John Wheeler believed that the names given to concepts or to descriptions of an idea strongly influence how we think about concepts and ideas, even how we work on them and build on them. In short, the word inspires the deed.
…What does the future look like, or feel like, from the perspective of a yak in the coal mining district of Khovd? A Mongolian root extracted, illegally traded and sold internationally as a pharmaceutical product? Or the toolkit of an urban shaman, securing economic fortune for professional women in Ulaanbaatar?
Five Heads (Tavan Tolgoi) brings together the work of five anthropologists and five artists/collectives researching and responding to the dramatic rise and fall of Mongolia’s mineral economy. Drawing from ongoing fieldwork in Mongolia, the artists in this exhibition conceptualise crisis as a space for the emergence of new possibilities.
Curated by Hermione Spriggs
In 1964, at a time when Mongolia was suspended in the social and economic stasis of Soviet rule, Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan seized upon Ezra Pound’s definition of the artist as “the antennae of the race,” claiming “the power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments by a generation and more.” Indeed, art has taken on antenna-like properties in the context of Mongolia, where the need to rapidly re-think the impacts of mineral extraction and economic chaos is pressing and real, and where a resurgence in shamanic practices—often explained by shamans themselves through a language of code and telecommunications—can itself be thought of as a kind of radar or antennae capable of reaching through time, assuring future fortune in the face of agsan (the invisible and chaotic forces of transition).
Nested within what might be described as an “aesthetics of estrangement” (Castaing-Taylor) or a process of “optimal distortion” (Neilson & Pedersen) are proposals for alternative maps and re-surfaced trajectories that shatter a teleological timeline of progress, staking territory instead for speculative thought and practical forms of human-nonhuman reciprocity. As global cores and peripheries exchange places and rehearse histories of empire formation, Five Heads explores geo-ontological emergence, (post)capitalist futures, and alternative strategies for creative survival in the present.
Dolgor Ser Od and Marc Schmitz ’ biennial project Land Art Mongolia initiates critical conversations and creative experiments engaging with land art and social practice in rural Mongolia. In response to Rebecca Empson’s toolkit of ritually-infused materials used by women in Ulaanbaatar to secure future fortune, the duo are assembling their own archive of objects and substances that act as transportation devices to a place beyond the humanly-known and knowable, a realm they are calling North of the North Pole .
Baatarzorig Batjargal and Nomin Bold re-situate Bumochir Dulam’s ethnographic account of a “spiritual cleansing” of the Mongolian Prime Minister—amidst other documents of environmental protest—into the traditional ethnographic genre of “One Day in Mongolia” painting. MNG (Batjargal, 2018) illuminates many different aspects of daily life at once: caricatures of Mongolia’s “wolf” economy tangle through a cosmos of polluted yurt cities, whilst figures from the rebel River Movement battle psychedelic visions of environmental collapse.
Deborah Tchoudjinoff ’s Baigala consists of five immersive VR “visits.” The work enables gallery visitors to mount a saddle and experience the tangible impact of mineral extraction in western Mongolia, where much of anthropologist Lauren Bonilla’s work on extractive atmospheres—exploring the phenomenological registers of Mongolia’s economy (e.g. “dustiness”)—has taken place.
Yuri Pattison responds to Hedwig Waters’ research into salvage economies along the Mongolia-Chinese border. His pick, press, fang feng (the new economy) explores the transfiguration of the medicinal root Fang Feng (which translates literally as “Guard Against Wind”) from a recognisable organic object in Mongolia into a western pharmaceutical product.
Tuguldur Yondonjamts and Rebekah Plueckhahn have been taking walks together through Zuun Ail, an area of Mongolia’s capital city that in Rebekah’s words forms an “economic topography” where “failed investment, diverted funds, changing possession rights can be speculated on or explained using the physical landscape as a guide.” Tuguldur’s work 178-291, 875-953, 3006-3106 (Mirror Princess) connects Zuun Ail with the Mongolian epic poem Khan Kharangue, which the artist has translated into the binary music of the morin khuur (a two-stringed instrument also known as “darkest dark”).
