Dashi Namdakov is a Russian sculptor, graphic artist and jeweller. An ethnic Buryat and Buddhist by faith, he comes from the Chita region of Siberia, close to the Russian -Chinese Border. In his work Dashi draws on traditional Buryat crafts, on ancient artistic styles of the Eurasian steppes, and on Buddhist and shamanic mythology. He finds inspiration in the cultures of Scythians, Sarmatians and Hunnu, and Mongolian art of the Middle Ages.
Namdakov is very popular in Russia, Kazakhstan and China. His art can be found in the collections of the State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Museum of Oriental Art, the Russian Contemporary Art Museum in Moscow; the State Hermitage and the Russian Ethnographical Museum in St Petersburg; the Guangzhou Museum of Art in China; the National Museum of History in Taipei, and the Chi Mei Museum, Tainan, in Taiwan; and finally, in Tibet House in New York. His works are owned by such celebrities as actress Uma Thurman, businessman and collector Roman Abramovich. Among politicians, collectors include former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Russian president Vladimir Putin and the first president of Tatarstan, Mintimer Shaimiev. Namdakov’s works are spread across private collections in the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and China. London witnessed two monumental sculptures by Dashi Namdakov unveiled at Marble Arch: Genghis Khan in 2012, and She Guardian in 2015.
This autumn, Namdakov launched the Guardian of Baikal – sculpture installed by the Lake Baikal itself. This project is not just an artwork but also an environmentalist appeal to preserve a unique UNESCO heritage site under threat. The sculpture represents an old shaman, whose features show through the bark of the man-made tree – he is calm, peaceful, and powerful. The sculptor and his studio created an immersive experience installation with a smaller version of the original sculpture for the 7th Moscow Biennale at the Tretyakov gallery. Dashi Namdakov shared some of his ideas about his recent project with our correspondent Irene Kukota.
The main theme of the 7th Moscow Biennale 2017 is “Forests and Clouds”, communication and interaction between these two planes of existence. To which plane does the Guardian of Baikal belong?
The Guardian of Baikal is about interaction and, consequently, about harmony. Through a variety of advanced modern technologies it connects the “forest”, the “tribe” and the “Cloud” generation.
You collaborate with Frida Project Foundation, which helped you make the 3D printed version of your sculpture for the Biennale in Moscow. More often than not, it is technological progress, which is blamed for the destruction of traditional cultures and wildlife sanctuaries. How do you reconcile advanced technologies with ancient traditions?
As the famous Russian poet quipped: “Why quarrel fruitlessly with the age?” It took thousands of years for the changes to arrive. Also, over the ages, relational ethics and whole set of attitudes were taking shape within the Buryat culture. Our generation simply contributes to the civilizing process by bringing up our children in the tradition of careful and respectful attitude to nature. This does not always work out but we keep on trying. And here, the advanced technologies can catch the eye of young people and draw their attention to the issue, for the young intuitively grasp this language: it will communicate traditional values to them in a more understandable and accessible manner.
What made you address the issue of preserving the Lake Baikal? Is there any personal story or experience behind this?
The respectful attitude towards the Lake Baikal, as if towards a father or a mother, is inherent in the Buryat culture. We even have a reverential name for Baikal: Baikala Baabai (pronounced as Baikal Bave), which translates as “Father Baikal”. To a great extent, the myth helps protect this gift of nature for future generations.
I keep on sailing around Baikal and never cease to admire its sublime beauty. However, a consumerist, destructive attitude towards natural resources prevails among the humankind today, mainly due to the fact that we are far less attached to nature, than our ancestors used to be, and feel less responsibility for our actions. This often leads to serious and sometimes irreversible consequences. My sculpture is some kind of a cry for help, a plea to humanity: “Do not destroy beauty!”
Which attitudes practised by the ancient cultures like yours, could teach the people of today to approach the nature, the world and themselves in a different way?
First of all, one should practice respect for one’s own native culture, one’s own land and the people living there. Our ancestors understood the importance of connecting with the nature of their native land and felt the need to look after their environment. Obviously, nowadays, when we live in cities and come into contact hardly with anything else but man-made objects, this bond grows weak. I have visited many places and still travel a lot but I can properly rest only at home, where I have the opportunity to get back to my roots, where my life and my path as an artist began.
You represent a totally unexplored and not much known cultural aspect of Russia in the West. How do you feel about being an ambassador of the Buryat culture?
I hope that I represent the culture of my people, both in its traditional and contemporary aspects, with dignity and honesty.
Your father was also an artist. How did this influence you and your professional choice later in life? Have you always wanted to be an artist?
My father, very much like our whole artistic family, undoubtedly influenced my future professional choice. However, one’s own individual inclinations should not be discounted either: I have always aspired to be an artist.
How much time do you dedicate to your studio work? Could you tell us a little about the studio in the UK?
In any of my studios, anywhere in the world, I spend most of my time. Sketching, drawing, clay modelling – this is an ongoing process. Sometimes an air plane or a car can become my improvised studio: even when on the move, I never stop thinking the way I do — “with my hands”. The studio in London is always full of guests: we meet, we discuss projects. There my new sculptures are being born. Being linked to the Western context, they are more complex for me to make. Even though, I sometimes find this need to adapt challenging, it is great!
How do you manage to stay contemporary while addressing the archaic? How do you find your images? Frankly, they look somewhat alien, as if from another planet. And at the same time, they bear features, specific to the Buryat and other Siberian cultures. Is art some kind of shamanism for you?
Art is magic, you are right. Each sculpture is charged with my energy. With us, in Buryatia, any silver ornament made by a darkhan (i.e. a craftsman – I.K.), fulfils a protective magical function: it wards off “evil” spirits from a person or their home. Perhaps, this has somehow been passed down onto me through the generations of my ancestors. And yet, I live in the 21st century, travel all over the world, encounter the most interesting people of our times and enjoy the Zeitgeist, its energy. So, here is another planet for you.
Do you plan to take the Guardian of Baikal to London?
I have not been thinking of this yet.
You also experimented with VR technologies in the Guardian of Baikal in Moscow. How Virtual Reality adds to the main message expressed in the sculpture itself?
Is not it amazing, that in a fraction of a second one gets transported from the heart of Moscow to the other end of the world, and feasts one’s eyes on the beauty and magnificence of the Lake Baikal! In normal circumstances, Baikal is not so easy to travel to, but by means of Virtual Reality one can see the sculpture within its natural setting, which also helps to explain its original idea. If one respects nature and tradition, the nature lovingly returns this hundredfold.