March 2018

Leila Timmins: I feel like it is important to begin with some context for this project. Although it has taken different forms, it is something you have been working on for many years and will continue to develop into a body of work much larger than what is shown here. Could you start by telling us about your connection to Latvia and the places where these images were taken?

Zile Liepins: I was born in Toronto to Latvian refugees, and grew up in the Latvian community here, immersed in Latvian culture. As is the case of many first generation Canadians, what I was taught about my ancestral homeland was very different from reality, especially given that my family hadn't lived there since 1944. After finishing university, I wanted to see what it was like for myself, and ended up living in Latvia for four years. It was during this time that I started shooting film again, mostly pictures of my friends and surroundings. Photography ended up being an important tool to ask questions and define my national identity for myself. I've been back in Toronto since 2011, but I’ve kept going back every year. 

All of the images in this exhibition were taken in the region of Latgale, near the Russian border. The region is culturally very close to Russia and most people speak Russian. It is an interesting area because in some parts Latvian television signals aren’t even made available so many people only get Russian stations. It means they are watching Russian news, which influences their worldview. At the same time, many ethnic Russians are happy to be Latvian and people in this region are incredibly hospitable and warm. If a Russian advancement were to take place and they were going to invade Latvia, this is where they would cross, this is the land they would occupy first.

Many of the images are taken right on the border. You can see watchtowers and the forested landscape which is often a section of the border as well as other small markers. As you can see it's very quiet and green, unlike what we may imagine the Russian border to be like, based on headlines. I want the images to hold this contradiction and tension. In one of the images there is a post that reads "Draudzības Kurgāns" (Friendship Mound) in Latvian on one side and Russian on the other. It is from soviet times, placed where the Russian, Latvian and Belarusian borders meet. It's said that people from these three soviet republics would hold joint Sunday markets here, which sounds like idyllic propaganda, but also a lot friendlier than how we think of borders now.

I’ve been shooting in Latvia since 2008, but this project was sparked in 2015 or so. There had been a lot of anxiety with mounting global tension between Russia and the West. Most of my friends had hatched emergency escape plans. An article had been recently published which clearly outlined a number of military and political moves that had happened in 1939 before Latvia was occupied and it identified that many of the same events had already occurred in 2015. I think that article was fear-mongering and its predictions didn’t come true, but that winter I remember parting from my friends with a mutual sense of uncertainty about the circumstances under which we would see each other next. This long-term project stems from that unease.

The title for the show “Enchanted Forest Presence” is a play on the NATO operation “Enhanced Forward Presence” which stations Canadian troops along the Russian border in Latvia. Can you speak about what drew you to documenting this military presence and the documentary strategies you use to both capture this presence and also the enduring essence of the place?

When the NATO soldiers were deployed, they placed multinational battle groups from the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and Canada in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. Canadians are leading the operation in Latvia, and I was interested in this pairing quite simply because I’m a Latvian Canadian. Soldiers from my homeland are stationed in my ancestral homeland, yet the two nations are very distant and aren’t necessarily familiar with each other. I think Canadians are confused about this operation and Canada's role in it. While I support the mission, I have a lot of questions myself. When I continue this project this summer, I hope to meet some of the soldiers and witness their stories. How are they being received? How do they feel living in the Baltics? Historically, the Baltics have been perpetually occupied nations and especially the older citizens have witnessed a lot of foreign military presence. The Canadian presence is by no means an occupation, but for people growing up constantly surrounded by foreign soldiers, does this NATO presence elicit feelings of security or unease for locals? I'm interested in witnessing this presence, without imposing my own views. Just as I'll be physically approaching the Russian border from both sides when I continue this project this summer, I want to approach the question from both sides. If you talk to people living near the border, they're asking, well, who's advancing on who? Who's provoking who? Russia hasn’t made any physical moves, but they are tampering with the news and planting fake stories, they’ve positioned planes and ships at the edge of the Baltics, but there hasn’t been a visible military advancement so as a far as a very clear motion, it’s come from the west – it’s come from NATO so who’s attacking who is being questioned. There are two sides to every argument, and I’m interested in witnessing both sides.

My approach is not journalistic in the sense that you won't see images of NATO soldiers in training. As we’ve discussed, it's documentary in many ways, but it's also not. The images aren't literal or narrative, instead I am trying to capture moments and visual markers that surround this complex issue and place.  For instance, there are traces of past war everywhere. Latvia is smattered with soviet bunkers and monuments, and structures from the Russian empire. I'm interested in documenting these physical traces on the landscape, and the cultural traces I see in plastic flowers, a plastic bag used as a purse and the giant hogweeds–an invasive species imported by Russians to feed livestock but are brutally poisonous to humans. All of these small markers reveal the history of this place. I'm curious what kind of traces the NATO presence will leave.

