For me as an artist, it is essential to work with private meaning in order to discover what is significant.
Latvia, a country situated at the eastern end of the Baltic Sea, has had a turbulent history in the latter half of the last century and into the new millennium. The region broke from German control to become a sovereign state following the First World War, only to be forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union at the commencement of the Second. A year later, Nazi Germany invaded, occupying the country until 1944, when Soviet Russia wrested back control. In the forty-five years that followed, generations of Latvians grew up with the tenets of Soviet communism drummed into them: hard work and sacrifice of the self for the greater wellbeing of the people. When the Soviet bloc crumbled at the beginning of the 1990s, Latvia escaped the communist frying pan to find itself in the fire of capitalism. The old industries melted away and the economy grew on the bases of overheated domestic spending and escalating debt, leaving it ill-prepared for the economic crash of 2008. Nonetheless, today Latvia has recovered to become a free and economically developed part of Europe.
But what of those who have lived through this turbulent post-war period? How does one navigate the changing tides of ideology to anchor a sense of personal and social identity? For the artist Alnis Stakle, it is this historical undertow that directs much of his creative work. Born into the final decade and a half of Soviet occupation, his formative years were shaped by the ideologies of individual sacrifice and an unquestioning reliance upon the state. In his early adulthood he learned the harsh lessons of Neoliberalism, that economic freedom and individual vulnerability are two sides of the same capitalist coin. Happily, in recent years, he has, like his country, prospered, becoming a respected academic and artist. Yet the door to the past never fully closes.
Alnis Stakle’s artmaking has none of the intellectual certitude that can too often constrain the creative practice of an academic. Having lived amid that tectonic shift of political paradigms, his images hover in a liminal space between the poetics of melancholy, a shield of self-irony, and a faint flicker of wistful hope. His earlier series are elegies on the lost and the neglected, abandoned in the haste of history. In his most recent work, he escapes the world of the real to journey through its multifarious representation, searching for patterns and structures that might give meaning to the chaos of excess. Like fragments of an unevenly scraped palimpsest, his images are imbued with a poignant uncertainty. Recognising, perhaps, that an imperfect understanding is ultimately truer than an ideal.
What drew you to photography as your medium of choice?
I am introvert by nature and spent quite a lot of my childhood roaming alone in nature. When my parents gave me a camera, it became a natural part to my everyday life as a teenager. After I left school, I was bored by all the stuff my peers enjoyed, and photography became a way to escape the mundane that surrounded me day in and day out.
I would like to begin by discussing an early series of mostly self-images called ‘Nothing Personal’. How did this begin?
These are some of my first works and they have come to define the essence of photography in my life. They map the personal journey of a creative person who is bewildered by the countless opportunities, external demands, and ambiguous internal needs colliding in and around him. Auto-ethnographic, self-therapeutic… Looking back, I realised that for me as an artist it is essential to work with private meaning in order to discover what is significant. I also understood that I am not prepared to bend to the trends that rule the artworld, though I recognise this could be considered a setback for an artist’s career.
Was this work primarily therapeutic, helping you to ‘find yourself’?
For me personally, this work is a reflection on the continual searching for (and seemingly finding) myself. However, the syntax of photography is also about visual narration in public spaces. I think for the audience this work conveys a poetic, self-ironic message about both the clichés of photographic language and about the way images seem to capture the private and the authentic. Hence, ‘Nothing Personal’.
Tell me about the series ‘Ex-Pride’?
I spent the first fifteen years of my life living in the Soviet Union. It was a strange time. We were spoon-fed with the superiority of socialism, labour, and self-sacrifice for your country in the interests of national wellbeing. This, we were told, was the supreme meaning of life. In 1990, the Soviet world collapsed like a house of cards. There was a complete economic apocalypse in Latvia, and across the entire Soviet territory. Industry, which had been one of the pillars of Soviet ideology, was simply too ineffective to survive the harsh realities of capitalism. In the years that followed, my friends and I spent a lot of time roaming around abandoned factories. Later, I returned there with my camera.
For me, ‘Ex-Pride’ flows organically from ‘Nothing Personal’. It is not, of course, based on a performance in front of the camera, stepping instead into the territory of collective memory. Yet it is something equally private and grounded in the same quest for self-knowledge. These interiors are, in a sense, like self-portraits and, by the way, strongly resemble the places in my dreams.
