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16th November 2011

Enkhbold Togmidshiirev’s ‘gentle’ message

Enkhbold Togmidshiirev, Mongolian performance artist, spoke to us about his conception of place. But where is his place in the art world?

I met with Enkhbold ‘Boldo’ Togmidshiirev at everyone’s favourite Mill earlier in October to talk about his latest performance installation: the ‘ger’ project. (For those of you out of the Mogolian contemporary artist loop, Boldo is the country’s furthest-flung performance artist and founder of the emerging artist support foundation the Blue Sun Group). Enkhbold graced Manchester’s courtyards thanks to Asia Triennial ’11 expanding its catchment area out of South-East Asia to the plain old East. I grabbed the chance when I could and spoke to Enkhbold on the second leg of his Manchester experience. This began with a residency at Manchester Museum before hopping from one corner of Manchester’s art scene to another, over to Islington Mill: from the staid to the subversive. And Asia Triennial straddles the two with one fell performer.
Enkhbold was as at home amongst the Museum’s spear collection as he was in the trendy Islington aesthetic, with his knee-high leathers and tied-back ponytail. As well he might for someone who’s ‘home’ is where he sets it down, settling in isn’t really an issue.

Enkhbold grew up living the life nomadic in rural Mongolia, a traditional lifestyle his family – generations of horse-breeders – continue to uphold today. Since leaving horses for art, and the big city, Enkhbold has returned to engage with this tradition, albeit in less traditional settings.
His current work, the Ger Project, falls somewhere between performance and installation, art and cultural practice. The ger is a mobile ‘living structure’ central to the nomadic Mongolian life, and central to Enkhbold’s life still. The performance sees the artist set up his self-built ger in the new setting, enact certain rituals (whether traditional or less so) and then deconstruct his construction. Home, for us, is where we keep our knick-knacks, but perhaps this essentialist approach to a mobile home shoots further into the heart of what is important from that home. More obviously, Enkhbold’s use of the ger highlights different ways of life that are most often assigned by geography.

The context in which the work is performed really imbues it with its meaning. Firstly because Enkhbold has no fixed performance, it begins and ends with the ger but changes according to the environment, and presumably how the artist feels in that environment. It is the juxtaposition, between (usually) urban cityscape and the sparse structure that provides the comment on place and territory/ownership that is relevant both to city-dwellers and to Asia Triennial.
By creating a place within a place, indeed taking his own personal space in a public area Enkhbold teases out ideas of territory and the nature of place. Precisely because he does not rely on place, any place, for the things we do: shelter, boundaries, he is able to engage with it for its inherent spatial properties, and on an aesthetic level. But the most interesting, yet most subverting level in the many layers of context that surround Enkhbold’s piece, is that he must continue to travel to further the artistic nature of it. Enkhbold’s work is enfranchised by his nomadic community, yet if ‘performed’ in rural Mongolia the piece surely wouldn’t be art. Enkhbold (ironically enough) depends on changing, predominantly modernised urban places to enliven his work as ‘art’. And although he may not rely on place, he sure relies on modern communications to get there.

As I was sitting with Enkhbold and his interpreter, Tsindi, in the warm hearth of the Mill’s B&B, Paulette, one of the principal organisers from International 3, the organisation who decided to bring Enkhbold over as part of Asia Tri informed me they were ‘immediately gripped’ after seeing the artist’s work on YouTube (thanks again modern communications!). He also appealed to both her and John (principal no. 2)’s background in performance art, before they moved on to the finer points of administrative art. Enkhbold finished his tea, and moved towards assembling the ger. I was then informed by John that one of the most ‘interesting’ things about Enkhbold is that he ‘fulfills the stereotype’ whilst Tsindi’s work, who is also from Ulaanbaatur, in Mongolia, but is now studying for a PhD in art in Leeds, ‘challenges them’. So far Enkhbold hadn’t fulfilled my stereotypes, but I had not yet seen him perform. He had been engaging and funny on the subject of his work. Perhaps I hadn’t brought along the right prejudices.

Enkhbold was moving about into the courtyard where the performance would be held. We watched him through the window as Paulette and John discussed an (anonymous) critic who had reduced Enkhbold’s artistic pull merely to its “otherness”. On a (possibly) unrelated note, it has been written that “the performance seem in danger of falling into exactly what the ATM is trying to avoid: stereotypicality”. ATM may be trying to avoid stereotypicality, but International 3 don’t seem to be.

