of Altai or is it an interpretation? Would you like it to be decodable by aliens too?

Tuguldur Yondonjamts: Great limited event (10 00000000000000000000000000000)

Beautiful light (10 0000000000000000000000000000000)

The Great Eye (10 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000)

Janj khutugtu A.Rolbiidorj (Mongolian mathematician from 18th century) named up to 66 zeroed large numbers with this poetic, but with quite strong visual language. I was interested in this way of thinking and this idea was “visible” as we were traveling in Altai. The visited countryside was a perfect place to investigate the poem and of course the numbers seemed to be significant. I have a desire to decrypt petroglyphs, rocks, fossils if they would hide a certain map. The artists imagination is still limited to visual information that we keep, gather or experience. The methodology of creating was inspired by the progress of the poem, but also physically experiencing temperatures, days and nights in Altai.

“Horse that has no gaps between its ribs and having no joints in its legs. Horse that gives advice to humans. Horse that thinks independently, navigating and covering far dimensions carrying the rider”…(part of Khan Kharanqui poem). It is a paradox to reinterpret an ancient poem today, then I start to think automatically about something else but not a horse.

But there is also an update in the story, a Common Myna appears in the poem executing a mission. The myna bird is not native to Mongolia, they are described as “Cocky and arrogant, not able to take human commands, eating berries, not insects in the fields” (Chapter 13. How the Myna Went to Hawaii, The Alien Animals by George Laycock). The presence of that bird gives a hint of a Buddhist influence in the epic, so the epic was written/rewritten by a different time. Maybe it is time to rewrite it in binary language, then it survived orally to an old Mongolian script, then to Cyrillic Mongolian…

 Yes, I was interested in the process of “SAA” language that took 27 years to conclude a certain circle of imagination. Scientists, Aliens and Artists, this weird triangle should keep making geographical locations into magical dark holes.

Khan Kharangui poem is a well-known epic in Mongolia. It tells the story of a protagonist whose name can be translated as the Darkest Dark (artist translation) and his home country is located in 99 years of travel distance. The protagonist travels with his brother to his beloved princess who can predict the events of the coming three days and who’s face shines light to any direction that she directs. And there is a son of the heaven, the competitor of Darkest Dark and whose home country is located in thirty third layer of sky. The protagonist goes through different challenges and competitions and takes the princess to his far country. The jealous son of the heaven takes several revenges on the protagonist.  At the very end of an epic the protagonist, his brother and their joint friend will be given names of Insects by protagonist’s father. The poem is practiced as a long song during the night by a well-trained singer accompanied by Morin Khuur (a musical instrument with binary horse strings) in the covered yurt. High snowy mountains are described in the poem as a home country of Darkest Dark and also as a place where he sleeps as he was poisoned and turned into 90 headed monsters.

PS: In 1990, with the end of Communism, Mongolia, especially in the rural regions and in the mountains, started to recover shamanic tradition as if it were a sort of crisis philosophy, able to guide the tragic passage from socialism to post-socialism, by recreating a positive humus, negotiating with the indeterminacy of that transition. In this sense, shamanism, together with music and singing, has in some way restored an historical-cultural continuity, wiped out by the Socialist Republic of Mongolia in the Thirties. In Mongolia, the shaman has always been in charge of the restoration of balance in order to create harmony and concord; the power of shaman has never been separated from sound, singing, music, meant as a form of intersubjective communication. How do you relate with shamanism and with sound in your research?

TY:  “A shaman is able to jump seven times from the top of a mountain to reach the bottom of it”, I heard this as I was a kid. Of course, I did not know how high the mountain was, if the rumor is based on the dream or physical reality of someone, or if it is one of the “stories” chatted between kids in communistic Mongolia in 80’s. I am not an expert in knowing the shamans, but they existed since a time that I cannot really imagine. They represent knowledgeable travelers, whose knowledge of spirits, plants, animals, and landscape with its weather conditions brought them to a significant role in the ancient, but also in current Mongolian society. The shaman suit/gown is equipped with diverse items and each of them has a specific role/usage for the journey to different dimensions. They camouflage quite well into any environment, so they have been practicing their knowledge even in communist Mongolia. They have traveled quite far, they are fascinating for many.
In my video Myna Song, I was curious about time perception of insects, birds and humans. I tried multiple times to alter sound speed of birds and insects and to find any Mongolian or any words or dialects in it. Someway it triggered a certain feeling, that relates to a dreamlike situation. Adding layers by editing, altering sound speed according to birds and insects, writing the story on the snake skin system, making a map of a portal bone, all these steps were done to imitate the poem.

PS: On RedHero we read: RedHero is a long-term local and international project constructed around Mongolian arts and culture with a particular focus on the capital city Ulaanbaatar, whose name translates to red hero”. How did this project in Mongolia start?

RedHero: The idea started from a meeting, in 2014 in Venice, between Paolo Rosso and Dulguun Batbold, co-founder of the project. Dulguun proposed to develop a cultural project that had as first point Ulaaanbaatar, the capital that, after the fall of the USSR and the consequent independence in 1992, started a big rise of growth and development. Let’s just think that 45% of Mongolians are less then 24 and the average age of the population is 27. The Mongolian capital city, named “red hero” during the soviet period, is a very particular Asiatic city, as you would never expect, chaotic but not too crowded, with a lot of sand, asphalt, skyscrapers, wood houses and yurts. It hosts almost the half of the inhabitants of the entire country (three million in total, one of the lowest population densities in the world). Like a European city at the time of the industrial revolution, it is polluted during the winter because of burning charcoal and wood stoves, which makes it the most polluted (and cold) capital in the world. Mongolian tradition and the fast transformation of its capital, with many contradictions, brought us, together with the video-maker duo Kinonauts (Matteo Primiterra e Matteo Stocco), to visually map, in a spontaneous fashion and not programmatically, the most heterogenous aspects of this wonderful country. This multimedia mapping, an approach already used for the research projects Guwahati Research Program (Assam, India) and Los Caminos del Café (Cuba), became an investigative tool, related to international and Mongolian artists, invited to explore in a long-term project, the land. Hosting half of the population of the country, Ulaanbaatar is an important starting point, but not enough to understand the soul of this millennial culture, still linked to the nomad tradition and to shamanism. For this reason, RedHero moves also outside the capital borders.

In collaboration with RedHero: Paolo Rosso, Alice Ongaro Sartori, Kinonauts

Thanks to Sergio Poggianella Foundation for: Author unknown, Shaman horse, cm 22×26