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<nettime> Touch the Blue Sky
Brian Holmes on Sun, 17 Aug 2014 08:51:36 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Touch the Blue Sky

[ I'm "on the lam" in Mongolia - with a biennial after my own heart, first time. BH ]

Touch the Blue Sky:
Land Art for the 21st Century



The soil of the steppe is a light ocher yellow, soft, friable, almost powdery in your hand. Although this is the rainy season still the ground is parched, without any trace of what I could perceive as moisture. The prairie grasses have woven the tiny alluvial particles into a dense mat, like earthen felt, interlaced with fine invisible roots to a depth of around four inches, perhaps more in some places. The tip of the iron crowbar that I found in the marketplace cuts through this grassy carpet like a dull knife, requiring several blows. I work the bar back and forth, pulling up clumps of soil that burst free of the roots and spill in ocher rivulets on the green carpet. Then I hurl the bar once again into that small hole. This time it strikes the rock with a loud clang.

We both laugh. It's hilarious. I and my companion, Claire Pentecost, came here to the Orkhon Valley as part of Land Art Mongolia 360 - or rather, she came as part of the biennial, and I as her assistant. Claire's idea was to dig a large hole, around three and half feet deep, such that a person sitting in it would see a horizon bifurcated into the conventional landscape, above, and the structure of the soil, below. You would see the nutritive part of the land, the rhizosphere, the deep roots of above-ground existence. But what became obvious as we awoke and ventured out of our guest-house yurt is that here on the valley floor, such soil as has gained a foothold is draped lightly over a tremendous lava flow. What we encountered as we walked around were not deep alluvions accumulated over centuries, but immense basaltic bones of the earth. Not the rich humus of a primeval prairie, but a rock of ages barely covered by the pastures of nomadic herds.

Just below where we sleep, the river rushes through a sculpted canyon. Endless green vistas open up all around us: the plains roll away into distant hills and far-off peaks. Everywhere in our immediate environment the grassy carpet is stippled with dark black boulders, half covered in gray-white lichen. Clang goes the iron bar - we won't be digging here! Or maybe not in the way we expected. But we're already dreaming of something else, many other things.

We walk along the edge of the cliff, through delicate biomes composed of grasses, succulent plants and olive green shrubs clinging closely to the ground, plus occasional taller weeds whose urticating hairs will sting you with a vengeance. In a pool of bright green pasturage we come across a few white puffballs, testimony to some recent rain. The traces of livestock are everywhere. Marmot-like rodents run through the jumbled stones. A small tree with dark green foliage grows directly from a rocky face: its trunk climbs upward at ninety degrees, its leaves are spangled with crimson berries. At its base, nestled in a pile of small stones, were a number of 10 tugrik notes, offerings to the spirit of the place. We will be lucky here, I thought, slipping another note between the stones.

Zigor wants to paint a horse blue. Hermione has a map to find a nomad family. Andra is wearing a bone in her hair. Chris is at work on some elaborate equine performance, with poles, pails and a traditional violin. They're mostly young artists, with wild dreams. And I'm an old wolf, out for another run on the territory. Last night when the bus got a flat, just before our arrival, I walked through chill wind to a point where nothing man-made could be seen: open land without an owner, for hundreds of miles. Now, after the morning on the green carpet with the clanging rocks, Claire and I feel that distance opening up in ourselves. A chance ray of sunlight on a blade of grass is an invitation to experiment.


This morning we hiked beyond the tree line, to touch the Blue Sky.

From the valley floor, the rivulets that drain the hillsides look like zigzags etched faintly into green. We strike out from the camp across the road, watching a solitary man on horseback as he fords the river. High above, on the right-hand side of the mountain slope, one can glimpse a brown, white and black jumble of grazing goats and sheep. Beneath our feet the grass is uniformly clipped at a height of about two inches. There's an extraordinary smoothness to such a space, both for the eye and the human hoof. At times I feel as though we were rising on an updraft, a cushion of air. But as you come closer, those faint rivulets turn out to be steep canyons lined with tumbling stones. We climb higher to avoid the deep ravine; and suddenly the flock is just above us, then at our backs as we move into the dry stream bed. Shortly after crossing, I notice the difference. Now there are foot-high clumps of wiry grass, along with aromatic plants, flowers on the stem, butterflies and blue-ball thistles.

