VERONICA GRUCA: I wanted to highlight Mongolian perspective in my exhibition

VERONICA GRUCA: I wanted to highlight Mongolian perspective in my exhibition

This picture was taken by Denise Machinaud

      I interviewed Veronica Gruca, a French doctoral student in Social Anthropology who’s involved in Mongolian Studies since 2014. She is currently finishing her doctoral thesis while coordinating a photography exhibition on the uses of photography in Mongolia. The exhibition, which is a collective project involving Mongolian and French photographers, is now re-exhibited in Nantes and has been integrated into the exhibition “Chinggis Khaan, How Mongols changed the World”.

Thank you for accepting our interview invitation. The exhibition “Dessins de Lumiere” that you curated is on tour and is re-exhibited in Chateau des ducs de Bretagne in Nantes, France. Please tell me about your exhibition and what it is portraying? It is also part of the “Chinggis Khaan: How the Mongols changed the world” exhibition and please elaborate more on this too?

The exhibition “Dessins de Lumiere” or “Gerlen zurag” in Mongolian is an exhibition on photography in Mongolia. It is divided into six thematic sections and brings nine photographers together, both professionals and non-professionals. This includes six Mongolian photographers and the three French photographers, myself included. The exhibition’s primary goal is to encourage reflections on the use of photography and to provide a reflective perspective on this practice in six different specific contexts. For example, there is a section dedicated to shamanic rituals, another to funeral portraits, a third one to Mongolia during the pandemic, a fourth one to photography showcases in gers and houses, and the use of photography on Facebook, which became huge in Mongolia in the space of a few years. There’s another section on the attachment to the Nutag (homeland), and each section has texts both in French and in Mongolian which makes it bilingual. I really wanted it to be a collective project and to involve people from Mongolia in it. We're often used to the European or American perspective on Mongolia, but not to the Mongolian perspective on their own country. Bringing the perspective of Mongolian photographers for an exhibition about them was essential to me. At least, in Europe, this is not something we often get to see.

The Chinggis Khaan exhibition is quite a hit in France. There is an exceptional presentation of objects from Mongolia, from national collections including many treasures complemented by contributions from major French and European museums and significant private collections. The exhibition explores the history of the great empire of Chinggis Khaan and shows the objects that have never been exhibited in France before. I was impressed by the amount of work that had been put into this, into the scenography, both visually and sonically. It’s very interactive as well, so I think it can be very interesting for children too. You can ask for a tour guide, and children’s classes get to visit the exhibition too, so they learn about Mongolian history. My exhibition, that has nothing to with a classic portrait of Mongolia and its past, has been integrated into this exhibition as its final part, so people get to see a modern and contemporary vision of Mongolia that is far from being just about steppes and horses. I’m grateful to be part of this huge project.

How did you choose the artists and photographs?

My choice of artists for this exhibition was motivated by the six thematic sections and what I wanted to show in each one. So, for example, when it came to the use of photography on Facebook in Mongolia, I asked my main host family and a good friend of mine to send me photographs that they posted on their Facebook. They aren’t professionals but that was not the point, and since these people were meaningful for my time in Mongolia, it made sense to ask them. For the section on funeral portraits, it made sense to ask Grégory Delaplace, a university professor in France who has worked in Mongolia for over 20 years, on photography among others. For the section on COVID-19, I wanted to choose two professional photographers who experienced the pandemic in Mongolia from within. How I chose them is very subjective, but I particularly liked the photos of Suniko and D.Delgerjargal. What I liked about their pictures was that it told a story. It gives an insight into the daily life in Mongolia during the pandemic while telling something about the way the country dealt with it specifically at the time. For the section on shamanic rituals, I’m crossing three perspectives, by presenting my ethnographic pictures of rituals (meant to represent the space, the objects, and so on), the ones of a friend of mine who’s used to take spectacular pictures that are more aesthetic than mines and are meant to show something else, and the pictures of the shaman herself, who also takes pictures sometimes with her smartphone. So, three perspectives and three different uses of photography in the same context are shown this way.

As for the section on the attachment to the nutag, I asked Charlotte Marchina (who’s also a university professor in France) for her pictures, and I chose a few of mine too.

Do spectators love the exhibition? What are they saying about the exhibition? Do people prefer modern photography or
older monuments?

So far, I’ve received very positive feedback from my exhibition and the Chinggis Khaan exhibition as well. What people seem to appreciate the most about this photography exhibition is that it breaks the image of Mongolia that we are so accustomed to see here in Europe. Which is, a scenic Mongolia with vast steppes and horses and exotic shamans, which of course is part of the picture, but it gives the impression of an unchanging Mongolia frozen in time. In fact, Mongolia is not just that. It’s also UB, it’s also Facebook and social media, and it’s also shamans who take pictures with their smartphones like everybody else.

You are a doctoral student in anthropology. What made you curate an exhibition? Why did you choose to do a photographic exhibition in specific?

In France, doctoral programs in social anthropology are not always funded, so most doctoral candidates, myself included, have to seek alternative funding which often leads us to become involved in various projects more or less connected to our work. And sometimes, it is for the better. I ended up organizing the photographic exhibition by applying for funding from the Ministry of Culture of France. I proposed to organize an exhibition somehow related to my doctoral research and fieldwork, which was luckily successful. I thought that an exhibition on photography in Mongolia would be more interesting than an exhibition on Mongolia. I liked the idea of crossing perspectives and making something collaborative, which would go against the classic image conveyed about Mongolia. This approach allows for not only our perspective on Mongolia but also the people living there, who are usually the ones being photographed only. Also, as an anthropologist, I am necessarily called upon to take pictures since it’s one of the tools of anthropological research. Although photography has not always been a passion as an artistic activity for me, I’ve always been using it for research, and it often raises questions, such as “what we are looking to represent”, how, and why.

