When you think of Mongolia, contemporary art is not the first thing that comes to mind.
However, the country has its own vibrant spaces to display art. Mongolian artists explore modern art, fashion, literature, and the visual arts from all over the world, sometimes mixing them with their own traditional art forms. Most of these contemporary artists live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, which is home to nearly half of the people who inhabit this vast country of three million people.
Ulaanbaatar is famous for its rural districts where traditional ger (Mongolian yurt) are concentrated on the edge of the steppe. Its inhabitants are drawn to a new wealth driven in large part by the mining industry. But the rapid development of Ulaanbaatar also created new social divisions, along with dangerous levels of pollution that earned the capital a bad name. This commercial prosperity also created an ultramodern urban landscape similar to that of Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing.
This is precisely what the Mongolian photographer Kush Zorigt aims to capture in his photographs with which he documents the urban landscape, the urban experience and its inhabitants.
The interview was edited for brevity.
Filip Noubel (FN): You are a multifaceted artist who started out as a traditional musician, then as a jazz musician and singer, then as a journalist and now you are a photographer. Why did you choose photography?
Kush Zorigt (KZ): I am on a journey of self-exploration. I found photography to be much closer to myself. I was not a visual person initially, I wasn't drawn to films or photography and had little knowledge when studying music. I did explore a new genre with jazz, but I grew up in a traditional family: my parents are professors of classical Mongolian music, my younger brother is a composer, and I was trained for years to play the morin khuur, our traditional stringed instrument. When I started working as a journalist, I was interested in covering the arts, so about six years ago, I interviewed people working in fashion. Three years ago, I moved to another media outlet, working on photo essays as an editor, and part of my job involved hiring photographers. This is when I realized the impact of visual art. So two and a half years ago I bought a camera, trained myself, and last year I started thinking about storytelling with photos.
Kush Zorigt (KZ): I embarked on a journey of self-exploration. I discovered that photography is much more like me. Initially, I was not a visual person, I was not attracted to movies or photography and I had little knowledge of it when I was studying music. I explored a new genre with jazz, but I grew up in a traditional family: my parents are Mongolian classical music teachers, my younger brother is a composer, and I took lessons for years to learn to play the morin juur, our traditional string instrument. When I started working as a journalist, I became interested in reporting on the arts, so about six years ago I interviewed people who worked in the world of fashion. Three years ago, I moved to another media outlet where I worked as a photo essay editor and part of my job also consisted of hiring photographers. It was there that I realized the impact of visual art. So two years ago I bought a camera, got training, and last year I started thinking about telling stories with photographs.
FN: Your current exhibition at Red Ger Creative Space in Ulaanbaatar explores the themes of winter and urban pollution. Could you describe your relationship with the city?
KZ: I wanted to focus on three things with this photo essay in five parts, which was inspired by the music of the contemporary German-British composer Max Richter. The first is beauty: I want to seek out beauty in the city throughout the year. Except for the short summer, Ulaanbaatar is quite dark, but there is something behind these images of long and cold winters that last four to six months. Winter is interesting because the air is thick, and really really cold, down to minus 40 degrees Celsius sometimes. I wanted to show that light and cold blue that I portray in some of my photos. I want people to feel it.
The pollution and chaos is another thing. The pollution comes from the Ger district (most people use coal to survive the winter inside their tents – ed.) Around the city and from too many cars. Last year the pollution situation did improve, but the city is still overpopulated, which is something we have gotten used to and now see as normal. Thus that's something we somehow fail to see, so I want to portray that as well. I made a conscious choice of excluding the Ger district, because it has its own narrative, and I want to tell another story about this city. The more time passes, the closer the city becomes for me.
KZ: I wanted to focus on three things with this five-part photo essay, which was inspired by the music of Max Richter, a contemporary German and English composer. The first is beauty: I want to discover beauty in the city in the course of the year. Except for the short summer, Ulaanbaatar is quite dark, but there is something behind those images of long, cold winters lasting four to six months. Winter is interesting because the air is dense and very cold, sometimes reaching -40 degrees Celsius. I wanted to show that cold and light melancholy that I portray in some of my photographs. I want people to feel it.
