Along the Silk Road

Ronald van der Meijs is a visual artist who graduated from AKV|St.Joost Breda in 1993. He lives and works in Amsterdam and makes contextual sound installations and sculptures. In early June 2018, he travelled with his car along parts of the ancient Silk Road as part of an art project to build an installation at the steppes location of the Land Art Biennale Mongolia 2018.

I approached the Biennale from the perspective of traditional nomadic music in its contemporary manifestation. From time immemorial, music has been an important means by which nomadic peoples communicate and keep alive stories, emotions, expressions of the landscape and their history. The principle that I wanted to continue in Mongolia ties in with this.

How does man relate to nature through technology?

Recently I've been researching clouds as a natural sequencer and how they can determine a sound composition. By connecting an electric motor directly to a solar panel, the motor responds very directly to the intensity of the sun. In my work natural processes are both part and subject.

detailed installation

How does man relate to nature through technology? I let installations communicate with living matter and natural elements such as sun, water, wind, growing fruit, decay and evaporation processes. In this way the work is directed in an organic, not entirely controllable way, and rhythm, time and form are determined. I am always looking for a new symbiosis between culture and nature in which man and his technology are not opposed to nature but become an inseparable part of it.

Biennial installation A Nomadic Dyptich

To get to the locations I would travel some 14,000 kilometres. A considerable undertaking and not entirely predictable, partly because of the 32-year-old Toyota Landcruiser in which I would drive through deserts and steppe regions in Kazakhstan and Mongolia to meet nomads and cross these enormous countries. A crowdfunding, applications to the Mondriaan Fund and the Dutch Embassy were honoured and the preparations could begin.

The sound composition of the installation is determined by the rhythm of nature in which sun, clouds and wind play a leading role.

As a modern nomad, on the outward journey I would research what remains of traditional nomadic life and its music. Photographs and sound recordings of encounters would form part of the answer along with nomadic instruments that I collect along the way as testimony to the diversity of nomadic cultures in Central Asia. Sun and wind from the steppe, solar panels, electric motors and traditional materials are combined to create sound as the natural elements allow. All this is held together using construction techniques derived from Ger tents. The sound composition of the installation is determined by the rhythm of nature where sun, clouds and wind play a leading role. This 'game' of elements results in a slowly changing composition of pitches and rhythms of different stringed instruments from Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Here a parallel can be drawn with the way people react to their surroundings and modern and traditional go hand in hand in search of a universal language.

olgi, northwest mongolia

The post unforeseen already had to be taken when in the Ukraine we heard strange noises under my car. After so many kilometers you know exactly how it should or shouldn't sound, I said to Rens, an artist who wanted to join us at the last minute. Huge putholes in the sometimes rancid melted and frozen old asphalt you encounter in all corners of Central Asia. Even though you try so hard, you regularly end up in one. Not on the road but next to it is the motto.
In Russia the first shock absorbers broke off and the suspension was torn. Further across the border in Kazakhstan I had a piece of heating pipe welded under the car and one truck shock absorber was found in the area. For the other one I had to use the least bad one and drive 150 km to Aqtöbe. This pretty much sums up the journey up to Ulaanbaatar some 10,000 km further, like a slow travelling nomad, wild camping somewhere every night. It brought us to breathtakingly beautiful places and fitted in with this art project. For two months, working and documenting the art project.

This would be the place to find musical instruments and musicians and there would even be a conservatory.

With good intentions I descended into the south of Kazakhstan over beautiful immense plains of grit and stone desert. At the same time I thought about the execution of my plan. The contacts I had approached by e-mail gave no reply and my only hope was Qyzylorda in the dry south of Kazakhstan. This would be the place to find musical instruments and musicians, and there would even be a conservatory. This turned out to be a music school where children received private lessons on the Dombra, the national instrument of Kazakhstan. I bought the instrument they offered me, there was nothing else in town. With this I could write off my only point of reference. I just had to trust that it would all take shape in a natural way.

detailed installation

Despite the absence of all master builders, because they had to be in Astana for 'the day of the Dombra', I had found a few new instruments on the black market of Almaty. But still no trace of Nomads. Ok, straight through the steppe then. Bumping through the rough landscape with nothing but a dot on my navigation about 150 km north, I started to doubt my project plan. Musician nomads, beautiful used instruments with a soul and portraits of this rough people; it's a folklore image, I muttered disappointed. In this barren landscape at least. Like many tourists in Holland still think of wooden shoes and old windmills. A bit exaggerated but still. Once across the border in Western Mongolia we saw Kazakhs farming in nomadic tents everywhere, at least in the summer period. But also here the traditional music has become more folklore than common property and after a lot of searching I have to go to the black market of Ulaanbaatar to buy 'new' Mongolian nomadic instruments.

Encouraged by the satellite dish with TV in the Ger these parents also wish for a 'better' life for their children and move to the city.

I had to redefine my plans. What was going on here? And who here was looking for what? In any case, I was a kind of nomad in search of instruments. That my original plan was not feasible in my own way was reinforced by the fact that these are mostly poor areas. Even if I would meet a nomad musician, he will not sell his cherished instrument just like that, how could I think to get my instruments in such a way. Second hand trading of instruments is also not an option here. In these areas there are still 'masters' who make instruments to order. They don't hang in bunches on the wall of a music shop like we do. I was confronted with my own prejudices and ignorance about the current situation in these countries.

The whole reflects the situation in which nomads live today. With one leg in tradition and the other in the modern age of this beautiful and magical land.

It is clear that the whole country is in a transition in which even the government leaves little room for nomadic people and the climate changes are not conducive to the nomadic life with cattle on the steppe. Encouraged by the satellite dish with TV in the Ger these parents also wish for a 'better' life for their children and move to the city. Slums of Ger tents arise around the capital and the playing of traditional music threatens to disappear. I adjusted my plan; documenting photos and audio recordings of my journey to get to the site of the Biennial and realize the installation on the steppe with new instruments that are authentic but also approach the souvenir-like. It was actually an excellent revision. The whole reflects the situation in which nomads now live. With one leg still in tradition and the other in the modern age of this beautiful and magical land.

With the necessary documentation and four prepared instruments, I left after the Biennale staging location near Murun Sum with all the other artists for the capital Ulaanbaatar to set up the Biennale exhibition in the National Gallery of Modern Art Mongolia.

For more info about this trip and his work:

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