Ivars Gravlejs’ Photography Offers Mischief as a Lifeline

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The devil, they say, makes work for idle hands.

Most people’s records of boredom probably don’t extend much beyond a few doodles in the margins of notebooks, the odd eccentrically esoteric playlist. My own personal legacy of boredom is a facility for drawing detailed dicks and an embarrassingly competent knack for rolling elegant zoots.

Boredom and disruption make easy bedfellows; where spikes in unemployment are matched by corresponding spikes in crime, it takes a kind of naivety to think that income is the only correlation.

Boredom often seems externally imposed. At school, boredom is mandated by teachers and curriculums; compounded by institutional architecture and shitty playgrounds. It’s weighty and numbing, implacable and threatening. It highlights a feeling of powerlessness within the system – the threat is implicit, you’re bored because you have to do what you’re told; what you’re told to do is boring. In this context, disruption becomes a kind of protest.

As an adult, boredom is imposed by a different agent: boss not teacher. Classroom strip lights are replaced with office strip lights and there’s no playground, but there’s a pub round the corner for Fridays. Boredom is still externally mandated though, and reflects an internal conflict with a system that requires you to participate, but whose methods for participation are, for whatever reason, boring.

The point being that institutional boredom, which represents an intrusion on the self, is distinct from being bored, and the response to it is often destructive because feeling powerless or frustrated can provoke resentment or anger.

Enter Ivars Gravlejs, conceptual photographer. His book Early Works, released in 2015 by Mack books, contains choice cuts from the Latvian artist’s archive of schoolyard experiments in photography. The images, as presented here, are records of explorations in art – the book is divided into sections such as: ‘pop art’, ‘actions’, ‘conceptual’ and ‘performance.’

The pictures illustrate a gleeful, puerile mischief – a response to boredom. “The only way to survive school,” Gravlejs writes in the book’s explanatory note, “was to do something creative.” Here, creative acts range from orthodox (experiments in multiple exposures and composition) to wildly unconventional (footage of controlled fires being started on teachers’ desks, a classroom’s chairs being hurled around. Photographs of fights).

The non-conformist energy, the kick against boredom, reappears in his series My Newspaper, which he made while working as a staff photojournalist at a daily Czech publication. The photos he took are simultaneously banal and deeply subversive; each image, as it appeared in the newspaper, was photoshopped. In some, the additions are inconsequential – extra buttons on a man’s shirt, extra light switches on a wall. In others, they’re macabre – a dancer with a bone added to her t-shirt. Yet more explicitly reflect the gleeful, puckish vulgarity of his early works: “cunt” discreetly added to a brick wall, “death” written on another t-shirt, the artist’s “message to police.”

Obviously, by the standards of any newspaper this is totally unacceptable. The fact-checking process is exposed as sloppy, journalistic integrity is compromised. At the same time, in an art context, the action opens up an interesting dialogue around the sanctity of the image and its potential for exploitation.

This dialogue is something investigated at great length by post-internet artist Oliver Laric, whose ongoing research project Versions extensively probes the possibilities and implications of photo-manipulation. Laric takes the betrayal of photojournalistic integrity that caused a media scandal in the late 00s (a photograph depicting Iran’s controversial missile tests was used on the cover of countless major newspapers around the globe before later being exposed as having been digitally altered) as a starting point to explore his fascination with what we can do with the image – with image hierarchies and digital realities and serious things. Gravlejs, on the other hand, is really showing us what he did when he was bored at work. As with surviving at school, this project was a creative response to frustration.

“Just to keep doing the job in the newspaper, I had to find something I could have fun with,” Gravlejs tells me. “If there is something I don’t enjoy, I try to compensate – to make something more out of it than just doing what other people expect.”

Across his body of work there’s a similar insolence in tone, whether it be the caption accompanying his early photo-montage of a female schoolmate’s head stuck on the body of a glamour model (“I attached this image on the wall next to the time table… After that, most of the girls in my class hated me”) or an annotation on one of his photoshopped newspaper photos – “I made more blue circles in the background… to have more chance to have it published on the first page, and it was there.”

It’s almost punk, and certainly his work finds more parallels in art-activist collectives like Voina (progenitor of Pussy Riot) than anything in the UK. But he resists the term activist. “I think if you do politics, you do politics and not art,” he argues. “You go and make speeches, and you go into politics and you change something. All these artists and curators who are defined ‘political art’ – it’s just decorative.” But, I suggest, disruption as a response to confinement – whether that be a school, office or state – is political. “Maybe I’m really a latent activist,” he offers.

Beyond the photojournalism job, the schoolboy-boredom-induced-middle-finger starts to waver. With the absence of confinement it becomes difficult to understand what Gravlejs is taking aim at – which direction the middle finger is facing. The work remains subversive, vicious and deeply humorous, but with no clear system in place, what is his target? “Target? Quite often I work within the local context,” he explains, “and some things are not understandable for the wider audience. It’s only universal if you use it as an example for other things. I think it’s more like showing your position, it’s more like a gesture.”

This gesture works as a highlighter and a valve. Gravlejs uses it to underline the absurdity he sees in situations, or to vent frustration. In conversation he refers to survival more than once – the idea of humour and wilfulness as the antidote to an otherwise unbearable situation. “Maybe life is absurd in a way itself, anyway,” he says. “And because I see things from this perspective, I try to make the time I spend enjoyable.”

It’s a pretty bleak view, but real humour is as close to pathos as it is to comedy. With his creative roots in acting out, a practice founded in kicking against boredom through puerile insults and pranks, it follows that as a clear hierarchy to reject dematerialises, ennui steps right in to take its place.

“Maybe life is absurd itself – I try to make the time I spend enjoyable”

In There Will be Dicks, by Michal Novotný, a text on the artist’s website, the writer says, “Whether 11-year-old Ivars Gravlejs only documents the brutality of every day life… or he reacts with a direct creative act, his position is always one of subversion – the attempt to gain at least a little temporary freedom and space in a situation with no escape.”

At each subsequent stage, life’s arbiter of boredom – and the object of Ivars Gravlejs’ “latent activism” – becomes more abstract. From school, with teachers and classmates, to work, with bosses and colleague, to life as an artist, with audiences, curators and institutions, Gravlejs responds with the same humour and vulgar energy.

This “attempt to gain at least a little temporary freedom and space” expresses both an aspirational optimism, and a huge bummer of a truth. The whole thing is out of our control and actually, puerile as it is, Gravlejs’ “way to survive” might be the best.

Early Works by Ivars Gravlejs is published by MACK Books

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