Pollution and chaos are something else. The pollution stems from the Ger district (N.E. most people use coal to survive the winter inside their tents) that surrounds the city and the circulation of too many cars. In 2019, the pollution situation improved, but the city is still overcrowded. This is something we have gotten used to and now we see as normal. So it's something that we somehow can't notice, so I want to portray that as well. I made the deliberate decision to exclude the Ger district because it has its own narrative, and I want to tell another story about this city. As more time passes, the city becomes closer to me.
FN: An important part of your photographic work, which can also be seen on your Instagram account, deals with the body and gender identity. Can you tell us more about this work and how it is perceived in Mongolia?
KZ: Queerness is not something I can articulate well in words, it is much easier to do in pictures. For me they are a more natural way of describing it. I am indeed more interested in portraying male bodies and portraits. In the photoessay called Spring, there is an expression of queerness: there are five young, vulnerable, pure, blooming young men who are also blind (they are blindfolded in the photos – ed.) And hidden.
They don't know they are blooming, which is a reference to my personal story of hiding and showing.
I also work as a fitness trainer: I wanted to have this type of body, so I trained for 10 years, then studied to become a personal trainer. I also want to have a professional and scientific approach to this line of work. But I noticed that people are intimidated by overall masculine photos, which is a feeling I share. So I thought of giving a different image of health and fitness, something much friendlier. So my photos I use to promote my work as a fitness trainer are also much more on the artistic side.
KZ: Homosexuality is not something you can express well with words, it is much easier to do it through photographs. For me they are the most natural way to describe it. Actually I'm more interested in portraying male bodies and portraits. In the photographic essay called Primavera, there is an interpretation of homosexuality: five vulnerable and pure young people appear in full swing of life with their faces hidden (N. del E .: in the photographs they appear with their faces covered).
They do not know that they are in full swing of life, which is a reference to my personal history of hide and show.
I also work as a physical trainer: I wanted to have this type of body so I trained for 10 years. Then I prepared to become a personal trainer. Additionally, I wish to have a professional and scientific approach in this line of work. But I did notice that people are intimidated when viewing male photos in general, which is a sentiment that I share. Therefore, I thought of offering a different image of health and fitness, something kinder. So the photos that I use to promote my work as a fitness coach are much more artistic.
FN: The general perception that the outside world has of Mongolia is that it is an isolated country squeezed between two giants, Russia and China. How does this location influence the development of contemporary art, be it visual, interpretive or any other form?
KZ: We shared a lot with China until the early 20th century, in our culture, music, architecture, and history. From our 1921 independence to the 1990 democratic revolution, we lived under a strongly Soviet-style system with a clear ideology, but it helped us advance in (western) classical music. Those two neighbors certainly impacted us culturally. Now we have had a 30 year period of democracy in which we are still trying to define our cultural identity. Today we have jazz which attracts international performers and researchers alike. It's something very new. We have photography classes. But photography as an urban art is very new: most Mongolian professionals are landscape, wedding, or fashion photographers. Now we have a new wave (in photography) thanks to Instagram, so if you check the hashtags of #instameetulaanbaatar or #ubeveryday, you will see a lot of photos. This is why I want to focus on artistic photography. Last year I worked on a short film, and I want to focus on urban stories, on world citizenship, and hope to show my work outside Mongolia too.
KZ: We shared many aspects with China until the beginning of the 20th century in regards to our culture, music, architecture and history. From our independence in 1921 until the democratic revolution of 1990, we lived under a system with a strong Soviet influence that had a defined ideology, but that helped us to progress in classical (Western) music. Those two neighbors certainly influenced us on a cultural level. We have now experienced a period of democracy for 30 years in which we continue to try to define our cultural identity. Now, we have jazz that attracts international performers and researchers alike. It is something very recent. We have photography classes. But photography as street art is still something of a novelty: most professional Mongolian photographers are in the business of photographing landscapes, weddings or fashion. Now we have a new influx (in photography) thanks to Instagram, so if you search for the tags #instameetulaanbaatar or #ubeveryday, you will see a lot of photographs. That is why I want to focus on fine art photography. Last year I worked on a short film, and I want to focus on urban stories, global citizenship and I hope to show my work outside of Mongolia as well
Follow Kush Zorigt's Instagram account here.