Revenge on photography

Laughter lengthens your lifespan, and that’s why I could assert, that looking at Ivars Grāvlejs works is indeed healthy. At least at those moments when the viewer feels truly amused. Without making a judgement about the author’s true position, I can offer my interpretation, and humour has a particular role in it – it is an instrument of escape, medicine for those moments, which can’t be treated, or which can’t be endured in any other way. The element of wit and play in contemporary art is a consistently broadly used technique, and, to my mind, Ivars Grāvlejs makes jokes, moreover at times rather black and perilous ones. “Everything is bad”, and it’s much healthier to comprehend everything just as nonsensically lightly, as life and death in Tarantino films. And that’s what Grāvlejs does, using his privileged position in the microscopic Latvian arts context. In this situation, by privilege I mean higher education in the field of photography, which should be accorded extraordinary authority in the field (it must be borne in mind that the great majority of photographers and photographic artists across the generations in Latvia have no academic education whatsoever in this field, merely hobby groups, photo clubs, lectures, seminars and attendance at summer school). As Ivars Grāvlejs is the person, about whom Andrejs Grants specifically spoke, in 2002: “Grāvlejs, in fact, is in one of those extraordinary situations, where someone from Latvia could get a bachelors degree in photography”. The quote can be found in art historian Ieva Lejasmeijere’s article about the non existence of education in photography in Latvia “Gaidot Grāvleju” [Waiting for Grāvlejs] (“Studija”, No. 22 (February – March), 2002 – pg. 50).

Six years have passed, Grāvlejs has gained both a bachelors and a masters degree in photography, and it could be said that the promise has now been fulfilled. However, in a completely different image, to that which was possibly expected by all of the followers of traditional fine art photography, who interpret the image itself as a detached work of art which stands on its own merits, which has significant and transcendental aesthetic qualities, punctum, conscience, “a deciding moment” and similar noble attributes. One of the few professionally educated photographers in “little Latvia”, denies the intrinsic value of the photographic image, and furthermore does it in an extremely spiteful and poisonous manner. For example, the author has published an absurd series of “tips” in the newspaper “Kultūras Forums” (2005-2007), about how one should and shouldn’t take photographs (“check that the camera’s lens cap has been removed” and other similar tips). He has asked strangers he has met in the street to take his photo and then exhibited it as his work (“Excuse me, could you please take a picture of me?”, 2005). He has shown the elite of Rīga’s artistic life a fragment of a pornographic film on his mobile telephone, and filmed the reaction (video artwork “Mobile”, 2007, exhibited in Rīga at the exhibition “Mobile Museum”, 2007, and “Bad Joke”, 2008). And, finally has made fun of all amateur photographers – technocrats, by exhibiting a collection of images of photographic cameras created in collaboration with Russian artist Avdey Ter-Oganyan in a programmatic show “The Medium is the Message? Latvia’s contemporary photography” (2008).

In this exhibition spite and poison continue to flow and with the “conceptually documental photographic exhibition about FAMU”, Grāvlejs completes the circle and deconstructs and demythologizes all of “the myth of photography” at its very root (in a similar fashion to how, with the photographic camera images, the viewers are “shown” education). The author himself willingly uses the term “conceptual”, though this, in my opinion, hasn’t really meant anything for a long time; he has also maintained that “I am more interested in working in series and using photography as an aid to solve problems I have thought up myself” (Elcere L. Jaunais vilnis fotogrāfijā [New Wave in Photography] // Foto Kvartāls, No. 1(5), 2007, Appendix. – pg. 15). It must be concluded that one of “the problems I have thought up myself” is media criticism, which is very rare in the context of Latvia’s contemporary art, where the prevailing atmosphere is still introspective melancholy and an aesthetic or formal search, which doesn’t breach any ethical boundaries. Consistently investigating “weak spots” in photographic theory, practice and in myths, Ivars Grāvlejs “imagines for himself” a rebellious, opposing position, which challenges some kind of imagined “mainstream” photographic understanding, but, it seems, currently doesn’t aim to go any further than declaratory criticism. Respectively, the content of his own work becomes significant and understandable only when contrasted with the criticized object itself (the views of a group in society which are known or imagined by the author?). Like a joke “for those in the know”.

It is not easy to find parallels and associations in Latvia’s art world, which would allow one to better understand Ivars Grāvlejs’ actions, as in his media-critical theatre parody he is a rather solitary actor. Vilnis Vējš has accurately characterized this after watching the video art work “Mobile”: “Grāvlejs’ incitement rouses an unexpected admission about the art milieu’s divisions and the contemporaneous existence of isolated communities within it. As this isn’t some kind of upstart making an attack on famous and not so famous artists with their “improper offerings”, but an author, who himself can be included in Latvian contemporary art’s “refined circles”. However, it turns out that the majority of the prominent persons addressed don’t even know him. This is something to think about, isn’t it?” (Vējš V. Nelāgi izjokota skatītāja piezīmes[Remarks of a viewer who was improperly made fun of ]// Studija, No. 62 (October – November), 2008. – pg. 50) In the creation of the effect of astonishment, there could be a certain similarity with Kristians Brekte’s works, but only at a formal level, as Brekte doesn’t criticize any of the art mediums, nor is he being ironic about some kind of preconceptions, and doesn’t disclaim art work as an original, independent chef-d’oeuvre value. In the world contemporary art context, certain parallels can be seen in Berlin based British artist Tino Sehgal’s ephemeral works – performances and tableaux vivants. Tino Sehgal’s works exist without any lasting trace, without his direct involvement and without documentation about the work, like an oral tradition, like an instruction, which is given to contractors. Grāvlejs’ media-critical approach remotely relates to Sehgal’s work at Germany’s Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale (2005) – the curators of the hall danced in the empty pavilion, rhythmically chanting the phrase “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary”. Seghal denies the material nature of art works, but in his turn the denial of an art work’s uniqueness has been defined by Sol LeWitt, one of the fathers of conceptualism and minimalism, declaring that “his” work could be done by anyone by following the author’s instruction. Both denials in their way could be ascribed to Ivars Grāvlejs works – they don’t even have to be seen, it suffices that they are discussed. For example, the images of the photographic cameras in “The Medium is the Message?” – everything becomes clear without even seeing the work itself, and contact with the work does not provide any kind of additional dimension of understanding or emotional catharsis. Ivars will probably go so far in his “conceptualization” that he will stop preparing works as real photographs, in its place finding something less perceptible, than this belittled, trivialized, and ridiculed media compromising and demythologizing instrument.

Alise Tīfentāle – Art Critic, Editor-in-Chief “Foto Kvartāls” magazine
(from "FAMU" exhibition catalogue)