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Interview with Photographer Ivars Grāvlejs


At the end of 2008, Ēdnīca, the Andrejsala-based project space of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art offers its concluding show of the year, which this time is an exhibition of conceptual documentary photographs by Ivars Grāvlejs. Its title FAMU refers to Prague's Academy of Performing Arts, where Ivars studied starting in the year 2000 and graduating from it with an MA in 2007. Grāvlejs' series deal only with the noteworthy school, even more notable for its former students: the Serb film director Emir Kusturica, the Czech film director Miloš Forman and author, playwright and the last Czech president Václav Havel, to mention just a few.


Ivars Grāvlejs was interviewed by's correspondent Ilona Trokša early on the day of the 90th anniversary of the Latvian independence. Inside Andrejsala's Ēdnīca, he and girlfriend Petra were busy preparing his upcoming exhibition. 


How long did it take for you, from starting to use a camera to the moment when you started to realise yourself as a photographer?

I took my first pictures in my childhood, but the beginnings of purposeful photographic activity started at the time when I became a student with Andrejs Grants at the Centre of Technology and Creativity. Then I learnt to pay more attention to the contents of the pictures and my intention. At school, I mostly took pictures of my classmates; I became a professional photographer when I was hired as a paid employee by a newspaper. In the beginning it was Diena and then Spogulis.


What's the message of your most recent exhibition?

The exhibition provides information on the school where I studied and on myself.


How did you decide to study at the school in Prague and nowhere else?

It came to me by a recommendation, however, whenever I'm asked about this, I answer that the reason was scarcity of information. Then I really didn't have comprehensive info on FAMU, and my objective was to study in a country whose economic wellbeing would be similar to that of Latvia, since I wanted to avoid too much shock. Of course, I also wanted to master the Czech language.


Is the exhibition a way of popularising the Prague school among Latvians?

Well, if it looks so! You may call it a veiled attempt: I seem to be creating advertising for the school, however it also happens naturally, since I studied there for five years. And the exhibition becomes a report on what I studied. Do take it as a self-irony.


Was it also exhibited in Prague?

I've had many exhibitions in Prague but, no, this has not been shown there yet. I'd like to bring out the material about my school after I complete its documentation here.


You have an impressive list of past exhibitions.

That's how it goes—I'm keen on participating. Since all of my time is spent on photography, this activity greatly impacts the process of curating and project management. It's my way of living.


Do you count photography among the arts, especially the visual ones?

It's funny, but they tend to separate photography from the rest of the arts. To me, a photograph is an image, therefore it is indeed classifiable among the visual arts. The actual medium used for creating the artwork is not so important. Photographs can also be processed in different kinds of ways until the original image nearly disappears; therefore the main issue is what was depicted in the image.


What new trends and turns are there in contemporary photography?

I wouldn't say there's any radical change. It's hard to speak about a common trend because in every country there are different preferences. In the Czech Republic, for example, the documentary genre has always been strong.

I'm more interested in regarding photography within the context of contemporary art, which explains my interest in the latter. In Prague, low-budget art activity is very visible. In contemporary art, you'll note that the artist in question is increasingly incompetent in doing anything at all; the discourse focuses more on the shortcomings. Many are so bad at doing what they do... that it's considered good!


What about the arts education prospects in Latvia? Is it comparable to Prague?

It would be hard to do regarding art photography, as there are such strong traditions in Prague. Not just in Prague but also elsewhere in the country, there are lots of photo schools. And there are plenty of photographers too!

In Latvia you can either go to the Vocational School #34 to study photography or to the Latvian Culture College to do management of photography. In Liepāja, at the Academy of Educational Science, there's the School of New Media, where a number of photographers including me are among the lecturers. Further, there are of course photography clubs and the summer school of photography... but those are completely different, I'd say it's camping style.

The whole scene here is really subdued... When I visited Liepāja recently, it occurred to me that starting a school must be very hard, especially if it's a state-run school. If you go private, you need just the funds and teachers who have suitable education. It's common knowledge that most Latvian photographers have taught it to themselves, at their homes, tweaking and experimenting, and maybe discussing things with a few others, creating more pictures...


What's the role of photography in depicting a culture?

It's huge of course! The photographical approach is direct, and it may come handy—even if a photograph is like a frame that you select and from which you also leave out many things. A photograph is a frozen moment and, by regarding it, you may not even know what came before and after that moment.


What made you choose Andrejsala for exhibiting?

It was a coincidence. The organising of this exhibition was ridden with issues. See how long it has taken! Initially it was intended to organise it at the Daugava gallery three years ago, however financial difficulty ensued and it had to be postponed. After a while, Daugava was tried again, but due to road repairs the gallery had to close down during that summer. And many exhibitions were cancelled. I continued looking for an exhibition venue, and then I heard about the Andrejsala offer.


Do you think Andrejsala is useful for exhibitions and other creativity?

Obviously, but I'd also say that the range of happenings here might easily increase, as Rīga does lack active event spaces. There are also Spīķeŗi, but the rest of places only offer space to those who pay. Considering this, you'd need artwork that can be sold. Hence, those venues are in my opinion more on the commerce side, while Andrejsala offers opportunities for experimenting and relieving you from the need to plan sales of your artwork. The local galleries do not seem interested in an artist working in a certain direction and then exhibiting his or her works. But this is the freedom that artists need.


Have you made any photographs of Andrejsala and its visitors?

Just a little: I once did photography for an Austrian vortal. Last year, I attended events but have not made any photographs.


Where do you spend more time, in Rīga or in Prague?

The last year mostly saw me in Prague.


Any particular observations or sentiments, when back in Rīga?

Tough question! The last time when I returned here for a few days for my work I was so busy that I didn't even catch up with anyone, and that made me somewhat sad. This time, Petra has come with me, in order to help with the exhibition and the installation, so it's not sad at all anymore. But, if I had arrived on my own I wouldn't ring up anyone because of so many things waiting to be done. I'd perhaps only meet with people at the exhibition launch.

During my student years, whenever I came back here it seemed that vast changes had happened. Only three years after that I realised that those are changes affecting me, not Rīga. I have arrived at an understanding of sorts: I can view things from distance and my view is more unbiased.


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