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Who is Ochirbold?

Artist talk by Oyuntuya Oyunjargal

           

Growing up in a family of artisans, Ochirbold's journey into sculpting began with crafting simple clay figures inspired by the divine statues adorning their home. This early experience ignited a passion within him, driving him to explore the potential of art to influence humanity in positive ways. Transitioning from replicating sculptures to creating pieces with deeper meaning, he now focuses on producing works that provoke thought and emotion for the betterment of society.  Ochirbold Ayurzana, an esteemed sculptor will represent Mongolia at the 60th Venice Biennale this year. Since meeting him first in his Ulaanbaatar studio in 2012 I have been accompanying him on his artistic journey for the last decade. With this interview we would like to introduce the artist and individual, Ochirbold.

 

Could we start off a brief introduction?

My name is Ochirbold and I was born in Tumentsogt soum of Sukhbaatar aimag (province) in 1976 and was brought up in a family of artisans along with 10 siblings. Growing up in the Mongolian countryside, I helped my parents with attending the livestock and farming. My parents, Ayurzana Yadam and Tsetsgee Garyad, both come from backgrounds rich in craftsmanship and artistry that instilled in me a passion for art from a young age. Our family origin is Sukhbaatar province with my father coming from Uulbayan and mother from Sukhbaatar soums, respectively. While the eastern provinces of Mongolia are best known for vast steppes, Tumentsogt soum where I grew up is surrounded by mountains offering a unique natural setting. Spending time with my grandparents during school holidays, I steeped in the essence of Mongolian steppe life of a nomad by tending to livestock and helping with daily household chores. It was amidst the rhythm of a herder’s life that I discovered my true self.

 

How did your family influence you to become an artist?

My family's influence has been profound. As a child, I admired the ornate chest in our home—a wedding gift from my grandfather to my parents—containing precious artifacts like sacred figurines and a golden stupa. I fondly recall dusting these treasures and marveling at their beauty. My grandfather's wisdom was apparent: at just five years old, he acquired a unique Mongolian horse-head fiddle (Morin khuur) reminiscent of the god Maidar's mule from the confiscated belongings of the eighth Bogd. Its intricate design captivated me. Today, I cherish only the Morin khuur and a carved wooden stomach from those heirlooms. Growing up surrounded by such inspiring artifacts, I began to emulate and create art myself. Supported by my parents, who also came from artistic backgrounds, I found the confidence to pursue sculpting wholeheartedly.



So, was your first work a physical sculpture?

Yes, although we had a household deity, I was enticed more with sculptures and tangible forms. I began working with clay instead of drawing. I vividly recall crafting a deity named "Rich Namsrai" in my youth. As my interest in art continued to grow, I made a pivotal decision in the ninth grade to leave school. I traveled to capital city of Ulaanbaatar where I successfully passed the entrance exam for the School of Fine Arts. It was a significant transition for a rural boy like me who had never experienced city life, to become a student.

 

In the early 1990s, following the collapse of the socialist Soviet Union, Mongolia faced economic challenges as aid and support ceased. During this period, many families urged their children to pursue practical professions for livelihood. How did your family respond to your decision to pursue a career of an artist in the thick of these circumstances?

Despite the challenging economic conditions of the early 1990s, my family stemming from generations of artists, fully supported my decision. While studying fine arts to sustain myself financially, I began crafting small deities during summer breaks which I sold to outlets frequented by tourists that proved to be a lucrative endeavor. Tuition fees in 1993 were a mere MNT 20,000 equivalent to less than $10 at current exchange rates. I was able to cover my expenses by selling artwork during summers and earning between 40,000 to 60,000 tugriks. Looking back, amidst economic adversity, this period not only provided me with a means of livelihood but also honed my skills in working with materials.

 

How did your teachers at the School of Fine Arts influence your growth as an artist?

Our teacher B. Khiimori was an apprentice of the famous Mongolian sculptor Dashdeleg Luvsantseren who studied large, monumental sculpture, and graduated university in Russia. When I was a student, my teacher was only in his 30s. He was the kind of person who taught with great passion.  "If you want to become an artist or a sculptor, you should do it enormous and strong. If you sculpt to the same size repeatedly, it won't be a sculpture, it will just be a measurement.''  Our fears disappear when we instill in our brains that we need to create a colossal sculpture.

 

Could you explain how your journey has progressed as an artist till today?

