Salvation, Mongolian Highway
In collaboration with O. Myagmadorj and N. Bayartugs
These photos are an attempt to imagine a different future, though one very similar to the present: one in which Mongolian Buddhist monasteries signify themselves with LED signs.
In order to create this future, I designed and constructed a 5-foot-by-5-foot LED sign representing the face of the Buddhist deity Begtse. Begtse predates Mongolian Buddhism as a war god of the Mongol Empire, and was only later absorbed into Buddhist mythology. Perhaps for his eminently Mongolian stature amongst the Buddhist pantheon, Begtse’s face is widely used in Mongolia today by street fashion brands, in company logos, and even in Pepsi ads; I chose his image in part to follow these trajectories in youth culture in Mongolia today.
Pepsi ad at 2019's Playtime music festival
"Tsam Long Neck Sweater" by Mongolian streetwear brand SMOK
The sculpture was constructed in such a way that it could be broken down and packed in a small cardboard box, so as to meet the constraints of Aeroflot’s checked bag regulations. I flew with the sculpture to Mongolia, reconstructed it, and, in collaboration with Mongolian artists O. Myagmadorj and N. Bayartugs, photographed the LED god in front of Buddhist monasteries and along stretches of the highway.
The highway, rolling through vast darkness for hundreds of miles at a time, is punctuated intermittently with small roadside towns lit up with bright LED lights. The blazing signs advertise food, rest, karaoke—signs that provide some salvation from the dark.
"Building 5," Salvation, Mongolian Highway, 2020
"Road 9," Salvation, Mongolian Highway, 2020
This work stems in part from a frustration with the possibilities of criticism. As someone who has taken great exception to the way the world is, who considers much to be “problematic,” I have found that merely pointing out what shouldn’t be gives little sense of what should or could be. I have thus taken particular inspiration from the writings of Michael Taussig, and his reflections on the possibilities of language and art. “When it was enthusiastically pointed out within memory of our present Academy that race or gender or nation ... were so many social constructions,” Taussig writes in Mimesis and Alterity,
“a window was opened, an invitation to begin the critical project of analysis and cultural reconstruction was offered. And one still feels its power even though what was nothing more than an invitation, a preamble to investigation has, by and large, been converted instead into a conclusion.”
The oft-levied criticism that something or other is a “social construct” doesn’t look beyond the fact that metaphysics and abstractions can be socially constructed. If our reality is continuously created by how we talk and think and imagine, Taussig argues, we should be able to change it by creating new ways of talking and thinking and imagining. So this project is really about trying to imagine a different future in order to expand the possibilities of the present.
Part of the anxiety of the present moment—a global pandemic, the largest civil rights uprising in decades, still-unmitigated environmental catastrophe—is that it feels very difficult to have any sense of what the world will look like next year, much less in a century. But despite this, it is possible to picture the futuristic: flying cars, robots, sleek glass buildings and elevated trains; some kind of technological utopia.
The futuristic asks us, in short, to have faith in technology—to place hope in it, to believe in it, to measure our progress by it. To be clear, I mean faith in technology not in some watered down sense, but as a direct heir to Christian faith: faith in the end times, Judgement Day, and the full realization of the Kingdom of God. Progress, as philosopher Karl Löwith writes, is the “secularization of [Christianity’s] eschatological pattern.” How we view the future, after all, is how we derive meaning in the past and present: all that is a “step forward” or “step backward” is a part of the slow, meandering walk towards some end goal, some final destination. And right now, this destination is importantly linked with technology.
Smarter phones, an internet of things, carbon sequestration, the more efficient administration of government and commerce through the use of data. For so long we have tacitly accepted, or have been forced to accept, the rampant destruction of the environment, the exploitation of the working class, the consolidation of wealth in the hands of the few, with the vain hope that technology will come to the rescue.
"Building 1," Salvation, Mongolian Highway, 2020
In Martin Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, he argues that what is decisive about technology is not so much its method of manufacturing as its mode of revealing reality. Just as Taussig discusses how speech, thought, imagination construct our reality, our relationship to technology does the same.
What is distinctive of modern technology’s mode of revealing, says Heidegger, is that, in tandem with modern physics, it “sets nature up to exhibit itself as a coherence of forces calculable in advance.” In short, this constricts the realm of the possible: reality is limited to material reality, which is limited to a set of “objective” and immutable laws of nature.