What drove you to Mongolia? Tell me about how you were connected to Mongolia for the first time.

The first time I came to Mongolia was in 2015, in the frame of my Master’s thesis. Between 2015 and 2020, I spent about 22 months in Mongolia spread over five years. I spent most of my time in the countryside in Bayan-Uul and Bayandun soums in Dornod province. I was mainly staying with herding families who also practiced agriculture. Compared to other anthropologists, I think I moved quite little, since I stayed mainly with one extended family, which covers two districts. I was trying to participate in their everyday life as much as possible, while keeping my focus on shamanic rituals at first, a research subject which evolved afterwards. But my work in Mongolia really consisted of trying to participate as much as I could and writing every day about what was happening.

Why did you do your doctoral dissertation on Mongolian Buryat shamanism? And what are the most interesting facts you have found out so far?

At the beginning of the master’s thesis in social anthropology, we must specialize in a specific geographical area and choose a specific subject as well. So, I decided back then to focus on shamanism among the Mongolian Buryats and to study this in the countryside. To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about it at the time. I thought it might be interesting, but I guess I could have
ended up anywhere. Although the story of how I chose Mongolian studies is not very romantic itself, it was my first stay there that created the passion. Since then, I always wanted to come back and visit the people I met. You spend so much time with the people that they become your family in a way.

As for choosing the topic, I began by choosing the population I wanted to work with, which were the Mongolian Buryats. But with time, the subject of my thesis evolved. For example, the Ph.D. that I am doing now is not just on shamanic rituals, it also addresses pastoralism, agriculture, daily life, and the attachment to the nutag of Mongolian Buryats. Shamanism is connected to all of that too anyway. In academia, you always must have a focus line, but I found everything interesting in the herders’ life, and I wanted to write on much more than just shamanism. Today I wouldn’t say that my Ph.D. is just on shamanism, it’s on daily life which involves shamanism too.

As for my activities, I insisted on participating in everything as much as possible. The thing is when you come from a city, you’re quite useless right? You don’t know how to herd or milk a cow. When you are there for three days, it can be entertaining to have you, but when you actually stay longer with the people, you really must participate as an active member. They have to accept your slowness, the slow pace of your progress. But my hosts were always extremely patient with that. I was more introduced to women’s tasks in a way because I’m a girl, but I also tried to herd at some point on foot (since I’m not used to riding horses). And I discovered that the cattle run really fast when it’s windy. What do you do when that happens when you are on foot? It is a really hard life, and these people work so much. So, it was hard for me to adapt to this rhythm. Maybe it would have been different if I was from the French countryside.

What were you hoping to learn from your research? When can we see your research thesis?

I wasn’t really hoping to find anything. I didn’t have any expectations; the important thing was to be open. I didn’t even have an idealized image of Mongolia nor of what it could be like. So, in this way, I was just open to everything. When studying rituals for example, it was important to describe everything, not just the core of the ritual but what happens before, what happens after, and the empty moments too. When I started to study shamanic rituals back in 2015, my Mongolian was not the best, so I focused on everything around me, not just on what was said. It was a new experience. I also read quite a lot about it before I visited. When you are reading the literature about shamanism in Mongolia, you cannot really imagine what it’s like. You understand that people do rituals for therapeutic reasons for example, but you cannot portray this in your mind, sound and timewise. For example, there’s this long Buryat initiation ritual called ‘chanar’ that lasts three days and three nights in a row. You don’t sleep at all, and I had no idea that something like this could happen. I think I focused on the things that surprised me the most.

It’s interesting because people often ask me about belief. Most people I met in Mongolia would be partly skeptical about shamans but at the same time, they call them for rituals. It’s a way of believing, where doubt is part of the belief. But it’s the same in Europe. People believe in something they’re not sure, but they do it anyway. Once you stop wondering if it’s true or not, and you are relieved of this question, you become open to seeing what is really happening.

You stayed in Mongolia for quite sometime. Did you experience Mongolian winter too? What was your life like and what is your fondest memory or two?

In 2018, I came in October and stayed until March of 2019. Considering the summer I spent here, I found winter to be not as difficult. You spend a lot of time inside during winter and it’s extremely beautiful when you do go outside. I learned how to dress with all these layers. You also sleep a lot during the winter compared to summertime when the days are longer, where
herders work from dawn till night. As a human being, I think I was much more functional during the winter for this reason. My hosts combined herding with agriculture, and for this reason the work in summer was particularly intense. As for the fondest memory, there are so many. But if I had to choose, it would be the time we had a big laugh with my host family over my frozen clothes. I did laundry and dried clothes to find them frozen. In France, we're not used to negative temperatures so I didn’t know that in five minutes everything would become hard like a rock. We had a laugh about my socks which took the shape of the letter L. Another great memory is when my host family made me sleep outside in the summer since it was very healthy according to them. They prepared me a comfortable mattress on a Porter car, and I slept under the stars, which was magical. I absolutely loved it.

What did you like the most about Mongolia?

I think I spent long enough in Mongolia just to see more than the beautiful picture. But the love is always stronger otherwise I wouldn’t always want to come back.

I love the sense of solidarity and hospitality in Mongolians, which is quite unique. There are no limits to hospitality, and I don’t think there’s another place in the world or in Europe where you can just go to someone’s house and sleep there.
I also liked how easy it was to laugh with people about simple stuff. Despite the hardships of life, there is a lot of laughter in everyday life.

What is your future with Mongolia? Any plan to return to Mongolia?

I plan to finish my Ph.D., which I hope will be over in a few months. I told everyone in Mongolia that when I finish, the first thing I will do is come back and visit them. I cannot wait. I hope it will be this summer.

Amarjargal Munkhbat