Dashi Namdakov, Halcyon Gallery, until 31 October 2012
In the park opposite Marble Arch Tube stands a monumental bronze, astonishing for its size, its form and its subject. Five metres high, it portrays a horseman with flat Asian features, leaning back in the relaxed way that expert riders do, hands free, on a mount with its mane braided into branches. Its mood is oddly mystical, which is strange, given that it represents that most unmystical of conquerors, Genghis Khan.
What on earth is a two-tonne Genghis doing staring down Oxford Street? Westminster Council, which runs the site on which he stands, has been asked this question a good deal recently. One answer is that it is an extraordinary work by an extraordinary artist, the Russian Dashi Namdakov. But that just leads to a deeper question: why Genghis?
You may well ask. After all, Genghis, or Chingis as he should be, was a mass-murdering barbarian, was he not? That is how Muslims think of him, because he shattered the world of Islam, bringing death to millions. That is how we Europeans, including Russians, think of him, because we were, or very nearly were, his victims, when, in the mid-thirteenth century, his heirs overran Russia, Poland and Hungary. Luckily for the rest of us, back in Mongolia the current khan died, causing the tide of conquest to flow back into central Asia. The retreat left a mini-empire, the Golden Horde, to rule in southern Russia for another two hundred years, a time Russians still recall with bitterness as the ‘Tartar yoke’. Under Communism, Genghis was non grata, an un-person, in Orwellian terms. You would think the Chinese should feel the same, because Genghis brought comparable devastation to them.
There is another way of looking at him, however: as one of history’s mostextraordinary personalities and one of its greatest leaders. He started from almost nothing – as a down-and-out, his father murdered, his mother an outcast – living almost nowhere. The Mongols, in the late twelfth century, were beyond any pale, as far as China was concerned. No other major culture had even heard of them. Yet, after many life-threatening adventures, Genghis rose to become leader of his clan, of many clans, of the nation he founded, and of the world’s largest land empire. When he died in 1227 it stretched from north China to today’s Iran, and it still had a long way to go.
There were many reasons for his success. The main one, I believe, was his unique vision. He claimed, and perhaps believed, that he survived a violent youth because the Mongol deity, the Blue Sky, ordained that the Mongols should rule the world – that it was, in fact, already theirs. His task, and that of his heirs, was to make the world aware of this astonishing fact. Today, it is obviously a crazy idea, but back then no one knew what the real ‘world’ was. His appealing message had an interesting implication. Mongol world rule was supposedly both universal and eternal (indeed, under Genghis the Blue Sky morphed into the Eternal Sky). You cannot have eternal rule over unhappy subjects. Conquest was a means to an end. The violence he unleashed was not that of a psychopath but of an ambitious and ruthless leader aiming to create a lasting peace with contented subjects.
This impossible vision was inherited by his descendants. It was in pursuit of world rule that his son and heir, Ogedei, took the imperial borders westward, beyond Russia and south-west to the Mediterranean; in pursuit of that same vision, Genghis’s grandson, Kublai – he of Coleridge’s ‘sacred pleasure dome’ in his summer HQ, Xanadu – undertook the greatest military adventure yet: the invasion of southern China. It took twenty years – until 1279 – but the result was a new unity for the Middle Kingdom and a new dynasty, the Yuan. Under Kublai, Genghis’s empire doubled in size. Alexander’s empire? Rome’s? They were paltry by comparison. For a century or so, Kublai and his relatives ruled from the Pacific to the Red Sea. It was Kublai, therefore, who brought Yunnan, Xinjiang and Tibet into what was still the Mongol Empire. But to rule this vast entity, Kublai made himself into a Chinese emperor, much to the horror of conservative Mongols back in their grassland home. So, by a strange twist of fate, today’s China owes its borders and its geographical sense of identity to a Mongol khan who spoke no Chinese.
Once upon a time this was a reality so unpleasant – certainly to Mao, who did not like rivalry from anyone, living or dead – that the Mongol origins of the Yuan were ignored. Not so now. The switch is easy to justify: Mongols are one of China’s fifty-five minorities; therefore all Mongols are by definition actually Chinese; and Genghis himself, as the grandfather of a Chinese emperor, was Chinese. By the same argument, today’s Mongolia, though an independent nation, is actually Chinese – a view of which Mongolians are understandably nervous. As one Chinese guide told me, with a somewhat distorted sense of history, ‘We are proud of Genghis Khan because he was the only Chinese to have conquered Europeans’. He is everywhere, with a multi-part television series devoted to him. Published books include a translation of my own biography of him. His supposed ‘mausoleum’ in Inner Mongolia receives hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Yuan studies boom.