Claire and I have hit on an attitude: the Naturalist Without a Book (and even better, without the Internet). We will look at the life around us, touch it, smell it, try to get to know it without the reassurance of a genus, a family or a species. Cameras might replace pencils; but for once, they won't replace perception. What's the destination of that giant beetle lumbering underfoot? Look how the rusty orange lichen seems to favor those flat rocks exposed like solar panels, facing due west. The stridulent grasshoppers are mottled yellow and green; but they reveal intensely red underbellies when they fly. And the grasses themselves have now changed entirely: thick, diverse, overflowing and crowned with seeds. No animals grazing here, these must be the winter pastures. Now the ravine we've been skirting is just a shallow crease on the hillside, a deep wet green, but without any pools. We cross it, reveling in bright fronds that almost reach our chests.

A stand of forest presents an entirely different texture of soil: dark, with traces of moisture and patches of clinging moss. Fallen branches rot into the forest humus. A tiny wild strawberry releases an exquisite burst of flavor; it goes on echoing in a lingering perfume. Tufts of wool cling to the bark of the coniferous trees. The sheep were here, but in another season. Birdsong floats like natural laughter from some invisible colloquy of the winged.

It's too hot; the flies buzz at our ears. We rest on exposed roots, looking down into the Orkhon Valley where the glittering river disappears, then emerges once again from the dark basaltic lava flows. Small clusters of white gers - nomads' yurts - are dispersed at five or ten-mile intervals, always where the grass grows brighter along the banks. The river recedes into atmospheric distance. Canyons snake through the alluvial fans at the mountains' feet. Beyond them, huge ranges cascade upwards in a subtle symphony of changing hues, closing this vast panorama with the certainty that beyond what we can see, other rivers flow through other pastures filled with other herds, watched over by other nomads camped in clusters of gers whose endless dispersal defines the heartland of Eurasia - the once and future pivot of human history.

It's right there, before us, below us, stretched out to infinity and dizzyingly green: the vastness of the steppe, the horseman's magic carpet, the generative matrix of the Mongol empire.


The nomad lives within felt walls, eats milk products, slaughtered meat and wild game, drinks airak (fermented mare's milk), rides horses and listens when the shamans sing. Mounted and armed with a powerful bow, he moves fluidly through a sustaining sea of grass. Born to immensity, he uses coded gestures to communicate with fellow clansmen, far beyond the reach of voices lost on the wind. Bound together, drunk with speed, the nomads ride with fierce intent when honor calls or plunder beckons; but in the face of sudden treachery or overwhelming force, the knot of horsemen bursts apart and the one becomes many again, fleeing in all directions. Concentration; dispersal. Strategies of attack, spoils of victory, murderous revenge: such were the warring clans, since time immemorial.

Temujin, who would become Genghis Khan, was a man of no particular birth, just as the Mongols were one tribe among many. His powers sprang from the steppe, the generative matrix. As victory led to victory he began transforming his people, effecting basic changes in society's traditional pattern. Loyalties bound to place and family were unleashed into new, more mobile forms. Defeated aristocrats were not held for ransom, but slaughtered without remorse, or integrated by marriage to the new order. Commoners were extricated from lineage and clan, and inducted into new military units of ten, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand: perfectly articulated battalions where rank was based on merit and loot was divided equally. Released from internal struggles, the fluid circulation of horsemen would expand into a Eurasian empire.

As the khanate grew - ultimately stretching from southern China to northern Russia - the new emperor instituted a written language, a standardized monetary system and a universal code of law, recorded in blue-bound books (noms). Siege engines and explosives revolutionized the art of battle. A sophisticated postal service kept pace with surging events. Continental supply lines brought riches to the steppe. Each fresh conquest swelled the ranks of craftsmen, engineers, scholars and administrators, enlightening the Mongols who knew only how to herd, make war and take the spoils. When further campaigns were launched, advance guards were sent to clear away the flocks for months in advance, freeing the pasturage on which mounted warfare depended. After leaving the subjugated cities, horsemen would trample the surrounding fields, destroy the irrigation works and scatter the peasantry, extending the smooth space of the steppe, the generative matrix. Not a sword but a blade of grass: that's the source of what Deleuze and Guattari called "the nomadic war machine."

