Tag Archives: toronto photography

Ian Willms: The Path of Least Resistance

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.

Mennonite girls in their home in the Mennonite village of Kichkass.

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.

Novosibirsk region, Russia: The overgrown cementary of the Siberian village of Neudachino, which translates from Russian into "no luck."

Novosibirsk region, Russia: The overgrown cementary of the Siberian village of Neudachino, which translates from Russian into “no luck.”

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.

Bashkir region, Russia: Regina a distant relative of Ian's plays in the countryside near the village of Davlekavnovo.

Bashkir region, Russia: Regina a distant relative of Ian’s plays in the countryside near the village of Davlekavnovo.

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.

Fausta Facciponte

I had the good fortune of running into Fausta Facciponte at her exhibition, “Sleepy Eyes,” which is on now at Stephen Bulger Gallery for one more week. Not entirely coincidental, her appearance was arranged by Alia Toor, who’s been working as the Education Coordinator at the Canadian Art Foundation for the last four years. I was taking a group of my grade 12 students from Central Commerce Collegiate on one of the bi-yearly Canadian Art School Hops. The tours, similar to the public art hops also run by the foundation, are led by curators, artists and other art professionals, taking students to a series of art galleries to engage them in conversation and expose them to contemporary art within our city.

Facciponte’s exhibition was definitely a highlight for both myself and my students on this tour of the galleries along Ossington and Queen West. Her large scale photos are at once eery and inviting, and the subject matter is such that it is easily relatable for anyone. The show is composed of 11 large colour photos of doll faces, all mounted in clear plexiglass to keep them inviting and (mostly) unframed.

The concept arose for Facciponte from examining her daughter’s relationship with her first toys. Thinking about how to compose a “memento mori,” Facciponte began to centre in on the intimate relationship between her daughter and one of her favourite dolls. After developing a successful strategy to create this first image, the artist scoured Ebay, thrift-stores and garage sales to find other dolls for the series.

Shot multiple times in detail then stitched together digitally, the portraits retain an extraordinary clarity which invites the viewer to explore the scratched eyes and flaking paint of the dolls’ faces.  The blurred outer edges of each image imitate our natural visual pattern, bringing these massive shots into a personal frame of reference that magnifies the duplicitous ambiance of the characters.  Admitting that other reviewers had termed the show “Creepy Eyes,” Facciponte is aware of the mildly disturbing flavour of the photos, though it was not her intent. Rather, all of the images are shot using candy coloured back-grounds and clean lighting.

I believe a large part of this show’s success is based upon this uneasy undertone of these intentionally inviting images. As per the original concept, the idea of the “memento mori,” comes across vividly as the viewer unintentionally ponders the past lives of these dolls and the owners which inflicted the signs of loving abuse on their immortal faces. In this childlike environment, we are unwittingly (and quite painlessly) thrust into a perusal of our own mortality.

Fausta Facciponte is based inToronto. Her show, “Sleepy Eyes,” runs until October 29, 2011 at Stephen Bulger gallery.