The NATO presence in Latvia and the Baltics suggests the possibility of an invasion from Russia or at least represents a symbolic resistance. The geopolitical tensions are certainly building right now, but it is also a very different time than the era of the Cold War.  How do you see this tension playing out in Latvia and what would a potential invasion look like?

Yes, that is why NATO is there, to make its resistance seen. The perspective is that by NATO being stationed there as a preventative, protective measure - there’s no actual fighting - they’re sending a signal to Russia that we’re allied and if Russia invades the Baltics, they are basically declaring war on all NATO countries. The Baltics are a gateway to Europe for Russians. It is such a fraught, contested area because while historically its place is in Europe, it was occupied by Russia for so long, that now it seems that both sides are fighting over these little countries stuck between two giants. The Baltics are buffer between Russia and Western Europe, so of course they both want control over them.

In preparing for this exhibition, we talked about the many narrative arches or themes that are at play in the work. I want to draw some of these out and hear more about how walls and barriers as well as their absence become symbols in the work.

As much as I feel that people should have the freedom to live in independent nations, and borders protect them, I think borders are arbitrary fluid inventions. Borders move. Countries change. This summer I'll be traveling to Abrene, a region formerly in Latvia that was ceded to Russia in 2007. So in this situation - you live in one country and the next day you are in another. You need a visa to visit your childhood home or family, your government is different. How does that work? Yet, when visiting the border you'll find that a large part of it is simply wild lush forest. Only in one section did I see a fence with barbed wire, which was being newly built. Some say that if there is a war with Russia, it will be, or already is, a hybrid war, an information war. In this case, physical walls are useless.

How do you quantify borders in a psychological space - because I don’t think the goal is to come in and kill Latvians – I think the point is to gain control. It sometimes feels like Russia keeps doing all of these outrageous things so that the moment people get desensitized to it, they’ll swoop in because we’ve stopped paying attention. The old soviet bunkers and the physical heavy walls are traces of the past, while the borders to Western Europe are open through the European Union, and Russia is physically separated by little more than a line of trees.

Yes, I want to talk about the forest and the nature-based spirituality that the work references. There is such a lush quality to the forest images with rich green tones and flowers but when you look closer, many of the objects in these images are made of plastic. What does this relationship signify for you?

Over 50% of Latvia is forested and it’s statistically one of the top “greenest” countries in the world, so it makes sense that the forest has become such an important source for so many things, including spirituality. I’ve never seen a cemetery in Latvia that’s not in a forest. There’s a forest called Pokaiņi which is a popular destination for the superstitious to commune with and benefit from mystical energies that supposedly radiate in the stones there. A story that’s always stuck with me is  Kārlis Skalbe’s Dvēseļu Mežs (Forest of Souls), in which a boy loses his mother in a forest, and when he finds her, her feet implant into the ground  and she turns into a tree before his eyes, and he realizes that each tree in that forest represents a soul. Speaking to the history of war, the Forest Brotherhood formed resistance against the soviets in the woods, and I like that the forest also consumes physical history. Military structures from former times become overgrown by trees, bushes, grass and flowers. So the forest hides, protects and nurtures.

When I go to Russian cemeteries in Latvia, I always notice the plastic flowers. Given the connection with nature I’ve described and that cemeteries are IN an area surrounded by foliage, plastic flowers seem startlingly out of place. They're often neon, and stand straight next to wilted brown natural roses someone else has left. In a place so ripe with nature, it seems unnatural to bring in plastic flowers. I understanding the logic behind it, but it’s an absurd logic. That bench in the photograph in the centre vitrine which is practically buried in a remote forest cemetery, is covered in plastic grass!

This, for me, is one of the small markers of cultural differences that are everywhere. I don’t see plastic flowers in Latvian cemeteries. Latvians and Russians live side by side in Latvia quite peacefully and share certain values, but in many respects the cultures are fundamentally different, which I think a lot of people don't understand. The Soviet Union was comprised of a rich group of previously independent countries with very rich and varied traditions and belief systems, yet people are constantly assuming I speak Russian or at least understand the Cyrillic alphabet, for example.   

I feel like there is a connection between the way you employ beauty and aesthetics as a way of telling stories in your work. There is a softness in the portrait images and many of the images kind of sparkle or have a feeling of being enchanted, like your title suggests.

My background is in painting and printmaking. I aim to do socially engaged work and tell stories, but it’s important to me as an artist that the work be attractive. I’m interested in creating artworks that surround the story, connected to real people and issues that are important to me. I think a lot about colour and composition, beyond sharing details of the story. I feel like this series has indeed captured the enchanted.  Latvia in the summer feels like a magical land; the air in the countryside is clean, the people are authentic, hospitable and spontaneous, everything is organic just because it never stopped being organic, you’re always going on adventures, swimming in the middle of the night, and falling asleep in a pile of friends…maybe that’s where the magical look in the images comes from.