Nomads always run the risk of sedentarization, as any visit to Ulaanbaatar proves. Still, the two philosophers of May ‘68 believed they could separate nomadic intensities from the military-legal State, which had taken on such vast dimensions in their lifetimes. Nomadism looks great; but we are closer to the ancient Mongol empire than we think. In Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford compares the empire of the steppe and the war machines of the mid-twentieth century. As he writes: "The Mongol army would push out in all directions; it would divide and attack the Sung dynasty and Europe simultaneously. The Mongol army would fight campaigns that would stretch it out over more than one hundred degrees of latitude, a feat unmatched by any army until World War II, when the United States and the Allies fought campaigns simultaneously in Europe and in Asia." The modern world is the child of those terrifying campaigns. Let's not idealize the nomadic war machine. The US military in its total fusion with the legitimate democratic state was personified by the renegade general Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to sear the Korean border with a corridor of nuclear blasts.

Crucial to this military capacity were the mobilities of the Air Force, from British dogfights with the Luftwaffe to today's orbital satellites - a control grid in the ultimate smooth space. As Nazi jurist and political theologian Carl Schmitt observed in the postwar years, it was US air power that finally overcame the old Westphalian order based on territorial sovereignty. Airborne power projection in the multi-theater operations of World War II opened up an era of ubiquitous American interventionism, which Schmitt saw as an original form of world order - an entirely new principle of universal law, a "Nomos of the Earth." The empire of the Mongols, reborn as an atomic war machine.

I place one foot after another, remembering childhood days in the 1960s. Unthinkingly we'd go down with the other thrill-seeking citizens to Moffet Field, just south of San Francisco. There you'd watch that crack squad of Air Force daredevils, what were they called? Yes, the Blue Angels. A phalanx of jets spirals up from the ground, executing synchronized double-flips and wing rolls, with smoke streaming out red, white and blue. Then suddenly the tight-knit group explodes and scatters, each jet peeling off in its own direction. Until one fine day when one of those jets literally exploded, raining shattered steel on the assembled spectators...

This reverie has veered into hallucination. Now we're on the high ridge: the land that no one owns stretches wide for 360 degrees. You can see the soft wooded valleys where the nomads winter with their herds, within felt walls cinched tight against the cold. But hours have passed on this walk, we're hot and thirsty and half exhausted. It's time to head back down to our own ger camp on the black lava flows.

When we got there, Zigor had already painted the horses. Eight of them tethered tranquilly to a line, an otherworldly vision of blue on green.


Now other works start coming out: colors, forms, feelings, gestures in the landscape. Over the next few days a whole parade of dreams will be fulfilled - or attempted anyway.

I'm fascinated with the piece by Batkholboo Dugarsuren, laid out on a circular patch left behind by a vanished ger. It's the raw materials of inhabitation, in the shape of a monumental horse: bed, felt, poles, canvas, rugs, stools, cupboards, saddle - plus the disassembled parts of a two-cylinder motorcycle engine, arrayed on a brightly painted table. Nomadic mobility at a standstill, pure potential. Further down the river is the work by Dulguun Baatarsukh, still unfinished. A spiral of white bones circles around a sharp basalt rock; a line of small stones connects the spiral to a standing slab, on which a double tunic is hung, sleeves outstretched. One half is shredded blue fabric; the other is simple burlap, unadorned. Life is like the clothes we wear, Dulguun tells me, her bright orange fingernails flashing in the sun. Death, she says, is the change of one garment for another.

What can be done with a biennial? This one is young, a bit wild, not fully defined or integrated. The story of Land Art Mongolia began when a large festival, planned for Ulanbataar, was canceled. Marc Schmitz had received funding for a monumental public work on the central square, and his backers suggested that he should realize it anyway. Doing so meant negotiating with the Mongolian officials, seeking help from the local arts community, finding some familiarity with a very foreign place. The friendships that resulted were their own reward. If all that could be achieved, why not something more?

What has emerged from the visions of Marc and his wife, Dolgor Ser-Od, is a "walking museum" bringing artists to remote sites in the Gobi Desert, for the first two editions, and now to the Orkhon Valley. Performances and cultural exchanges are mixed with earth works, pictorial experiments and contextual installations. The aim is to renew the classic forms of Land Art, which was launched with monumental gestures by Americans in the 1960s. Yet there is something more than this explicit aim. Between the lines, you can read a pretty strong desire to push beyond the limits of what Friedrich Schiller long ago called "the aesthetic state."

