Genuineness, clarity and harmony.
The disarming photos of Ieva Epnere
By Roel Arkesteijn
In a recent interview, the photographer and video artist Ieva Epnere said her time away from Latvia and her stay at the HISK in Ghent has given her artistic momentum. “Probably this year and a half has been the best thing that could have happened in my creative life,” she says. “I feel that the stopper is out, I feel liberated, whereas in Riga it was difficult. To be honest, I found oppressive the things that go on in the little art world of Latvia. I needed to come to Belgium in order to understand what I want to do in Latvia, what ideas to realise. Here I can think and work. In Riga I had to put in twice as much effort and often I began to wonder why I’m actually doing it all [...] Since I’ve been in Ghent, nothing like that ever crosses my mind – I want to work.” (1) During her residency at the HISK, Epnere has produced countless new photos and videos, and in a departure from her usual work has experimented with media such as sound and sculpture.
One of Ieva Epnere’s most touching recent works is the photo series in the making entitled 1 September. In 2011 she began taking photos of the schoolchildren in the Purvciems neighbourhood of Riga, who on the first day of the school year, 1 September, traditionally dress up in their best clothes. On this day they often arrive with a bouquet of flowers for the teacher. Over the coming years Epnere plans to return to Riga annually on 1 September to continue working on the series. The results up to now are impressive in their simplicity. The children pose for the camera like young adults. In these images, time seems to stand still. “I was really surprised that so little has changed since I went to school myself,” Epnere observes. “Hair is still done up with white ribbons, hands are full with bouquets of gladiolus and asters etc. I was also fascinated by the way the children posed for me – like little grown-ups.[…] to my mind, it is something so peculiar that still continues to be done in Latvia. It truly is a phenomenon that is not practised anywhere else in Europe. When I exhibited this work in Ghent, viewers asked whether it was a graduation, or a First Communion.”
The 1 September series, with its blend of documentary and staged aspects and the moving, in a sense autobiographical choice of subject, is characteristic of Epnere’s work. The photographer first tried out this combination in the series The Green Land (2010). In the series she turned her camera on the Latvian village of Vaiņode, where in her youth she used to spend three months in the summer every year, and which since then has undergone a complete transformation. During the Soviet era Vaiņode was a lively place, with a strategically located military airbase forming the centre of the community. In Epnere’s photos the village now seems to have dozed off. The former zeppelin hangars are now used as pavilions for the central market in Riga, the railway station closed down in 1997, the buildings that once housed the families of the servicemen have become derelict and slowly turned into fields. There is something unreal about the fresh, green, almost fluorescent landscapes with their inhabitants in rustic clothing. These are not landscapes still familiar to us in the west. It is a land of milk and honey, which we now only know from paintings. The scenes in the photos make one think of pastoral paintings – of the sun-drenched works by late 19th or early 20th century painters like Giovanni Segantini, Theo van Rijsselberghe of Ferdinand Hart Nibbrig. So it comes as no surprise that Ieva Epnere began her artistic career knotting wool carpets and from this perspective became occupied with problems of painting before she devoted herself to photography.
The Arcadian paradises Epnere portrays are unmistakably contemporary. In the margins of her photos the Walmarts and Ikeas are advancing. Whether it is the intense video portrait of the solitary life of the peasant woman Zenta, or portraits of Flemish people in typical Flemish landscapes (the photo series Their Flemish Landscapes), many of Epnere’s works seem to be somehow melancholy reports of worlds that threaten to disappear due to advancing globalisation and big business. Centuries-old traditions and modernity appear to be in conflict. Via her photo and video cameras she seems to want to hold on to that which threatens irrevocably to disappear.
The artist however says that different motives underlie her recent work: a quest for her identity, her family history, and in particular to discover the Russian soul. Epnere talks about exploring the Russian roots of her own existence, of a mysterious “longing for something I don’t know.” (2) She says the rural traditions she portrays are so firmly embedded that in her eyes they will always exist. “The issue of identity is on my mind all the time,” she said. “My mother is Latvian and my father is Russian, so I have two temperaments cohabiting in me, which probably affects my creative working process.” As a former Russian Navy officer, her father never bothered to acquire Latvian citizenship. In his youth he left Siberia to serve in the army, and afterward he studied in Moscow. Having climbed the ranks to become an officer, he was transferred to Latvia. Shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed, he retired and worked as a managing director of two bakeries.
As a child Epnere was always surprised at the division in Latvian society. At home, however, talking about politics, the history of the country or her parents’ personal histories were taboo. Recently she travelled to Vologda, in Russia, where her great-grandmother on her mother’s side was born. During her journey to her roots, Epnere trod in the footsteps of the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and visited the cities of Vladimir and Suzdal – locations where in 1965 Tarkovsky shot his famous film on the fifteenth century painter of icons and frescos, Andrei Rublev. Vladimir is an almost 1000-year-old city which for two centuries was the capital of Russia and the place where Russian princes were crowned.