I graduated from the School of Fine Arts in 1998, a time when contemporary art was virtually non-existent in Mongolia. Recognizing the shift away from traditional plaster sculptures and nature replication, I embraced modernism. Initially, I explored this path independently, gradually gaining experience by assisting renowned artists on part-time basis. Working alongside professionals allowed me to refine my skills further resulting in a decade-long stint as an assistant to sculptor Bold Luvsan that culminated in contributing to projects like the Chinggis Khaan statue in front of the Government House. In 2009, I embarked on my solo career focusing initially on figurative sculptures until 2013. A pivotal moment occurred in 2014 when I transitioned to abstract works sparked by an installation involving 300 sheep stomachs at the Mongolian Artist's Union exhibition hall. In the end, the stomach linings stunk. It was a “fragrant” installation! This marked the beginning of a new artistic direction, characterized by experimentation and innovation.

 

Do all these characteristics of your province like the presence of archaeological and historical monuments such as stelae in Sukhbaatar and the significance of the 19 sacred mountains, find expression in your artwork?

Sukhbaatar province boasts Altan-Ovoo and Shiliin Bogd revered since 17th century hold significant cultural and spiritual importance. Similarly, Erdene Javkhlant Mountain venerated as a blessing along a historic mound that is considered sacred in Khalkha history of Mongolia. Adjacent to this mound lies Durtoddagva (Citipati), a revered white talisman deity associated with overcoming death, loss, accidents, and theft. This rich cultural narrative serves as inspiration for my upcoming exhibit at La Biennale di Venezia.

 

How do you usually find your creative ideas? How long does it take?

I often spend a considerable amount of time thinking and researching before I find my creative ideas. For example, my first installation which was a stomach (Guzee), stemmed from childhood memories of my grandparents filling and inflating stomachs with clarified butter. This memory led me to research the purpose behind stomach inflation that eventually sparked numerous ideas. I used to approach my work emotionally but now I employ a more systematic approach to my creative process.

 

The title of your work holds significant importance, as it can be interpreted differently both from Asian and European viewpoints. For instance, "Consciousness" may be viewed in a more traditional and philosophical manner from an Asian perspective while from a European standpoint it may be understood through translation as "Would you open your consciousness again?" When naming a work, it's crucial to consider how it resonates with diverse cultural and philosophical backgrounds to convey its essence effectively.

 The title of the artwork showcased at the Venice Biennale is "Discovering the Present from the Future," reflecting the concept that individuals, while living in the present, often contemplate the past as a means to navigate towards the future. This notion suggests a cyclical process where individuals revisit the past to progress towards the future, emphasizing the reciprocity of time and human aspiration.

 

Your works prominently convey two main themes: the urgent concern over climate change and desertification emphasizing the need to cherish the earth and reduce environmental impact for a desired future; and the growing political trend towards dictatorships and the emergence of populist leaders globally intertwined with issues such as globalization, refugees, and migration. Despite these broad themes, why did you specifically select Durtoddagva (Citipati) as the figure for your work?

 The concept is remarkable steeped in legends and tales. It revolves around two exceedingly greedy and thieving brothers whose actions led them to face a divine decree. God forbade their ascent to heaven from the intermediate realm unless they discarded all stolen possessions. Stripping themselves of everything even muscles taken unlawfully, they departed the intermediate world as mere skeletons. This narrative, imagining stolen goods nourishing stolen muscles, culminates in the divine transformation of the brothers into guardians against theft and deceit.

 

My artistic interpretation of this concept centers on Durtoddagva, a skeletal figure with three eyes. This creation, comprising over 300 parts including limbs and joints, embodies the journey of enlightenment. Each joint bears the likeness of Durtoddagva representing evolution towards divinity. The symbolism extends to the skull of a three-eyed deity with two-eyed for humans and one-eyed possibly signifying hell. This amalgamation of skeletal elements prompts diverse interpretations ranging from enlightenment to political commentary.

 

What is the origin of the concept "Consciousness"?

 The concept of "Consciousness" originates from the notion of living in harmony with one's surroundings. It is deeply rooted in the lifestyle and values observed by my grandparents' generation where living simple without greed was paramount. Witnessing their nomadic cultural consciousness, characterized by a sustainable way of life, inspired me to reflect on the importance of ethical living. This contemplation led to the inception of the "Consciousness" theme which now permeates through all my artistic endeavors. The initial sketches for this concept began in 2013, spurred by a desire to encapsulate and explore the essence of a mindful living in my work.


