Alisei Apollonio on Janis Avotins
2018 02 13

Faceless – bones scattered in the field, wind cuts my flesh.

-          Matsuo Basho


Memory and the paradox of loss or accumulation of time are two of Janis Avotins’ primary concerns: as the years go by, have we gained something, or is our existence getting thinner and thinner?

Avotins’ archival undertakings might be reminiscent of an archaeologist’s feats, of the “burning desire” with which according to Michel Foucault, some artists are taking to the archive in order to “’memorise’ the monuments of the past”, to explore the “archival potential of photographic technology as fundamentally an archaeology of time”.

Although this might be applicable, it is not all there is to say.

Janis Avotins is not a documentarist. If it were legitimate to subdivide the visual arts into “poetry” and “prose”, he would be a poet. His constant research for beauty and pathos strikes some chords that are nearly impossible to describe with words.

It is indeed possible that through Avotins’ “poetic” method of painting we are simultaneously seeing the endless layering of time, and its inescapable evanescing; we are at the same time bringing back to memory, and letting go.

Hazy shadows move across a landscape of impalpable darkness: akin to screens of smoke, one might think it possible to disperse Janis Avotins’ paintings with a wave of the hand.

Beyond fields of mist, human silhouettes solidify and gather: they are going somewhere. (and so are we)

The faceless shapes in front of us are not quite human though.

Indeed, these diaphanous figures look much rather like ghosts.

Sourcing his imagery from archival newspaper and propagandist photography from the Soviet era, Avotins takes the viewer on a journey of haunting and reckoning.

The poetics of haunting present throughout Janis Avotins’ work proffer that it is only through confronting the ghosts of the past that it is possible to achieve a cathartic, elated moment. It is only then, when the nightmares of a traumatic national memory have been dispelled, that it is possible to rebuild a country anew.

After only a few, short-lived years of independence in the early 1900s, Latvia once again plunged under foreign rule. Over much of the 20th century the small Baltic country struggled under Soviet rule and during the 40 years of occupation the very cultural and social fibre of Latvia was at stake: the Muscovite government would soon impose a new pace of life, from new politics, to language, to industry, to national holidays and migration.

It comes as no surprise that, after achieving independence once again in 1991, Latvia tried to eradicate the traces of the occupation as swiftly as it could.

A nation is a fascinating living organism, with a heart and a brain not much dissimilar to those of an individual human being. We have been taught by psychoanalysis that it is not remembering that takes an effort: it is forgetting that consumes so much of our energy. Our mind will build screen memories and loopholes in the strive to conceal a traumatic event. However, not telling one’s story is, in fact, destructive, as its details morph and become distorted, and its horror takes over one’s life.

In order to move forward, it is necessary to look back, to allow for the return of the repressed. In other words: it is necessary to deal with our ghosts, to follow them “to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life”. In his works, Avotins, who lived his childhood in the turbulent transition years between Soviet rule and independence, takes just such a path.

It has been argued that in the modern day and age, dominated by rationality and hypervisibility, it is difficult to acknowledge the power of haunting, but confronted with Avotins’ shadow towns and their flickering inhabitants dancing or rejoicing as though through the smoke screens of fading memories, it is difficult not to argue for the opposite either.

By summoning these images out of the archive and offering them up back to open public consumption, Avotins forces the viewer to confront the past head on.

As Avery Gordon wrote in her seminal book Ghostly Matters: “Perceiving the lost subjects of history – the missing and lost ones and the blind fields they inhabit – makes all the difference to any project trying to find the address of the present”.

The photographic sources chosen by Avotins speak to us because they are unremarkable: they are not striking images of violence, or of pivotal historical moments. They aren’t even proper portraits of officials or commoners. These mundane cultural vestiges alternatively emerge or recede from our perceptive field in the figurative or more abstract paintings.

Avotins’ dancers and faceless figures lead the viewer through nearly monochromatic landscapes, where ashy greys and pulsating gold confound the senses creating a dialectic of disappearance and remembrance.

Are these memories coming back to stay, or are these appearances their final swan song before sinking into oblivion?

It is very interesting that, seemingly, Avotins nearly only uses two colours in his works: this bipolarity is perhaps reminiscent of another dialectic of opposites that used to govern the world up until the late 1980s.

As some scholars have noted, as soon as the rigid bipolar order of the world melted away with the end of the Cold War, “history sprung to life again”. Indeed, this momentous event prompted a shift from a one-directional vision of the world to a kaleidoscopic one; from a single narrative of history to many, multifaceted narratives.

However, it must not be forgotten that this tripudium of colourful, choral voices can only happen if stories are unearthed, confronted, and told.

After years of working almost exclusively with dark and ochre light imprimatura washes, colour seems to have found its way back into Janis Avotins’ work. It could be argued that here, too “history sprung to life again”.

Like spring, the vivid colours seeping through the canvas of Avotins’ latest  paintings seem to inundate the realm of shadows with floods of light. Finally, it is as though these figures of children were no longer wandering into endless darkness. As welcome ghosts of times past, they do not need to linger in obscurity any longer: on the contrary, they can glow with their resplendent hues and endeavour to show us a way to the future.

Alisei Apollonio


Alisei Apollonio is Head of Research at ARTUNER. In 2009, she won the prestigious literary award for emerging writers Campiello Giovani with the short novel ‘Rêverie’. She studied History of Art at the University of York, and gained her MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art under Prof. Mignon Nixon. For Arteviste, she covers exhibitions in both New York and London.