In Europe and around the world, biennials have become a very normalized experience. Take the plane, check into the hotel, meet the curator and realize the piece. Sometimes you stay a week or two, sometimes only a weekend, or maybe you just phone it in. If you're lucky, you'll appear in the specialized magazines. That's integrated transnational nomadism, with FedEx and credit card. Artistic imagination in a fancy playground, complete with monitors and controls.

I feel a different style on this venture. You take a bus over unpaved roads, sleep in a yurt, share mare's milk and vodka with the locals. It's not about survivalism or going native, but there's no art stars or prima donnas, no A-lists, special budgets or hidden hierarchies. There's no contract, waiver or disclaimer, no insurance either. In fact there's no audience, at least not while you're out on the territory. What you do have - and this was Marc's key point - is a chance to relax, to get your head clear and to create something with the direct material help of peers. Long friendships can spring from these short meetings.

This year's experiment is about humans and animals, in a country where the latter are a lot more numerous than the former. How to move between instinctual sensibility and conscious reflection? What do nomads without property understand about the myriad creatures of the earth, whom city-dwellers have almost completely forgotten? Two years from now, the fourth edition will really take the plunge: artists and shamans, or how to translate the healing magic that flows right out of human fingertips. I think we're barely even able to ask such questions, yet they're only a beginning of what's needed. My mind drifts back to Dulguun's two fabrics, flowing out into the cosmic spiral of white bones. How to change the garments we were born with?


The classic Land Art works were monumental in scale, just like the enormous horseman traced in white stones on the mountain by the nomad community - or like Ganzug Sedbazar's audacious bid to string canvas covers of yurts in a giant curtain across the deep basalt canyon of the Orkhon River. Such works offer an experience of immediate transcendence, when an ordinary object expands beyond ordinary human measure. Today, the infrastructure projects of late capitalism challenge our imaginations with further ruptures of scale. We are faced with what Timothy Morton calls "hyperobjects," whose complex immensity inevitably eludes you, even as it presses in on your most intimate existence. China, for instance, is now setting up a global transportation network, or "New Silk Road," in its bid to become the economic pivot of the twenty-first century. Part of this effort involves rivaling with the maritime routes running from Busan, South Korea, to the megaports of Hong Kong and Singapore, then onward to Europe and Western Hemisphere. But the economic war machines of China and America collide on the sea lanes, given US dominance of East Asian maritime corridors since WWII. The response to this stalemate are the container transportation routes now being built across Central Asia.

The construction of a high-speed link to Tibet only foreshadowed a more significant economic project: the railroad originating in Xi'an, then running through steppes of Kazahkstan all the way to Germany and Belgium. With wages rising in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, this already functioning continental corridor is expected to grow in significance as manufacturers relocate to the inland megalopolis of Chongqing, itself served by the massive hydroelectric project of the Three Gorges Dam. As the polar icecaps melt and the mirage of a Northwest Passage reemerges, China's railway ministry has announced its intent to collaborate with Russia on a high-speed link running through Ulanbataar and Moscow, then across the Bering Strait to North America. The global infrastructure projects championed by the sinister American Marxist Lyndon LaRouche now stand a chance of being built by the inheritors of really existing Communism, whose industrial logic has proven far more unstoppable than socialist ideology.

These kinds of infrastructure projects represent, not just a continuation, but an amplification of the trends that constitute the Anthropocene - that is, the era when human technology reshapes the earth, releasing countless tons of carbon and endless joules of heat in the process. Our newfound desire to cross the line separating man from beast stems directly from the threat that these megaprojects now pose to our own animality. The hyperobjects press inward, toward the cellular level of existence. That much was already clear in the late 1960s, after Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, when the environmental movements first took hold. The idea that the most crucial of all battles could be fought with unequal arms - dispersal against concentration - began emerging around that same time. As Deleuze and Guattari wrote: "Could it be that it is at the moment the war machine ceases to exist, conquered by the State, that it displays to the utmost its irreducibility, that it scatters into thinking, loving, dying, or creating machines that have at their disposal vital or revolutionary powers capable of challenging the conquering State?"

