When I went to Google Maps to see how long it would take to get to Mongolia, the app could not calculate – not by bus, not by car, not walking, cycling, even plane. When I simply Googled the distance, I learned it is 6,426 miles from New Jersey. That’s more than twice the distance across the United States. A site called Travel Math calculates it would take 13.9 hours to fly from Newark to Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia is really far away! That could explain why its climate catastrophe is not top of mind for most of us here in the Garden State.
On the other hand, if you are reading this, chances are it’s less than two hours to William Peterson’s Ben Shahn Galleries, where Sierra of Creation is on view through December 3. The exhibition, organized by Art Space 976 (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), features video and multimedia installations by contemporary Mongolian artists who are looking at the impacts of climate change on people and landscapes.
Gallery view of “Sierra of Creation” at William Patterson University Galleries
Mongolia is drier and hotter than it was 80 years ago, scientists have found. According to Mongolia's Information and Research Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment, the country's annual mean temperature has increased 2.2 degrees Celsius (nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1940 – much faster than the global average. In that same period, precipitation has decreased by 10 percent. Degraded rangeland has led to massive livestock loss, resulting in a migration from rural Mongolia to urban areas such as Ulaanbaatar, as well as to Russia, the Czech Republic, and South Korea.
It’s not often we get to 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 the artists and intellectuals alike, marking it as a cultural hub of Ulaanbaatar,” representing the most influential and renowned contemporary artists of Mongolia. These artists participate in such international exhibitions as the Venice Biennale, Documenta, Shanghai Biennale, and Asia Pacific Triennial.
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 studying interactions between the climate, humans, and ecosystems of Mongolia’s Tarvagatai River Valley in 2019. Archaeologists examined lifestyles and traditions of early nomadic populations by inspecting and analyzing material culture recovered through an archeological survey and excavation. Paleoclimate scientists gathered environmental data through tree-ring analysis, lake cores, and pollen studies.
Bat-Erdene Batchuluun, Empty, 2019, video with sound, 3:10 minutes, image courtesy of the artist.
The project was initiated by Nicole Davi, a William Paterson University professor of environmental science seeking to spread public understanding of her research, and received funding from the National Science Foundation.
“Even though this body of work is based on research conducted in the distant Bulgan Province of Mongolia, it prompts us to draw parallels across cultures and nations,” Davi says. “Sub-arctic regions including Mongolia have experienced rates of warming that are so far unprecedented. Similarly, New Jersey is experiencing rising temperatures and increasing rainfall.”
Photograph of scientists and artists studying a Bronze Age stone monument site, Tarvagatai Valley, Mongolia, 2019, image courtesy William Gardner.
One of the goals of the project is to restore lifeways and traditions of early pastoral populations at Tarvagatai Valley, studying ephemeral campsites and household structures of early nomads. Davi, an arts enthusiast, collaborates with artists to communicate the excitement of scientific explorations with diverse audiences.
In “The Wind of Time,” a short video (under two minutes) by Munkhbolor Ganbold, the soundtrack alone is captivating, a sort of chanting, like an old familiar voice from a visceral past trying to reach us. We see a pulsating sea of faces that come in and out of focus, though never sharp, and morph into other faces. It’s as if generations of families are traveling through time, all trying to tell the same story, the quintessential story of humankind.
Munkhbolor Ganbold, The Wind of Time, 2019, video with sound, 1:30 minutes, image courtesy of the artist.
In addition to the 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 any time of history.
Gallery namesake and WPA-era artist Ben Shahn was known for his interest social justice, labor movements, and the plight of the working person, and would think it important to call out climate justice had he lived today, speculates interim Gallery Director Casey Mathern.
“The dissolution of labor unions, the welfare of workers, human rights – these are the issues he was grappling with in the wake of the great depression,” she says. “Watching the data and graphics coming out of COP26, we see that only a few nations are producing most of the greenhouse gases that result in a rise in global temperatures. Yet these are not the nations that will feel the brunt – it’s the global north that will feel the effects of rising sea levels.
Siberia is such a precarious environment. The nomadic groups are given no choice but to leave behind the lifestyles they’ve have for centuries – these are human rights. Ben Shahn would have looked at the power imbalance of industrial countries running unchecked.”
Tuguldur Yondonjamts, Structural Observation of the Valley of Marmots, 2019, video with sound, 11:09 minutes, image courtesy of the artist.
How can artists and scientists work together to have an impact, while politicians make little progress?
“The kind of learning that visitors can have in a gallery, or an aquarium or zoo, shows that you don’t have to be in a classroom, you don’t need a syllabus to reflect on the world around you,” says Mathern. “What Nicole Davi has achieved is a hybrid space, where we can talk about scientific discoveries and data, along with timeless issues such as preservation and loss and family. Artists and scientists are not that different in what they are trying to do -- both have stumbled upon something similar. The magic of exhibitions is that they put people and ideas in the same space.”
Gallery hours for Ben Shahn Center for the Visual Arts at William Paterson University, 300 Pompton Road in Wayne, are Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. On-site tours are available upon request. To help ensure a safe, comfortable experience, all gallery visitors will be required to wear a mask, provide contact information, and social distance. Admission is free and open to the public.
Photos in header include gallery view of Sierra of Creation, as well as a photograph of exhibiting artists Tuguldur Yondonjamts, Munkhbolor Ganbold, and Bat-Erdene Batchuluun (left to right) in the field, each holding cross-section specimens collected from fallen Siberian larch trees, Tarvagatai Valley, Mongolia, 2019, image courtesy Mukund Palat Rao.