Moving into the outside world, there is a similar sense of desolation in your series called ‘Not Even Something’…
The political system of a country may change overnight, but not its society nor, especially, its urban environment. The photographs in this series were taken in urban territories that had lost their sense of purpose. Non-places, their meaning deleted by an epochal transformation that had left them behind. Now, they are accessed simply to get from one part of the city to another. This is particularly obvious in winter when the footprints leave ribbons in the snow. Traces that connect ideology, urban planning, and the everyday rituals of city dwellers in ways that still bear echoes of the Soviet collective past.
[Left + Right] © Alnis Stakle – from the series ‘Theory of R’ 2011–19
The focus of ‘Theory of R’ goes in close. What was the original idea when you began this work documenting lost gloves?
This series has changed its meaning for me over time. When it began, I had recently moved to Riga and my initial intention was to depict the city following the economic crisis. Increasing emigration, falling GDP, growing national debt, and then, in 2014, the adopting of the euro. The lost gloves were socio-politically interesting for me, but also somehow held a more personal significance.
How did this series change for you?
Unfortunately, the external crisis coincided with a private one, though I did not immediately realise how tragic they both really were. My wife and I lost a baby during pregnancy. We somehow lived through it, and everything seemed to go back to normal. Yet ‘Theory of R’ hovered somewhere at the back of my mind… It is hard to explain, but there was an ongoing sense that something remained unfinished, unsaid, unrealised… I tried many ways of working with those photos. In the end, I became aware that all my documentary intentions and artistic aspirations were essentially an attempt to escape from myself. It was not Riga and the effects of the economic crisis that mattered to me, but rather my internal cowardice and self-delusion. Certainly, it can also tell a thing or two about Riga to a stranger who is willing to accept the artist’s self-ironic explorations… the failure at the heart of it all.
The final work I would like to discuss is extensive and epic in scale, ‘Mellow Apocalypse’.
About four years ago, I began collecting pictures from publicly available scientific, art, and photojournalistic image repositories. At first, I tried to work in a kind of photo-assembling tradition that resembled the aesthetics of commercial photography. But, after I had made about fifty collages, I realised that everything I had done was basically no good. The turning point came when I was making a collage and realised that it was not only a comment on a world oversaturated with images, but also a self-portrait. That said, of course, every artwork involves a symbiosis between the collective and private meanings that it carries.
What are you looking for in these archives?
I am interested in what can be discovered about the iconic themes to be found in open-access image repositories. Typically, searches lead to several hundred images. These I examine, looking for unifying features such as a hand gesture, a pose, an architectural structure, or the layout of a landscape. Depending on the parameters permitted by a given database, I may search by specific keywords such as a genre, or a particular personality, object, or location. Sometimes the search is very focused. For instance, if I want to find a depiction of murder in paintings or photographs from a certain period of time. At other times the search is more tentative, less precise, because I do not know the full extent of the particular database. I may need to browse through thousands of images before I come across something new that interests me. Then again, there are some archives one can never make head or tail of.
How is the work constructed?
The collages are put together over a long period of time. I begin with a concept, but I do not yet have a clear sense of how it will look. It is like making a jigsaw puzzle from several sets of pictures; you don’t yet have all the pieces and so you don’t know exactly what the end result will be. The technical execution of the collage is undertaken by algorithmic post-production software. I want to avoid the perfectionism of a commercial photographic language, and so I do not correct the imprecision and rough edges that the software may generate. It’s like using a pair of blunt scissors. The gaps and jagged edges are all part of the process. In this way, the idiosyncrasies of the digital technological become a part of the conceptual and aesthetic visual language of the collage.
What ideas are you exploring in this series?
Working with the materials of different archives can provoke mixed feelings. On the one hand, they provide extensive documentation of a certain event, but, on the other hand, even with this vast panorama of images there is never enough knowledge of the facts to fully decipher their true meaning.
What kind of meanings do you mine from this somewhat ambiguous raw material?