As an artist, is there any work that is special to you?

For me as an artist, one particular work holds deep significance for me. It's not a traditional piece of art but rather a cherished memory from my childhood. My grandmother had a unique talent for inflating stomach tripe, a practice I recall from my youth. In our home there was a stomach tripe adorned with a self-sustaining stick, a symbol of our nomadic lifestyle. Today, all I have left from those memories are a carved wooden stomach tripe and a horse-head fiddle. While these may not hold monetary value, they are priceless to me as they represent the essence of nomadic culture and evoke cherished memories of simpler times.

 

In recent years, large-scale works have emerged from you in Mongolia. However, the Biennale Arte 2024 will showcase your works on a relatively small area of ​​100 square meters. What significance does space hold for you as an artist?

Space is important for all artists. Even for an ordinary person. Humanity lives by perceiving boundless space. In Mongolia, we live in the endless steppes. For an artist, the first thing that comes to my mind is how to "utilize" this space. When more than 30 "Consciousness" works were brought to the Gobi and placed there, the pieces came to life as if they had always been there. I was happy to see it. Similarly, I contemplate arranging a large sculpture in a small space in Venice. Space is an integral part of art. From the beginning, this work was designed to be arranged in any space.

 

What significance does the Biennale Arte hold for an artist? How did you feel when you were selected as a participant artist?

Participation in the Biennale Arte 2024 is a tremendous honor providing a global platform to showcase an artistic talent from Mongolia. I approach this opportunity with a profound sense of responsibility and gravitas with a mixed feeling of excitement, gratitude, and pride upon my selection. It's not just a recognition of my work but also an opportunity to represent my country's artistic community on the world stage. Collaborating with esteemed colleagues and curators like you, Oyuntuya and Gregor Jansen further amplifies my enthusiasm as we strive to deliver a remarkable performance and leave a meaningful impact at the Biennale.


What do you imagine after April 18, 2024? How do you see your future?

In the future regardless of success or failure, I remain an artist. That is the truth. I didn't go to the Biennale Arte to win an award, nor did I go there to not win one. I simply want to create works that contribute to the human spirit of the future. The time when I created works from the old memories of my life is over. I am now addressing a global theme that appeals to greater humanity. As for the theme, it could continue from "Consciousness" to "Discovering the Present from the Future", "Man is not abundant on the earth", and "Discovery of Consciousness".

 

The Venice Biennale will be open to experts from April 16 to 19, and to the public after the 20th. So, how do you think professionals, journalists, critics, and viewers will receive your work?

Since everyone holds their unique perspective, I hope viewers embrace this artwork based on their initial feelings without necessarily seeking immediate understanding. Afterwards, they can interpret it through personal reflection by allowing everyone to perceive it in their own way. With its blend of nomadic and modern influences, my work is inherently hybrid inviting diverse interpretations. Therefore, I believe it should be embraced with an open imagination that allows for varied readings that may diverge from the intended concept.

 

As an artist residing in Mongolia and showcasing your art in Europe, what differences do you perceive between Mongolia and Europe?

The beautiful art we create today in Mongolia is comparable to what European artists accomplished 200 or 300 years ago. This highlights the vast developmental gap in art between our regions. Art and science are intertwined, but in Mongolia there's a tendency to prioritize material needs over artistic pursuits. However, I believe we've overlooked the importance of art in fostering intellectual and personal growth. Developed countries excel in understanding themselves and we must emphasize the need for Mongolia to strive for intellectual, artistic, and scientific progress.

 

Is your primary aim as an artist a global recognition or ensuring understanding among the Mongolian audience? How are you progressing towards achieving this goal?

First and foremost, I prioritize pleasing myself. Achieving self-satisfaction is paramount before seeking validation from others. I dedicate my full effort and focus to each artwork I create, regardless of when or how it's received by audiences and professionals alike. What matters most to me is creating a space that resonates with people and fulfills their needs.


What awaits you after Venice?

Following Venice, NordArt awaits me. My initial encounter with Europe began at NordArt where I received my first audience award. This event holds significant value to me and has undoubtedly influenced my artistic journey. Subsequently, I will be participating in Düsseldorf followed by the Asia-Pacific Triennials.

 

Thank you for the conversation.

 

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