Mongolian climate artists and scientists try to communicate what others don’t have



By Ilene Dube,

originally published: 11/19/2021

When I went to Google Maps to see how long it would take to get to Mongolia, the app couldn’t calculate – not by bus, car, foot, bike, or even plane. When I simply searched for the distance on Google, I learned that it was 6,426 miles from New Jersey. That’s more than double the distance across the United States. A site called Travel Math calculates that it would take 13.9 hours to fly from Newark to Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia is really far! This could explain why his climate catastrophe is not a priority for most of us here in the Garden State.

On the other hand, if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance it’s within two hours of William Peterson’s Ben Shahn Galleries, where Sierra of Creation is visible until December 3. The exhibition, curated by Art Space 976 (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), features video and multimedia installations by contemporary Mongolian artists who examine the impacts of climate change on people and landscapes.

Mongolian climate artists and scientists try to communicate what others don't have

View of the “Sierra of Creation” gallery at the William Patterson University Galleries

Mongolia is drier and hotter than 80 years ago, scientists have found. According to the Mongolian Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment Information and Research, the country’s annual average temperature has increased by 2.2 degrees Celsius (nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1940 – well faster than the world average. During the same period, precipitation has decreased by 10 percent. Degraded rangelands have resulted in massive loss of livestock, leading to migration from rural Mongolia to urban areas such as Ulaanbaatar, as well as to Russia, the Czech Republic and South Korea.

It is not often that we see exhibitions of Mongolian artists. Art Space 976+ is a contemporary art gallery distinguished by “pioneering interdisciplinary exhibitions, daring performances, and critical and reflective discussions with artists and curators,” according to its website. It describes itself as “a crossing point for artists and intellectuals, marking it as a cultural center of Ulaanbaatar”, representing the most influential and renowned contemporary artists in Mongolia. These artists participate in international exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale, the Documenta, the Shanghai Biennale and the Asia-Pacific Triennale.

The artists in Sierra of Creation – Tuguldur Yondonjamts, Munkhbolor Ganbold and Bat-Erdene Batchuluun – accompanied scientists from William Paterson University, Columbia University and Yale University to study interactions between climate, humans and the valley’s ecosystems of the Tarvagatai River in Mongolia in 2019. Archaeologists examined the lifestyles and traditions of early nomadic populations by inspecting and analyzing material culture recovered through archaeological survey and excavation. Paleoclimatic scientists have collected environmental data through analysis of tree rings, lake cores, and pollen studies.

Mongolian climate artists and scientists try to communicate what others don't have

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Bat-Erdene Batchuluun, Empty, 2019, video with sound, 3:10 minutes, image courtesy of the artist.

The project was initiated by Nicole Davi, professor of environmental science at William Paterson University who seeks to educate the public about her research, and received funding from the National Science Foundation.

“Even though this body of work is based on research conducted in the remote Bulgan Province of Mongolia, it inspires us to draw parallels between cultures and nations,” Davi said. “Subarctic regions, including Mongolia, have experienced unprecedented rates of warming so far. Likewise, New Jersey is experiencing rising temperatures and increasing precipitation. “

Mongolian climate artists and scientists try to communicate what others don't have

Photograph of scientists and artists studying Bronze Age stone monument site, Tarvagatai Valley, Mongolia, 2019, image courtesy of William Gardner.

One of the objectives of the project is to restore the lifestyles and traditions of the first pastoral populations of the Tarvagatai valley, by studying the ephemeral camps and family structures of the first nomads. Davi, an art enthusiast, collaborates with artists to communicate the enthusiasm of scientific explorations to a variety of audiences.

In “The Wind of Time”, a short video (less than two minutes) by Munkhbolor Ganbold, the soundtrack alone is captivating, a sort of song, like a familiar old voice from a visceral past trying to reach us. . We see a throbbing sea of ​​faces that come into focus, but are never in focus, and transform into other faces. It is as if generations of families travel through time, all trying to tell the same story, the quintessential story of humanity.

Mongolian climate artists and scientists try to communicate what others don't have

Munkhbolor Ganbold, The Wind of Time, 2019, video with sound, 1h30, image courtesy of the artist.

In addition to video and multimedia installations, the exhibition includes artifacts such as tree cores, cross sections and architectural fragments that tell what the climate was like at all times in history.

Gallery namesake and WPA-era artist Ben Shahn was known for his interest in social justice, labor movements and the plight of workers.

“The dissolution of unions, the welfare of workers, human rights – these are the issues he was grappling with in the wake of the Great Depression,” she says. “Looking at the data and graphs from COP26, we see that only a few countries produce most of the greenhouse gases that cause global temperatures to rise. Yet it is not the nations that will suffer the consequences – it is the north of the planet that will feel the effects of rising sea levels.

Siberia is such a precarious environment. Nomadic groups have no choice but to abandon the way of life they have had for centuries – these are human rights. Ben Shahn would have examined the power imbalance of unchecked industrial countries. “

Mongolian climate artists and scientists try to communicate what others don't have

Tuguldur Yondonjamts, Structural observation of the marmot valley, 2019, video with sound, 11:09 minutes, image courtesy of the artist.

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How can artists and scientists work together to make an impact when politicians are making little headway?

“The kind of learning that visitors can have in a gallery, aquarium or zoo, shows that you don’t have to be in a classroom, you don’t need a program to think. about the world around you, ”says Mathern. “What Nicole Davi has achieved is a hybrid space, where we can talk about scientific discoveries and data, as well as timeless issues such as preservation, loss and family. Artists and scientists aren’t that different in what they try to do – the two have stumbled upon something similar. The magic of exhibitions is that they put people and ideas in the same space.

The gallery hours of the Ben Shahn Center for the Visual Arts at William Paterson University, 300 Pompton Road in Wayne, are Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Site visits are available upon request. To help ensure a safe and comfortable experience, all gallery visitors will be required to wear a mask, provide contact information, and social distancing. Admission is free and open to the public.

Photos in the header include a view of the Sierra Gallery of Creation, as well as a photograph of exhibiting artists Tuguldur Yondonjamts, Munkhbolor Ganbold and Bat-Erdene Batchuluun (left to right) on the ground, each holding sectional specimens taken from fallen Siberian larch trees, Tarvagatai valley, Mongolia, 2019, image courtesy of Mukund Palat Rao.

About the Author: Ilene Dube is a writer, artist, curator and filmmaker.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.


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