Nomadic Tenses

Nomadic Tenses


Roland Barthes (French dude, big into literature and philosophy) describes cameras as ‘clocks for seeing’. I’ve collected a lot of material from Mongolia that really is just sort of a recording. I’ve briefly touched on it before but I thought I may expand a little today.

Photographs have a strange past, present, and future tense that create an odd relationship. They accentuate that we are all living our lives in relation to time. Weird, strange but fascinating, huh?

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If you look at the photograph you will always be placed somewhere in time and space, it is always a reference to something in the past and you will become aware of where you stand in relation to what you are looking at. The clicking of the shutter is like the ticking of the clock. The sounds remind us that time is passing and we have just captured the past. This presents us with a combination of tenses that can sometimes be difficult to untangle. In this instance, I'm showing you my collection of materials from the past.

Photography is also about what we are invited to see. My works with photography warp an invitation to really look at something – I adjust drawings, photographs and various materials to illustrate what I think it important at that time – a point of view, a certain snapshot etc. Most of my photos in Mongolia are taken as stills from videos, as videos are (for me) the best at helping me re-live and re-experience the moment in order to record something better. 

The transition across the river was crazy. Within minutes the noise of the populated tourist area was forgotten, and all that was heard was the beat of the sun, an occasional moo and the ox’s trot.

The rich smell of the wet autumn leaves brought a fresh meaning and understanding to the seasons, and what it might be like to truly be nomadic.

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These photographs become a way of seeing. They exist only in themselves, until I can (hopefully) be successful in dragging emotion and sensation out of them to experience.

In a way, photographs are like paintings. You can walk past them and see nothing, feel nothing. They are only powerful if you open yourself up to them, take a wander round and directly engage with what is being expressed.

Honestly the experience was breath-taking. We rode for about an hour to the first settling on the ox-cart. We were to stay with 4 different families over our time here, each had their own speciality, and we were to fully immerse ourselves in their way of life.

Usually, most people can relate to music in this way. Take Indian Summer by Jai Wolf. When I listen to it, it takes me far far FAR away from reality and sort of helps this existential train-of-thought about our existence in the world, about our experience and how we can express that. I’m sure you’ve got a different one, but ya get me. 

The process of using photographs to express Mongolia flattens the energy and movement so that it becomes only an illustration of what was once felt. It is now a recording of the bodies, not of the emotion that comes with that feeling.

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Francis Bacon for instance, uses photography as a tool for making paintings, reducing the sensation to a single plane. Part of my experience is flattened because it can only be lived in the moment (totally yolo eh?). My writings here are hopefully more of an insight - and my artworks to come – even more so.

Our first hosts were Chuka & Tsetsegee and (we’ve already met) their cousin Suren. Suren was the one driving the cart.

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Chuka had gone horse-riding for a few days with some tourists, so was not around. Tourism is a major part of their income, but there is a fine line they are careful not to tread over – nobody likes too many tourists and yet HERE WE ARE.

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It was about 2pm when we arrived and we were immediately offered food and drink (as it is traditional Mongolian custom). Chomping down our dumplings we were told about some of the traditions. Mongolians live in Gers (not yerts). They have a wooden frame work that looks a bit like a fence, a felt cover, and a central support system. Depending on the weather, they will add and remove layers depending on the season. The top middle bit has a hole for the chimney smoke (this is not 100pc waterproof).

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Egi (our local guide and translator) elaborated on the traditions we had to be aware of, so as not to offend our hosts.

One. Always accept food and drink with your right hand, with the left supporting your right elbow. Easy for the righties. Bit tricky if you're left handed as you do a little uncomfortable dance when you remember.

Two. Always enter the Ger and walk around the the left. The right hand side is usually the family side and it can be a little disruptive.

Three. ALWAYS accept the food and drink offered. Even if you touch the tea to your lips and take a tiny bite of the ol’ dumplings – flatly refusing is extremely offensive. More so than leaving leftovers.

Four. Don’t whistle inside a Ger. It is extremely bad luck. I like this one. Whistling is only enjoyable for the person whistling. I am not a whistler.

And Five. Fire is sacred to Mongolians (probably because it’s the only source of heat apart from the sun) so you are not allowed to throw anything on it, including water. You have to respect it.

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We collected A LOT of firewood.

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Chuka & Tsetsegee were experts in wild horses, so Tsetsegee taught us the Mongolian way of riding and handling them. Super different to the way westerners ride. Much more masculine. These were HALF WILD Mongolian horses (I stress) which I'm pretty sure just means wild. They let them roam around Mongolian mountains until they need a horse and they go and 'catch' some and shove saddles on them. They're very much a pack animal, so if one horse bolts, they all bolt.

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We also learnt how to saddle an oxcart, so if anyone needs a hand, gimmie a shout. Bucket-list-life-skill right there.

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After adjusting to spend time reading by rivers, basking in the sunsets and sunrises, collecting firewood, and generally switching off from civilisation, it was soon time to move on to our next family.

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4 hours on horseback took us to Boogii & Amaraa and their daughter Boloroo. Also took me to having some very sore legs the next day. We had a fresh (like, so fresh your nips fell off) dip in the lake for those that were brave enough.

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I felt very aware that I was a spare part in their home and their life, so taking snap happy photos was not always appropriate. I helped out as much as I could, by (giving them vodka as a thank you gift) playing with little Boloroo.

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I also made some other sorts of friends too...

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Amaraa invited us to make some dumplings (she was very very good at cooking) and taught us some traditional ways to fold them best for steaming.

We learnt the easiest ‘rose’ style dumpling – my journal drawings are basic, but you get the gist. You'll get to see more of the journal next week.

Mongolians use meat for EVERYTHING but obviously have no fridges handy so they either leave their meat outside in the winter, or inside under the bed in the summer. Sort of depends on the weather. 

One of my many achievements of the day (other than horse-riding and dumpling-making) was the ability to master the toilet procedure. It was a deep deep hole about 1km away from the Gers (for obvious reasons). There were two wooden beams balanced either side of the hole’s edges which you had to swat onto and into the deep abyss. Doing this in the dark with a torch in your mouth and toilet paper steady in your hand needed skill and a level of sober that was not always achieved with the vodka that was being passed around.

Vodka was rife, and the locals loved it. Every night we had a fire pit to keep warm and socialise, but it was also a great time to take what photos I could of the stars and gaze at the Milky Way. It was pretty bloody awesome seeing so many stars at one time. Every couple of minutes you could see shooting stars. I could have honestly stared for the whole night if it wasn’t for the temp. Unfortunately, shooting stars in Mongolia represent the spirit of a loved one shooting/passing away, so you had to avoid shouting out that you had seen one when there were Mongolians about.

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Although these photos are very raw and experimental, they do not manage to capture at all what it felt like to stare into such a deep chasm of chaos. Turn up the brightness on the screen to see more of the stars. 

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Photographs and the process of photography can be a private, privileged but intuitive method of art making. Creating work can have the same effect on us personally even if they are created on a back-lit screen. For me, photographs are a gateway, or more rather a tool, for documenting, gathering and recording an experience, just like drawing is. These are the tools which my current set of artworks are being produced from.

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