One implication of the coherence and calculability of reality, is that things of the same type or category are considered more and more equivalent and interchangeable. The term Heidegger uses for technology’s mode of revealing is “Enframing,” a term I find particularly evocative because it seems to suggest the taxonomic separation of reality into boxes of discrete and interchangeable units. Take, for instance, HVAC: heating and air conditioning create the possibility of uniform climate conditions regardless of seasonal weather. Thus in office buildings and homes, factories and restaurants, time becomes homogenized, uniform, and thus interchangeable, possible to buy and sell as a unit like corn or petrol.
"Road 6," Salvation, Mongolian Highway, 2020
“The energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is, in turn, distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew.” Like economic growth, which strives to expand indefinitely, infinitely, churning through nature and human bodies like so much replaceable industrial parts, modern technological ordering demands of reality that it stand in reserve to render itself more coherent, more calculable. With the Enframing of reality, says Heidegger, “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering.”
This is only possible because of a belief in the technologized future—everything is “just for now,” just a stopgap measure that we know to be unsustainable but necessary to bring about further progress. We know that we can’t continue to pillage the natural world indefinitely, and yet the argument against stopping is always about economic growth—about the future. (After coronavirus, we can see the lie so clearly. It was always possible to drastically lower carbon emissions, it was always possible to provide a universal basic income, it was always possible to house the homeless. “Whence would come the funds?” some still ask, as the US military budget sits in excess of $650 billion.)
Ultimately, what is so damning about Enframing is that it whittles down the possibilities of the real. As Heidegger decries, “in the light of… coherence, even God can… lose all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of his distance.” If we seek change, we are left with the paths provided by the system itself: bounded to the material world and to the systems in place, all of which defuses momentum in more and more intricate calculuses, bureaucracies and diffused responsibilities. If there is hope, then, it is in what defies expectations, what profoundly alters our notion of what is possible—and to that extent, destroys the calcified borders of the Enframed.
I want to return to the question of energy, a crucial component of what made modern technology possible. Electricity came to prominence in the U.S. in the late 1800’s, just as God began to wane in secular modernity. In so doing, electricity absorbed much religious cathexis: historian David Nye writes in his book Electrifying America of how early witnesses to electric lighting displays “stood overwhelmed with awe, as if in the presence of the supernatural… Men fell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight, and many were dumb with amazement.” Newspapers described arc lights as religious miracles, and reviewers of electrified world fairs gushed at “the triumph… of the masters of modern science over the nature-god Electricity.”
These world fairs, which swept the country at the time, are telling of the role electricity came to fill in American culture. Many such fairs, writes Nye, situated electricity as a “visible correlative for the ideology of progress.” Most exhibitions displayed “ethnological” villages, presenting the “primitive,” unelectrified world in order to demonstrate the racial superiority of the “advanced,” electrified world. “Darkness was a metaphor for the primitive; light was the exemplification of Christianity, science, and progress,” Nye writes.
Palace of Electricity at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis
As American “expansion”—theft of land, ethnic cleansing, genocide—continued westward, it was quickly followed by utility poles bringing electricity. These utility poles were cruciform in shape, and so the spread of electricity came as a long train of crosses across the country. It thus comes as little surprise that the technical term for the short horizontal bar at the top of a utility pole is called the “crossarm.”
Which is to say that all of this is in the “wiring” of modern technology, that it is constitutive to the essence of modern technology, and that much of this is implicitly reaffirmed in our notion of the futuristic.
Transcontinental Phone Line, Nevada Desert
Last pole erected on the first transcontinental telephone line
At the turn of the century, Mongolia was essentially a Buddhist theocracy, and one out of every ten men was in the monastic order. Shamanism was also practiced in large swaths of the population, and there were widespread beliefs, simultaneously Buddhist and shamanic, that protector deities—spirits—lived within the land and were themselves constitutive of the natural world.
In 1921, Mongolia became the world’s second socialist state, and religion was formally illegalized per Marxist-Leninist doctrine. But it wasn’t until the 1930’s, and as part of Stalin’s Great Purges, that the state deemed religion in Mongolia too powerful, too counterrevolutionary. Tens of thousands of monks were murdered, and hundreds of monasteries destroyed; but the anti-religious drive was not limited to these massacres; the Mongolian People’s Republic took measures to ideologically supplant the Buddhist lamas’ power with science. One such effort was, to quote from Charles Bawden’s The Modern History of Mongolia, to reprint Buddhist scriptures with “‘scientific commentaries’ to point up their inadequacies.” Science was used to delegitimize Buddhist scripture, presenting it as false an unproven. It was also used to delegitimize indigenous medicine: indigenous medicine doctors were deemed “itinerant magicians and quacks, working from grubby handbooks of divination,” and there were immense efforts to install Western hospitals and Western-trained doctors throughout the country.
