I caught up with Ian Willms at his current show, The Road to Nowhere, at Toronto’s Contact Gallery. The gallery is among one of our city’s growing number of permanent festival spin-off spaces (think Tiff Bell light-box or the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema), with an aim to showcase excellence in photography throughout the year. It’s unsurprising that Willm’s work would end up there, as he was the recipient of the Contact’s 2013 portfolio award, among numerous other distinctions.
The Road to Nowhere features a series of 25 black and white photos documenting the artist’s pilgrimage to Europe to follow in the painful footsteps of his Mennonite ancestors pushed into Siberia from the Netherlands several centuries ago. The project officially began on Willm’s first relatively short-lived trip to Amsterdam in March 2012. Unwilling to go into detail, the ruminative young photographer mentioned that this leg of the project culminated in a week of solitary tea-drinking at a friend’s apartment in Vancouver.
Talking to Willms is an educative encounter. One gets the feeling that if he had not pursued photography he might be “happily” dedicating his life to the plight of some uber-humanitarian NGO. While he mentions that it is serendipity that brought him to photography in the first place (he won his first camera in a photography contest using a disposable camera) and serendipity that allows the medium to function, it is the emotional background of his subject matter that draws his photos to the depths more profound than chance.
Willms explained to me in enough detail the history of the Anabaptists- the spiritual group that eventually became the Mennonites. Formed in the Netherlands in the 1500s their key beliefs included a strong dedication to the separation between church and state combined with a fierce adherence to pacifism. Riding the rails on the Trans-Siberian Railway and using some uplifting text courtesy of Ayn Rand as fuel for his meditations on persecution, Willms used his Leica M (chosen in part due to the thematic connection of the Leica Freedom Train) to document haltingly bleak landscapes where mostly only the memory of persecution still exists. It’s notable that the presence of the figure, especially the face, in these works is rare. In retracing the steps of this journey to a new home, the hopeful part of Willms dispiriting reverie was to find an intact Mennonite village at the end of the line. It’s nonexistence, due to mostly to cultural assimilation inflicted by the Soviets, underlines his motif of cultural extinction. With the people largely erased from the images, it is often the captions provided in the gallery booklet which mark the images with the crucial dose of human misery. Aware of the potent connection between the text and imagery in this series, Willms plans to continue the project by returning to Amsterdam in the winter to take more photos until he has enough to warrant turning the project into a book.
For Willms, this project signifies a life-long desire to connect to his roots. Finding his grand-father’s house and subsequently discovering long-lost relatives is the kind of personification that likely keeps a project like this from disintegrating into the abstract. In his other current series, As long as the Sun Shines, which seeks to draw the connection between Canada’s current mining of the Alberta Oil Sands and the colonial abuses suffered by our Indigenous peoples, the lack of personal history is likely offset by the perpetual misery of our First Nations Peoples.
Future plans include a South American motorcycle tour with his father and an editorial trip to Haiti the day after our gallery meeting. Both will likely focus on his talent of highlighting the melancholic beauty of human suffering. The Road to Nowhere is at Contact Gallery until March 7. Ian Willms will be at the gallery on February 15 to discuss the work.