The accompanying publication Five Heads (Tavan Tolgoi): Art, Anthropology and Mongol Futurism (Sternberg Press, 2018) features documentation of the art-anthropology exchange processes, alongside written contributions by Simon O’ Sullivan, Uranchimeg Tsultem, Richard Irvine, Tsendpurev Tsegmid, Hermione Spriggs & Rebecca Empson, and will be available for presale for the duration of the exhibition. link to publication
Five Heads is part of the European Research Council-funded project Emerging Subjects of The New Economy , led by Dr. Rebecca Empson in the Department of Anthropology, University College London, ERC-2013-CoG, 615785
An essay by Tsendpurev Tsegmid, made available by Afterall Journal for the duration of Five Heads (Tavan Tolgoi): Art, Anthropology and Mongol Futurism fiveheads.art
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 school to meet with students. My teacher warned us about him and told us not to meet with him or listen to his words. Allegedly, his words could confuse young art students about what art was, and rumour had it that we were in danger of being ‘brainwashed and losing our way’. There was this implicit fear of the unknown amongst some of our teachers, which inevitably led to an intense fascination in students like me. I became curious about the development of contemporary art and became interested in learning what the Green Horse Society’s founders had to say about it. Since then, the enigma surrounding this group hasn’t faded and my naïve interest has gradually turned into one of my academic research enquiries.
I add haggis to my breakfast bacon bap at Glenmoriston hotel, waiting for the bus which never arrives. I’m hungry in a carnivorous way, after prowling through a night in which we failed as wolves to find any deer. But the deer were all around us, we knew it, and I’m sure our predator eyes were spied by all those doe-eyed ones before our headlamp beams could catch their forest gazes. The ground was a sphagnum sponge and my right sock soaked it up through a crack in my welly.
The rubber boots were full and floppy and I felt prisoner to my human gait as we wound uneasy midnight paths over boulders and crags of Dundreggan. I heard once about convicts in colonial Australia who were strapped into anchor-heavy footwear, the souls of which bore the ‘broad arrow’ of crown property to imprint a traceable direction on the ground, in case they attempted escape. Our physical tracks through Dundreggan weren’t pronounced in this way, but our sonic presence marked an equivalent absence of other nighttime creatures, an absence that lingered in our wake. I mentioned to Doug that I felt more like a knock-needed fawn than a stealthy canid, and I wondered what the deer made of our clumsy group rampage through the tall and windless trees as we filled in their silence with our squelching footfall. We weren’t in pursuit of prey, I realised, so much as we were chasing our own trails, Alex carrying a GPS device to record the final night walk of the season. Our ambitious direction confirmed the outermost contour on a graph recording and mapping a month of patient territorial progress.
So Project Wolf wasn’t really about wolves as it wasn’t about deer, but tracking something else: gap-spirit of the imprint ownership leaves on a forest, pruned around capitalist patterns of thought?
Third House is a triangulation of works by Spriggs (UK), Nieminen (FI) & Cooper (UK/US), three female artists who met in the Orkhon Valley of Mongolia. The trio share a site-specific interest in humans’ relationship to animals and nature; they explore and reconfigure the human desire to organize and control a given territory.
All three artists traveled to Mongolia as part of LAM 360 degrees, the third Land Art Biennial. They took different approaches to making work as visitors to this landscape, responding to the site and the people they found there through subtle, performative and subjective interventions. The resulting installations, interactions and gestures have developed through a re-working of primary documents extracted from the site: documentary video, photography, collage, writing and maps.
Spriggs, Nieminen & Cooper share interests in the specific relationships formed between nomadic people and their herds of animals. These modes of communication, control and collaboration with animal herds have evolved through a history of animal husbandry and the negotiations involved in close cohabitation of land and territory. The works exhibited in Titanik provide an opening into the foreclosed “middle kingdom” of nomadic perspectives, and the processes of translation and transition that allow these perspectives to travel locally and (if only partially) internationally as art. The artists collectively inhabit Titanik as the Third House proposed by Anselm Franke: “Everything happens in the middle, everything passes between the two, everything happens by way of mediation, translation and networks, but this space does not exist, it has no place. It is the unthinkable, the unconscious of the moderns.” 
The works in the exhibition have their origins in intimate contact with the Mongolian landscape and the systems of cohabitation and control that its inhabitants have created over time. The artists each translate those systems into different visual languages and spatial arrangements, employing a mixture of diagrams, charts and framings to explore the dynamics of the Mongolian landscape and its inhabitants’ nomadic pastoral way of life. In doing so Spriggs, Nieminen and Cooper work against the gigantic effort of purification responsible for the organization of the social and natural into increasingly separate domains—”an effort whose official languages have systematically obscured the work of translation“; a “middle kingdom… as vast as China and as little known”.
The Political Animal event presents work by members of The Political Animal reading group and its extended network. This was a day-long event comprised of new writing, screenings, sculptural and video commissions, and live performances that reflect upon the conditions of interspecies relationships today. Drawing from studies on animal theory, biology, ethology, philosophy, anthropology and literature, each participant presents their own take on locating the human and other animals within worlds that we have come to call ‘nature’ and ‘culture’.