In Mongolia itself, of course, he has always been a semi-divine national hero. Under Communism, though, when Mongolia was firmly within the Soviet empire, he was as officially non grata as he was in Russia. Since the collapse of Communism, Mongolia has re-emerged with Genghis as its central totem. He has so many things named after him there was briefly talk of making him a national trade mark. A new front to the parliament has him enthroned in splendour. As you leave the capital, Ulaanbaatar, he is outlined in white stones on a hillside.
Cut through the traffic and pollution for half an hour, along the single road that leads eastwards, out where the air is pure and spaces vast, and you see his most recent and grossest manifestation: a forty-metre statue of him on horseback in multi-faceted metal, staring out over the rolling, unfenced grasslands of his homeland. It is hard to grasp the size of this object from a distance. It dwarfs the building it stands on, which is both tourist trap and entrance hall. You mount steps or take a lift to a final stairway that emerges through the great man’s crotch and climbs the horse’s mane, the top of whose head is a look-out platform. This was once all virgin grassland. Now the statue has become a magnet for a housing development and tourist camps. Soon, no doubt, will follow Mongolia’s first golf course.
The point of all this is to sketch Genghis’s resurrection from pariah to hero wherever his horse’s hooves trod, even in Russia. With his statue, which will stand in Marble Arch until September 2012, Dashi Namdakov has followed where others led, and now leads himself. He has good reason, because he was born a Buryat, once part of Genghis’s empire, now a Russian republic in Siberia, cradling the southern and eastern shores of Lake Baikal. He is not a Mongol, but his roots go deep locally, where Buddhism of the so-called Yellow Hat sect combines with pre-Buddhist (even pre- Mongol) shamanism. As a teenager he fell seriously ill. He survived, he says, thanks to the ministrations of a shaman, who told him that he was destined to become a shaman. If so, he modified his destiny, choosing (as he says) to express ancestral shamanistic traditions through his art.
So it proved, with astonishing success. From his first exhibition in 2000, when he was thirty-three, he has won national and international acclaim, exploring folkloric and religious themes in three dimensions, from massive bronzes to intricate mammoth-tusk jewels, and in two: he is a consummate graphic artist as well as sculptor. Critics and curators speak of his ‘lyrical simplicity’ and ‘emotional intensity’, collectors (among them Putin and Roman Abramovich) snap up his works. To explain him, experts hunt for comparisons (Henry Moore for his purity of line, Salvador Dali for his wild imagination) but he is better seen as a one-off. Much admired, and much in demand: he was art director on Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol, the gorgeous Genghis biopic that was Oscar-nominated for ‘best foreign film’ in 2007 (and through which we are linked, because Bodrov used my biography of Genghis as a source).
Namdakov works internationally, creating his large-scale sculptures in Tuscany and his jewellery in Moscow. Namdakov’s most recent exhibition, at the Halcyon Gallery in London’s New Bond Street, showed scores of his sculptures, the combined prices of which run into millions of pounds. The main exhibition ended in July, but many pieces are on show at another Halcyon Gallery (24 Bruton Street) until early September. You can see his range in Halcyon’s superb book, A Nomad’s Universe, and on Namdakov’s website, www.dashi-art.com.
Many works – especially those that owe a debt to Buddhism – are breathtaking in their combination of grandeur and tranquillity. Minotaur, an immense lapis lazuli bull-head, looks like something excavated in Persepolis, or Knossos, or Ur. Some, with their roots in Mongolian, Kazakh and Siberian nomadism, are as scary as shamanistic visions. Some are surreal. A woman with pudgy thighs and stick-like legs nestles a bird. She is titled a Madonna, and has the transcendental look of a medieval Virgin but hints at something as primal as the Willendorf Venus.
Namdakov is, in his own view, just beginning. In line with his folkloric roots, he sees life in terms of the twelve-year animal cycle common to most of Asia. From 2000, the date of his artistic birth, until now makes up one cycle – that of childhood, the cycle represented by the current show. Now begins another, which (he hopes) will be an expression of his maturity. He will surely continue to unite meticulous detail with monumentality, art and anthropology.
That is what the Genghis statue does. His horse, with its branching plaited mane and aquiline head, is more mythological than Mongol. Genghis has the stocky body and short legs of many a Mongolian but his face exudes a Buddha-like serenity and his hands are half-raised in a sort of blessing. It cannot look anything like Genghis, of whom there is no authentic portrait, but it captures an essence. Genghis welcomed into his entourage a Chinese bureaucrat named Yelu Chutsai, who, having been through rigorous religious training, was keen that his employer be seen as a sage as well as a conqueror. That was the image Genghis liked to project in later life: a leader who shared the simple fare of his troops, took pride in his humble origins and rejected luxury. As long as he ignored the price tags, he and Dashi Namdakov would have got on famously.