From the Age of Glasnost to the Age of Unease?

I was very pleased and humbled when Zile Liepins approached me about the idea of writing a short essay about the exhibition, Latvian Photographers in the Age of Glasnost, that first opened on May 18, 1991 at the Toronto Photographers Workshop – twenty-seven years ago almost to the day. The exhibition went on to tour acros Canada to nine additional venues, finishing in early 1993 in Edmonton. It featured the photographic work of seven Latvian photographers, Uldis Briedis, Andrejs Grants, Gvido Kayons, Valts Kleins, Aivars Liepins, Inta Ruka, Martins Zelmenis and was accompanied by a thoughtful introductory essay by Mara Gulens.

It is notable, of course, that Liepins has titled her show as a kind of echo of that exhibition but with a twist that recognizes how changed the local and global circumstances are for young Latvian photographic artists, a point to which I will return at the end of my text. Latvian Photographers in the Age of Glasnost caught th zeitgeist of a head-spinning period from the late 1980s to the early 1990s that saw the Berlin Wall fall and the once seemingly immovable Soviet empire crumble. While global events were swirling around us at that moment, the roots of the exhibition are found, however, in the realm of the personal and arriving at it was a circuitous journey.

In the mid-1980s I had produced my first installation work as an artist, delving into a mysterious news story about an amnesiac found on a beach in Italy who “remembered” that he was Canadian. In  esearching this story, I began to realize how little I knew of my own family history, as the son of postwar Latvian immigrants to Canada. My desire to know more led to two extended art projects tha took me several times to Latvia in the late 1980s and early 1990s (I was the first from my family to visit). While there trying to navigate the strangeness of meeting barely-known relatives as well as dealing with the wavering but still authoritarian regime in place I also met many members of the photography community and saw the subtle, intelligent and deeply impressive work being done in Latvia.

My partner, Anne Egger, is of Swiss heritage and, in 1989 during a visit to her family, I went to the well-known photography museum, the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland. In conversations with the director, Henri Favrod, and curator, Philippe Lambelet, it arose that the Musée was planning a massive exhibition in 1990 o photography from the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, to be called L’Année de l’Est. They offered to send me to Latvia to curate a selection of work for their exhibition so I took that opportunity to also look for work that could be part of a smaller, more tightly-focused Toronto exhibition on a theme that I felt I had identified in my first travels to Latvia. This theme recognized that the period of glasnost, a moment of opening due to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’ liberalizing tendencies and the subsequent slackening of some of the more authoritarian Soviet tendencies, had created a new figurative space for photography in Latvia at that moment – a more realistic vision of the streets and social and political activities of Latvia and  Latvians in the last days of Soviet empire. Prior to that, Latvian photography often had taken a more insular, coded form as so man subjects were forbidden and censored for often absurd reasons (for example, one photographer showed me a bucolic image of the Latvian countryside that, a few years earlier, was not allowed to be sent out of the country by state censors due to an insufficient number of cows being present in the image!).

It is worth pausing for a moment in this narrative to reflect on the Musée de l’Elysée’s ambitious exhibition as, sadly, it was undocumented. No catalogue was produced due to financial constraints. For this reason it now exists mainly in the memories of those who saw it or took part. While the exhibition in Toronto feature the work of seven Latvian photographers, the L’Année de l’Est, taking place in a large exposition hall in the centre of Lausanne, showed the work of at least a hundred photographers from all across what was then known as the Eastern Bloc as well as countries such as the Baltic states that had been subsumed within the Soviet Union. What was especially notable about this remarkable event was that all of the photographers (and even members of their families) were invited to Lausanne and billeted with Swiss families who had indicated their willingness to be hosts. Many of the Latvians who arrived by train had never been outside of Soviet territory before and here they were now in one of the richest capitalist countries on the planet. Jan was celebrated that year by them with a fire in the garden of the Musée de l’Elysée overlooking Lac Léman and the French Alps. It is also worth recalling how the photographs themselves arrived in Lausanne from Latvia. The photographers packed their photographs into old photo paper boxes that were placed in the back seat of photographer Valts Kleins’ car (I can’t remember if it was a Lada!). He too several days to drive from Riga to Lausanne – one hell of a road trip at that time, especially for someone who only carried a Soviet passport. By contrast, while the task of curating an intelligent group exhibition remains just as challenging today, our digital age has produced some significant and positive technological opportunities for curators and artists that were not available twenty-seven year ago. The photographers taking part in her exhibition were able to send Liepins their digital image files via the internet to be printed here in Toronto, thus eliminating transportation costs as well as alleviating concerns about the safety of artworks in transit.

As noted, the generosity of the Musée de l’Elysée (and the exceptional help of Valts Kleins) allowed for a selection of some of Latvia’s most engaged (and engaging) photographers to also be made for the smaller exhibition that the Toronto Photographers Workshop (Gallery TPW) had enthusiastically approved. The groundswell of general interest in the spectacle of the rapidly collapsing Soviet Union and its satellites - Latvia regained independence in August 1991 - allowed us to successfully fundraise for a high quality publication supported by donors from the Latvian community. It also saw the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario officiate at the opening, allowed us to invite Kleins and Gvido Kayons to undertake artist’s residencies with Gallery TPW and Toronto Image Works and, finally, to undertake the organization of an extensive multi-city tour of Canada for the exhibition.

It is sobering, after recalling those heady and hopeful days that accompanied the original exhibition, to consider Liepins’ title for her show – Latvian Photographers in the Age of Unease. Today, while Latvia is a member of the United Nations, NATO and the European Union it also remains situated geographically next to a Russia that  seems to be embracing a return to a quasi-Cold War mentality complete with a nationalist nostalgia for empire and one-man rule. As well, the disturbing instability that reigns in the current government of the United States hardly inspires political confidence. Finally, a roller coaster economy in recent years has resulted in employment and economic uncertainty for many younger Latvians. However, just as was shown twenty-seven years ago, even as young artists honestly reflect their time they also offer pathways forward. In their democratic belief that artistic activity can yield alternatives to official narratives the necessary discussions about the future are contributed to and widened.

Vid Ingelevics
May 2018