Land Art is compelling when it offers tangible answers to this question. It does so by combining micro and macro scales, so that the detail (yourself) can see a set of pathways toward the ecological whole. Yet glimpses of a better future will never be enough on their own. That's what they offer in the aesthetic playgrounds. What's missing in the normalized art forms of the transnational state is not only the willingness to experiment with the radical mobility of the living detail. What's missing is also the capacity to identify the hyperobjects that hold us all in thrall through their complex invisibility. The steppes of Mongolia, Northern China, Siberian Russia and Kazahkstan are the "smooth space" from which a new empire is already emerging - same as the old empires, only bigger and more destructive. How to "wage war" without arms or explosions on this new empire that binds all the former nation-states into a dead-end corridor?


We had not quite seen everything that first day. As luck would have it, a few thousand years of surging river floods had brought an accumulation of silts to that magical spot with the crimson-berried tree. Claire chose a place on the slope where the grassy bank fell off for about a foot, along a curve that already made it look like a natural amphitheater. Gazing upward you could see the nearest mountain peak, with the monumental horseman drawn on its flank in white stones. We dug a half circle, swinging the pick, working the spade, then installing a kind of cushion of soil in an elongated bag used for the construction of earthen dwellings. Sit down, it says: an invitation to a change of perspective. When you descend into the hole you are enclosed within a circle of roots, a literal rhizosphere. On your horizon line is the green grass carpet, ascending through the field of boulders to the distant mountain peak. Roots all the way up to the sky. The world seen from the snout's-eye view of a grazing animal. Each blade of grass is a gateway to the universe. Laughing and sweating and expending our last strength, we cut some turf for the floor of the hole, where the goats would later come to sniff and to dig. The animistic spot itself had shown this pathway.

In South Korea, it seems that a group of novelists and scholars and politicians - and surely some industrialists as well? - have begun mapping out the subtle skein of historical trade routes that once crisscrossed the steppes of Central Asia. They want to disperse and multiply the one-dimensional vision of a New Silk Road, in order to create an "Altai Culture and Economy Network" - at constant risk of persecution by the state, since any land route out of the peninsula would have to run through North Korea. Is this just another cultural mask over yet more capitalist infrastructure projects? What we don't know can hurt us. Only those who understand and participate - with thoughtful collaboration and fierce resistance - can have an impact on the transformation of the territory.

In the evenings, I spent some time talking with the artist Francesco Bertelé about his permaculture garden in a village in the mountains above Lake Cuomo. He's now experimenting with the use of artificial ponds that re-balance the solar heat (cooler in the daytime, warmer at night). The insect pests are attracted to the water, where tiny fish eat them. He mainly works with seed bombs in the spring, to germinate a cacophony of plants that complement each other and crowd out the weeds. The neighbors see the results and complain about the mess - it's something they don't understand, an unknown world. But when they taste the tomatoes then they get interested, starting a little movement in the village. These kinds of changes are much bigger than we can imagine, Francesco maintains. Artists and would-be nomadic warriors, take note, and please, don't get too delirious.

I look out at the river, at the horses on the banks, at the clouds striding over the mountains. I listen to the insects and the birds, feel the sun and the wind on my skin. I remember the interior of a traditional ger, and the voice of a nomad singing. These are the worst and the best of times to be alive, for sure.

Touch the blue sky. Walk the green earth. Land art for the twenty-first century.

*   *   *

A few references:

- Gilles Deleuze and Féliz Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (University of Minnesota Press: 1987/original French text: 1980), chapter 12. - Jack Weatherford, Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Broadway Books, 2004). - Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum (New York: Telos Press, 2003/original German text: 1950). - Shannon Tiezzi, China's 'New Silk Road' Vision Revealed, The Diplomat (May 2014), http://thediplomat.com/2014/05/chinas-new-silk-road-vision-revealed. - Leni Rubenstein, "The Eurasian Landbridge Today," Executive Intelligence Review (November 2013), http://www.larouchepub.com/eiw/public/2013/eirv40n46-20131122/37-44_4046.pdf. - Benjamin Deniston, "Maglev Across The Bering Strait," 21st Century Science (September 2013), http://www.21stcenturysciencetech.com/Nuclear_NAWAPA_XXI/Maglev_Bering_Strait.pdf. - "President Xi calls on China, Germany to build Silk Road economic belt," China Daily (March 2014), www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2014-03/30/content_17390832.htm. -Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man (Oxford University Press: 1987/original German text: 1794). - Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (University of Minnesota Press: 2013).
- Altai Culture and Economy Network, http://www.railhope.com.

Nota bene: For anyone who wonders, Zigor Barayazarra painted the horses with blue food coloring that washes off in the river and the rain.

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