A highlight in Epnere’s oeuvre to date is the photo series Mamma (Mother), which she started in 2011 and which has the nature of a work in progress. Again the work has an autobiographical dimension. In her dual role as visual artist and mother of a young daughter, in Ghent Epnere began questioning the combination of these roles, and about the apparent absence of a cult of the family in Belgium. “This work resulted from my own experience of being a mother, and my closest friends are also mums – one of them has even got three kids! Since I’ve been living in Belgium, the question of being at the same time a mother and an artist has become an important topic for me - how to distribute time and energy, how to be a good mother without losing the freedom to think and create. Here, in Belgium, many artists choose a life without children, or postpone it till some distant future. Of course there are exceptions, too. Because most of my female friends are creative people – there’s a textile artist, a graphic artist, and a film director – I thought it was high time that we should discuss this subject. It’s a topic talked about reluctantly, because it goes without saying that an artist needs silence and time for himself or herself, but if you have a child, you can’t be saying “Wait!” all the time. I started this series in summer last year, when I’d already spent half a year in Ghent. When I returned to Latvia, I asked ‘my’mums to pose for photos.” In the way that many of Epnere’s works are reminiscent of paintings, the photos unmistakably evoke associations with icons of the Madonna with child. The poses of the women in the photos reveal much about the interaction between mothers and their children. Epnere regularly returns to new photos of her friends and their growing children. The photos are accompanied by texts in which Epnere asks the mothers to reflect on the relationship between being an artist and being a mother – and in particular the tension between the two. The texts show that not all is peace and harmony, as the seemingly idyllic photos suggest. One of the women portrayed explains how her initial euphoria about motherhood turned to despair; another talks about the ‘inescapable fate’ her pregnancy represented and how she considered an abortion; a third compares her devotion to her children with the death throes of a spawning salmon. Epnere says that in her photos she is constantly in search of genuineness, clarity and harmony. If there is one work in which she succeeded painfully clear in this effort, it is the disarming Mother series.
Roel Arkesteijn was born in 1974 in The Hague, The Netherlands. After his studies in art history at Leyden University, Arkesteijn has worked as curator of modern art at the Museum of Modern Art in Arnhem, The Stedelijk Museum in Schiedam and the GEM,
the museum of contemporary art in The Hague. Since 2008, he is curator of contemporary art at Museum Het Domein in Sittard.
(1) Laine Kristberga, ‘The stopper is out! A conversation with the artist Ieva Epnere’, **.
(2) Verbal statement by Ieva Epnere to the author, Ghent, 28 September 2012.
Text from the - About Waves and Structure. Behavior, Disagreement, Confidence and Pleasure,
Exhibition Catalogue HISK laureates 2012, edited by Nicolaus Schafhausen and Cathérine Hug,
published by HISK.
RENUNCIATION FROM THE WORLD.
Ieva Epnere is a Latvian artist who is producing photo, video and installations that represent various aspects of Latvian life. Epnere’s film ‘Renunciation’, already shown in the Latvian pavilion of the Venice Biennale, is being screened at the 6th Moscow Biennale.
‘Renunciation’ is a 20 minute short film about a Catholic priest and his modest and lonely life, appropriate to his status.
The first scene shows a typical Baltic landscape: steel-coloured sea waters, dense fog and shore bushes being torn apart by wind. A lonely figure appears in this austere landscape.
One of the obvious artistic solutions is using these kinds of shots: intentionally picturesque, ideally framed with perfect geometry, like being directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. There is similar mix of landscapes and close ups, similar silent brutality of nature, similar harsh Northern charm, familiar to the audiences of ‘The Return’ and ‘Leviathan’.
However the highly artistic picture is not the only thing that the audience is faced with: in the process of watching the film, one gets to discover his internal voyeur. This ‘peeping effect’ is achieved through the artist and her camera’s focus on hardly visible details: a heavily knitted sweater, narrow buttonholes of a shirt, a trembling pencil. This pencil, actually, belongs to the priest mentioned above who experiences the impossibility of art on a daily basis.
The priest is trying to draw. Then he is looking through the catalogue with the pictures of Baltic beauties, wearing a traditional outfit; a catalogue that reminds the one from any exhibition devoted, let’s say, to Latvian craft and national costume. An ordinary catalogue that is being read in the moment of leisure. An ordinary documentation of the daily life, but there’s something else there, something breaking through the shots, elusive feeling of concern. One may see that every gesture of the priest lets on his inner tension; and holding back this tension demands a lot of effort.
The priest lays down the ritual fabrics with golden patterns, he is putting them one on one, red velvet gives way to purple brocade. This process, in which pragmatic meaning remains unclear for the audience, seems to bring real enjoyment (tactile? visual?) to the priest. Layered fabrics become a metaphor for the complex structure of experience of our interaction with art — sensual, intellectual, even religious. Piousness has to be understood in terms of phenomenology: it is both the ritual of creation / admiration, and the enchantment by creation, i.e. an obsessive desire to see mystery and the inexplicable power in the latter. Being enchanted, feeling small and fragile in the face of something great and astonishing is a religious kind of experience usually described with the word ‘awe’. The priest is well aware that the fact of human’s creation in the image and likeness of Creator first and foremost means the said human’s ability to create. But in order to create, it is necessary to abandon one’s feeling of awe and humility that was once turned into readiness for eternal service. This is hardly possible within the institute of Catholic church.
In the film one sees the priest buttoning up his black soutane. Each button goes into the hole, and, despite his fingers trembling, the process comes to an end. Is such a serene completeness possible in art? Very unlikely. Art is about being concerned, it is eternal evolvement, continual movement away from the self. Impossibility of art is a still water in the lake that appears in the final scenes of Epnere’s film. It seems to remind of tranquility and moderation, of will and taming the passions. But renunciation here is not about suppression of the flesh and spirit, it is renunciation of the world; for the world is no different from art.
Text: Marina Simakova.