The prospect of a book of photographs depicting scenes of everyday life in Outer Mongolia may conjure up expectations of endless images of nomads in yak wool driving weary caravans along dusty desert trails or over snowy steppes. But no sooner has one ventured into Marco van Duyvendijk’s comprehensive portrait of this oddly under-chronicled country than all memories of the wistfulness of The Story of the Weeping Camel – not to mention the barbarism of Genghis Khan – are banished.
From the outset, it is clear that this compendium of images, rural and urban, industrial and pastoral, is intended as a snapshot of a culture in transition. A trio of pictures of newly born infants at the Centre for Mothers and Infants in Ulan Bator symbolically makes way, after a brief written introduction, for exactly the kind of stark landscape one normally visualises when mention is made of Mongolia. But this barren, painterly shot of a hitching post for horses, near the Amarbayasgalant monastery, Selenge province – notable for the absence of horses, and, for that matter, monastery – comes about as near to a classical depiction as the book ever gets.
From here on in, it is the conflicting legacies of communism and Buddhism, and the latter-day encroachment of Western materialism, that dominate: images of crumbling Soviet-era tenements and abandoned factories are interspersed with portraits of novice monks in scarlet and orange robes and surly looking teenage girls with pierced lips and tattooed navels.
For every few images of the new Mongolia, haunting the book like a race memory is a reminder of the old. A shot of two glowering young women, one in a stylised pin-stripe top, her arm slung round her companion, a skinhead with a swastika emblazoned on her chest, appears shortly before that of a Kazakh eagle hunter in Bayan-Olgii province, his studded belt and fur hat recalling centuries of tradition. Elsewhere, Kazakh old-timers pose in patterned headscarves, and miners puff cigarettes to their stubs as they lug sacks into snow-capped shafts. In one joyous scene, a group of women gleefully pummel and scrub the innards of a horse – their beaming faces a glowing contrast to the sombreness of most others in the volume.
Such hopeful visions of man, and woman, in communion with nature are juxtaposed with harsh reminders of the country’s decaying industrial past. On neighbouring pages, we find a crumbling Brutalist tower block or the inner workings of a deserted factory cast in a dull copper sheen, resembling the twisted metallic-organic visions of HR Geiger or a set design for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
While the subjects of van Duyvendijk’s scrutiny vary widely from page to page, all but a handful have one quality in common: a sense of stillness. As ‘documentary-style’ photographs go, the people shots are about as far removed from fly-on-the-wall portraits as it is possible to get.
With few exceptions, they appear self-consciously posed: bored-looking kids perch on rusty gates or lean against fruit machines, casting sullen gazes at the at the camera; child gymnasts contort elastically, their eyes flicking sideways to check their feats are being captured in the frame.
Commissioned by the Mongolian Consulate to catalogue the nation’s shifting identity, van Duyvendijk, a self-taught Dutch photographer who trained as a psychologist, casts his images in soft yellows, ochres and browns. For all the warmth of his pallet, though, there is something avowedly clinical and detached about his eye.