THE KEEPER OF AN ELUSIVE DIMENSION
Blessed by an advantageous geographical position, the city-state of Singapore lies at the crossroads of various countries and cultures and is thereby home to a great many global citizens. 103rd Meridian East speaks with Mark Gordon, trained anthropologist and international marketing consultant, whose passion is divided between Soviet watches, of which he possesses the world's largest private collection, and Southeast Asian tribal art, having an extraordinary collection of about 400 carved idols. His life's story is not ordinary, either.
A Unique Singaporean: American by irth, Russian at Heart
Born in the US into a family of Russian origins, Gordon had lived in New York, Hong Kong, Colombia, Namibia, Mexico City, Managua, Jakarta and Manila, until 15 years ago, when he decided to call Singapore home and acquired Singaporean citizenship. Although his parents didn't teach him Russian, Mark claims he feels Russian in two ways: emotionally and intellectually. Even struggling to be a real New-Yorker, he was always a little left-wing and trying to think out of the box. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was painted as an evil empire enslaving people and aspiring after world domination, the 15-year-old Mark Gordon gave it the benefit of the doubt. The young American dared to send a letter to the Soviet mission in New York, asking it to come and talk to his schoolmates. The most unbelievable thing was that he actually got a response and a Soviet diplomat paid the school a visit! Gordon was so thunderstruck that now, 40 years later, he still remembers the guy sitting and pulling his socks up. This gesture, so down-to-earth and human, clashed with the notion of the USSR's monstrosity and, when the Soviet diplomat bought a copy of George Orwell's 1984 at a school book fair, the stereotype was completely shattered.
Gordon reveals, "This is how I started to read about Russia, and not just about politics, but also about its history and art. In the process, I began to understand that there were certain people with whom I was intellectually comfortable: Russians and Eastern Europeans. Their approach to art, music and philosophy was deeper, more educated, more intriguing."
Online Shopper Turned Avid Collector
His interest in Russian history, culture and, more importantly, people, led Gordon's appreciation of the Soviet watch industry. During times of heavy propaganda against the USSR, he discovered these wonderful watches and realised that people who were able to produce such sheer beauty simply couldn't be slaves of the evil empire. The collector divulges, "Despite its lack of a liberal environment, Russia still had great music, great art and great philosophy. So maybe the environment was not to blame – such was the lesson I've learnt from Soviet-made watches, many of which are very interesting pieces." Today, Gordon is the proud owner of the world's largest private collection of Soviet clocks and watches, and is hailed in certain circles as a "time keeper".
The starting point for Gordon's current collection, comprising more than 1,300 timepieces, was when in 1999 he acquired a chronograph wristwatch on eBay. The chronograph was manufactured from the recycled titanium casing of an SS-20 missile in the early 1990s by the First Moscow Watch Factory (Poljot) to commemorate the detente between the US and the USSR. As Gordon posted on his website: "Out of curiosity, I decided to buy it – I wanted a souvenir of that historic agreement. When I opened the box, I couldn't believe my eyes. The case was a solid ‘brick' of expertly machined titanium with a beautiful high-precision movement inside (a Poljot 3133, to be exact). I was hooked. The rest, as they say, is history." His outstanding collection has today drawn the attention of both watch lovers and professionals globally, and has been featured in established publications such as Forbes and the International Herald Tribune.
Eternal Questions Answered by Ancestors
Having a double major in anthropology and evolutionary biology, and armed with the ideas of Claude Levi-Strauss, Gordon pursued his interest in the deep structure of culture and biologically-programmed behavioural patterns. Soon, he discovered a passion for Southeast Asian tribal art, especially ancestral figures, related sacred objects and jewellery from Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi and other places.
Dazzled by the artefacts of veneration all around Gordon's house, we listen to the collector speak about each of them with respect and admiration, putting the items in their historical, anthropological and geographical context. He points out similarities between all "primary" cultures, which used to be treated with condescension. For one, the ancestor cult was worshipped in the entire region from Siberia in Russia to Tasmania in Southern Australia.
Gordon says, "Universal in Asia before the advent of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, and still alive in Japan, Korea, China and Vietnam, as well as among the region's tribal peoples, these beliefs can be summarised by the same three eternal questions common to all religions: ‘Where did we come from?', ‘Why are we here?' and ‘Where are we going?' Ultimately, in my heart, I see them as a symbol of how all peoples, everywhere, are related."
Text Natalia Makarova
Photos of watches and statues courtesy of Mark Gordon