Enkhbold at the Undur-Ulaan mountain

The performance was ready to begin. I bundled on my coat and scarf and gloves and moved into the courtyard. A small crowd had gathered, mostly of artists from the studio space of the Mill. Paulette reiterated how “interesting” Enkhbold’s work was. The wooden structure was enclosed by the redbrick mismatched buildings that frame the courtyard. There was some leftover bunting in the far-left corner. The wooden slats of the ger were covered with a plastic translucent tarpaulin and duct tape, as it looked like rain. I began to feel the chill; meanwhile Boldo had stripped to white leggings and nixed the boots. A hush that felt to me like confusion, but probably seemed to others like something different, fell as the artist sat in his ger and swung the large stone that anchored the structure round in clockwise action. Enkhbold then donned a kidskin mask, howling, and doing some form of press-up. Murmurs of deep interest rustled the air. Their concentration was momentarily broken by some loud modern-type reggae emitting from one of the ground-level studios across the way. This was the kind of context that surely the work was all about, what an urban metaphor. My interest suddenly peaked. But other audience members conferred silently as to the correct protocol, and someone was sent rushing to get that racket switched off.
The performance ended with the artist burning something and then inviting us inside the ger to sit and breath in the unfamiliar atmosphere. Tsindi informed us that the burning material was ‘shit’, ‘horse shit’, that is. I sat in the ger; it felt like I should be learning something.

As the surrounding artists discussed how “interesting” the work was, I wondered whether I, like the aforementioned critic simply hadn’t ‘got it’. The discussion and theory is indeed interesting, but this does not art make, and this especially doesn’t carry a performance by itself. The trouble is, within the context and as used contextualiser (ie. Enkhbold), the simple ger structure takes on the guise of signifier to a different way of life, ‘their’ different way of life and its striking opposition between ‘our’ culture, as signified by our complex architecture, is heightened.
It wasn’t art to me. I cannot speak for the other audience members, but I’m pretty sure it is art to Enkhbold. Whether or not we see merely ‘other’ through the performance is, for me, secondary to this.

The mask makes an appearance during the Museum performance

PC: How are you enjoying Manchester, Enkbhold?

ET: [I] like it.

PC: Back home in Mongolia you left a nomadic lifestyle to move to Ulaanbaatar (the capital city) to pursue art. What led you to take that decision?

ET: [I] came to the capital in 1997 first. It was quite a big difference, a big change.
[My] grandfather and uncle had tools for woodcarving, different furniture and the inside of the ger, so it was always available for [me] to use. So maybe it led to, you know, making things.

PC: It seems like the nomadic lifestyle and culture informs a lot of your work. Does it feel like that tradition is still a big part of your life?

ET: [My] parents still live in the countryside, [I] lives in the city but in the ger as well. It’s more kind of travelling ger which we have many of in the city. So it’s very mixed but the nomadic lifestyle is never really far away. Not just from [my] life, and from any Mongolian’s.

PC: So what’s the city like? Is it a mixture of buildings and gers?

It depends on which parts of the city. It has got built up areas of course because of the Communist Era but then we have the outskirts of the city can be like thousands and thousands of gers people live. It is a cheaper way of living.

PC: What’s your aim in presenting your piece; is it personal or perhaps educational?

ET: It’s kind of to continue that tradition of nomadic culture even further: re-enacting those activities of moving from one place to another and connecting with those surroundings. and also connecting with those surroundings and the people I come across when I’m actually doing my pieces.
I’m interested in the contrast between the ger as a structure against the backdrops of other different kinds of architecture. And the idea of actually positioning the ger and documenting that relation between these two structures and attempt to make relation/connection between them. If there is any or if it’s possible.

PC: Do you enjoy the travel your work brings you?

ET: It’s been exciting to travel with my ger because usually we have to be separated at the main luggage; so I think about the ger more than I do about myself.

PC: A sense of relief when you get there!
What is it about city life that propels your work?

ET: People that live in the cities, it’s a very different kind of living. You know here like the city, people …… it’s quite closed.

PC: Yeah, more selfish. Well, more alone.

ET: I’m trying to send this message to remind people of the life that is close to nature,
I feel more connected with my surroundings, perhaps. I feel like I’m kind of sending this message to others but not in a preaching way, just reminding people. Gently.

PC: When was the ger project conceived?

ET: It was in 2008. First I kind of experimented with structure in its place. And then the next phase was to go to Finland so that was the first outing of the structure.

PC: And how has your approach to your work changed over the years, since you studied?

ET: Obviously I studied so I developed my skills. I specialized in painting in my first degree. But since leaving college I’ve seen exhibitions in other people’s work and my approach developed through that. [Most] notably was when I started doing installation work – started to be aware of space and the relation between different structures and different spaces and how we be in that space. Started being interested in that aspect rather than just let’s say making beautiful painting.

PC: Finally, I want to ask you about the Blue Sun group and why you feel it’s important to support emerging artists in your country?

ET: The Blue Sun now has 25 members. Usually they would be graduates from the college, who want to practice art, let’s say contemporary art. Most of the courses we have in Mongolia are very kind of fixed, traditional. Kind of Soviet style. Because the teachers are, usually, from Soviet countries. So the graduate will try to kind of depart from that. To get into more present and contemporary practice. So then they become members and they will be supported – encouraged to make new works and exhibitions and also [helped with] international communications plus exchanges.

PC: Do you think you’ll continue working with the ger for a while?

ET: I have an idea, an initial idea. Hopefully if I come back here again I will want to have a kind of sculptural piece and can come for a slightly longer time. But that’s at the moment just an idea.

(With thanks to Tsendpurev Tsegmid for her translation.)

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