Mongolian People's Party propaganda poster; Buddhist monks consuming Mongolia's wealth (livestock).
Mongolian People's Party propaganda poster; communist party controls Buddhist monks.
The eradication of Buddhist epistemology and imposition of secular education and Western medicine were central forces in a campaign to, per Heidegger, strangle the material world into predictability. To quote from Morten Pedersen’s book Not Quite Shamans, in which he discusses spirit worlds in Mongolia’s transition from socialism to a market economy,
“the spirits during the time of socialism were unable to move within the ‘frozen’ (immutable and changeless) framework of everyday… life... it was not that people didn’t believe in spirits in the socialist period but rather that, like illicit goods, these and other black (har) and nameless entities were not admitted into... the hegemony of representation at that time.”
By reducing indigenous knowledge to unproven superstition, the state was attempting to lock the supernatural into the land, eradicating the ontological possibility of the agency of protector deities.
By 1991, Mongolia had lost its Soviet funding and was in economic free-fall. Inflation rose to 300 percent, industrial production ground to a halt, state farms collapsed and food rations were instituted for the first time. As Pedersen writes, the transition away from socialism, which in effect was largely the collapse of the state, “generated a sensation of being overrun by a plethora of spirits and forces.” The spiritual world thus emerged from being locked within Enframed reality. But, and this is crucial, the spirit world emerged not outside of or in opposition to modern science, but rather within the ontology and discourse of modern science. As one Northern Mongolian man tellingly told Pedersen in the early 90s, “If you were to ask a shaman, he would say that the spirit comes from the trees themselves. But it doesn’t. It is an electric current.” In present day Mongolia, one can find similar phenomena: in the countryside, some utility poles are wrapped in prayer scarves, incorporating the electrical infrastructure into a sacred Buddhist-shamanic geography; in Ulaanbaatar’s largest Buddhist temple, monks are so inundated by prayer requests that they process them by computer.
"Electric Prayers," Clement Gelly, O. Myagmadorj, 2020
Much of this project, then, is about identifying and speculating on this merging of modern technology with religion in Mongolia. Properly speaking, and considering the wiring of modernism, this is a merging of religions—a religious syncretism. The glowing Buddhist icon is thus in part an allusion to the neon crosses and crucifixes one might find along the American highway. In Mongolia, too, we find the steady march of cruciform utility poles across the countryside, bringing light and “enlightenment.” What is so compelling here is that, rather than the typical domination of modernity over—if I might briefly borrow from Heidegger—“all that is mysterious,” we find these Mongolian spirits animating electricity, warping and imploding the strict coherence of the electrified world.
from The Arc of Heaven, Clement Gelly, 2019
I thus offer several readings of the title of this work, “Salvation, Mongolian Highway.” The first is how it draws a rough analogy between the cross for Christianity and the face of Begtse for Mongolian Buddhism. The analogy is a false one, as no religion has any symbol equivalent to the cross for Christianity—both in its ubiquity and its abstraction. The cross symbolizes salvation and Begtse does not; my intention is not to deceive the rest of the world about what Begste is and what Mongolian Buddhism is, but rather to point up this uncanny fusion of religions in Mongolia today.
The second is about the experience of neon rest stops along the highway at night. For those of us who have driven at night through Arizona or Texas, Ohio or Virginia, we know the startling calm of pulling off the road into to the gaudy lights of a tiny town. The warm night air, the buzz of the lights and the flicker of insects in their aura; a pristine calm. Like an oasis, like a kind of salvation from the darkness and monotony of the road. On the Mongolian highway, this contrast is even more stark. The potted and treacherous roads are unlit except by headlights and the night sky, and you can drive for hours without seeing artificial light. The flashing LED lights of these tiny rest-stop towns—sometimes no more than 15 houses and yurts—are a respite not just from the anxieties of bursting a tire, but from the sheer emptiness of the steppe.
Finally, the project presents the fusion of religion and electricity in Mongolia as salvation from the coherence of Enframed reality. I am putting a kind of faith and hope in the possibilities that it opens up—in the disorder it sews in gridded reality.
But of course the meaning of this work, if it exists at all, is not bound to any of these readings.