Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Exploring art in Ulan Bator

The Monastery-Museum of Choijin Lama is a storehouse of jaw-dropping papier, mache masks and elegant bronze sculptures. (Sources: China Daily/Chitralekha Basu )

BEIJING, June 26 (Xinhuanet) -- At the heart of Ulan Bator is an art-lover's paradise waiting to be discovered. Chitralekha Basu looks beyond the usual tourist draws and finds a trove of art and culture around the city's central square.

If you stood in front of Sukhbaatar Batbold's now cellophane-wrapped statue in Ulan Bator's central square and drew a circle with a 1-kilometer radius, you would be at the hub of a never-ending exhibition.

Granted, most of Ulan Bator's potential tourist lures - from the Roman-style colonnaded buildings often colored an unlikely shade of dark peach to the multi-tiered pagoda-roofed monasteries - are located right here, but the volume and variety of art on display is truly extraordinary.

The best part of visiting UB's arts hub is that the intense concentration of thangka paintings, appliqu panels showing menacing mythological gods, bejeweled bronze sculptures, quaint hunting tools and masks and costumes worn traditionally by tsam dancers seems inversely proportional to the number of eager connoisseurs.

Miles and miles of art objects stand solemnly in unpeopled galleries. Even the staff, supposed to be looking out for the chance visitor, is hardly ever seen. But don't let that give you ideas. A warren of closed circuit cameras is tracking your moves, just in case you thought of clicking a shot or two on the sly and not paying the fee (see box).

First up on the list is Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, by far the most representative collection of Mongolian art, from prehistoric granite sculptures to early 20th-century landscapes by the legendary Mongolian painter B Sharav (1869-1939).

Top: A relief on the National Museum of Mongolian History, a place to sample the whole story of Mongolia's evolution. Bottom: Applique images of the Buddha are a staple of the Zanabazar Museum.

Sharav's One Day in Mongolia, an almost cinematic documentation of Mongolian social life in the 19th-century, is astounding in terms of the sheer range of landscapes it manages to collapse into one frame. From forests to walled cities to agricultural patches to the dunes in the Gobi; from wedding processions to childbirth to shamanistic dances - this painting presents nomadic Mongolia in a nutshell.

Among other top draws is a collection of bronze sculptures of various incarnations of the Buddha crafted by the legendary Zanabazar (1635-1723) himself. The first spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, and also one of its finest artists, is credited with initiating a renaissance by integrating creative excellence, scholarly pursuits and spirituality.

In his hands, the various figures of the Buddha, wearing elaborate ornaments and a diaphanous cloth around the loins as he sits in meditation, assume an almost effeminate charm - serene, composed and compassionate.

A stone's throw away, to the northwest corner of Sukhbaatar Square, is the National Museum of Mongolian History.

One would probably need at least two days to sample the whole story of Mongolia's evolution, from the Stone Age to its liberation from Soviet Russia in 1990, given the painstakingly detailed nature of the show.

For example, the entire second floor is dedicated to gorgeous traditional Mongolian costumes, in dramatically different styles for its more than 20 ethnic groups, replete with heavy layering, appliqu and turquoise and coral embroidered sleeves and yokes.

The Mongolian craftsmen's penchant for intricate detailing in objects of everyday use is evident in the saddles, boots with upturned toes and horse-headed violins. The funkiest among these is the traditional wrestling gear - a blue embroidered brief paired with a three-quarter sleeved cropped bolero jacket in magenta.

The Winter Palace of Bogd Khan is 2.5 km south of the epicenter of this arts hub, but there's no way you can ignore this repository of ceremonial weaponry, lacquer furniture, bronze sculptures, silk appliqus and sutras, if you're into Tibetan-Buddhist art.

Bogd Khan (1869-1924), one of the most influential religious and political leaders in Mongolian history, ostentatiously lined his ger or yurt (cylindrical felt-lined tent) with the coat of 150 snow leopards, and would conduct his business sitting on a mantle layered with 80 fox skins. These excesses aside, he was also a connoisseur and collector of Mongolian art from the 17th to early 20th century, including some of the finest gilt-bronze works by Zanabazar.

The collection in the Monastery-Museum of Choijin Lama to the southeast of Sukhbaatar Square is tilted somewhat towards the quirky and the bizarre. If intimidating papier-mache masks embellished with an intense weaving of corals, miniature skulls and horsehair and elegant bronze sculptures of gods locked in intimate embraces with their consorts appeal to you, this is probably your scene.

The grandiose throne of Choijin Lama, who was the state oracle and Bogd Khan's brother, is an obvious attraction. However, it's the mysterious bronze figures, like the one in the Yadam temple who appears with a pulley in one hand and a bleeding human skull in the other, that always to baffle.

A slice of the vibrant contemporary art scene in Ulan Bator could be sampled at the Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery in the Culture Palace and the Union of Mongolian Artists' Art Center across the road from National Academic Drama theatre.

A slew of art galleries in and around Baruun Selbe Street exhibit and sell images done in oil, watercolor and felt. As the Ulan Bator skyline morphs and mutates, with snazzy malls and futuristic chrome-and-glass structures towering over European architecture, pagoda roofs and the ger districts, the city's artists are eager to record the transition.

And for the traveler stopping by, it is a rare chance to witness exhibitions and works in progress.

(Source: China Daily)

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