I have a collage in which I have combined the depictions of famous men and women from the same historic period. The men wear tailcoats and sit or stand in the studio in a dignified manner, while the women are naked or semi-naked depicted in open and passive poses. The resulting collage precisely illustrates the patriarchal model of society, where a woman’s identity has been erased or obscured by erotic signifiers that are pleasant to a man’s eyes.
With so much to choose from, how did you focus your thematic ideas?
I felt that it was important to concentrate on iconic events in the history of photography, such as documentation of the Great Depression or photographs of the American Civil War. In general, we are familiar with just a handful of photographs that have been selected and become recognised as the iconic representations of any given event. Yet behind each so-called iconic photograph there are thousands of seemingly uninteresting and clichéd images. I was interested in directly addressing this plethora of what might be called dull pictures.
In the imagery of the Great Depression, for example, I was moved by the myriad landscapes that included makeshift wooden buildings. They all have a similar architecture and many of them include children standing in an empty doorway. From the perspective of the history of photography, each individual photograph is not particularly interesting but, when amalgamated in a single collage, they bear testimony to the abject poverty and despair of the Depression era. One of the interesting things I discovered in this process was the similarity in the formal construction of photographs and paintings of the period. In the collage, many of the painting fragments look more photographic than the historical photographs themselves.
What is the apocalypse of the title and why do you describe it as mellow?
We live in an era when images of the world present a broader picture than the reality itself. Metaphorically speaking – the map has become larger than the area it depicts. The availability of images and the scale of their circulation are truly apocalyptic. Not that I think this is either bad or good, which is why I have called this body of work mellow apocalypse. It is not that the apocalypse has happened, but that this abundant availability and extensive circulation of imagery arouses apocalyptic feelings.
The title is also, more indirectly, a comment on the state of visual culture in post-Soviet Latvia. Although thirty years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was only in 2018 that media literacy was incorporated in the Latvian education system as a mandatory component of the primary and secondary curriculum. Consequently, an entire generation has grown up since the restoration of Latvia’s independence knowing nothing about photography or cinema (not to mention the current trends in the contemporary visual culture), because it was not considered a necessary element of education. Yet, we live in a world overflowing with images that can only be deciphered and understood if you have at least some grasp of the basic concepts of how these media function and the evolving developments in cultural history.
For me, there is a sense of both ambiguity and loss in much of your work: of things that are continuously slipping out of reach. Is that something you intend or is it just me?
It is hard to tell. Neuroscientific data clearly show that the interpretation of images is generally grounded in an individual’s prior experience. I see my work as a deconstructed and reconstructed image database that is built around specific meta-topics and intentionally contains a controversial constellation of signs. The fact is, even the presence of just two signs in a picture can pose a great challenge to human perception. So, I guess my work inevitably engages more than one single message.
What have you learned about yourself in making your art?
If you had asked me this question seven years ago, I would probably have spun a tale about artmaking and self-exploration… Today, I realise that my children have taught me way more than anything in the artworld ever could.
Alnis Stakle was born in Līvāni, Latvia, in 1975. In 2011, he was awarded a PhD in art education by Daugavpils University, Latvia. He is currently a professor of photography at the Rigas Stradins University and, since 2011, has been director of the multimedia communication and photography study programs at the university. He has exhibited widely in Europe and also in Asia, Central and South American, and Oceania, with his work featuring in more than twenty solo exhibitions and eighty group shows. His photographs are held in a number of prestigious public and private collections including the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina; OstLicht. Gallery, Vienna, Austria; Thessalonica Museum of Photography, Greece; the Latvian Photography Museum, Riga; the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; the Royal Institute of British Architects, London, United Kingdom; and Yale University, New Haven, USA.
He has won many awards, among the most recent were two Sony World Photography Awards (creative 2022, architecture 2011); the Archifoto International Award (France 2022); the Urbanautica Institute Award (Italy 2021); DongGang International Photo Festival Artist of the Year (Republic of Korea 2019); Foto Wien photobook competition (Austria 2019); and Les Rencontres de la Photographie Arles dummy photobook award (France 2016). He has published three artist’s books: ‘001’ (1998), ‘Melancholic Road’ (2017), and ‘May This Inanimate Likeness Remind You of My Living Self’ (ongoing from 2019). From 2015 to 2019 Alnis Stakle was the curator of Riga Photomonth. He lives and works in Riga.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.