Juris Bergins: Creative work as a search for identity

Juris Bergins, born and raised in Riga, the capital of Latvia, did not come to ceramics by a direct route. He first studied painting at the Janis Rozentāls Art High School in Riga, and later, design at the Art Academy of Latvia. As he began his artistic journey, the young artist tried various areas of creative activity, but found his true calling in ceramics. He displayed his first ceramic works, dishes and vases with overglaze decoration as well as a painted toilet, in 1987 at an exhibition at the “Jāņa sēta” Gallery in the Old Town of Riga. It was the success of this show that led Bergins to develop his individual style that produced a stand-out series of works at the 1989 exhibition held at the Dzintari House of Artists in Jūrmala. Strange as it may seem, it was actually an advantage that Bergins had not passed through an academic programme of ceramics, as he was protected from clichés and taboos arising from a traditional ceramics education. The search for his own creative identity coincided with the time of an historical breakthrough: Gorbachevʼs policy of liberalisation (perestroika) in the Soviet Union and the ‘singing revolution’ of the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) which made it possible for the restoration of their independence in a largely peaceful way. Bergins’ maturation was influenced by the broad spiritual up-welling of this period, and the increased attention paid to the historical past of his country and its people.

Bergins’ early creative work was marked by conspicuous political and civic engagement. The American potter Joseph Bennion noted the anti-Soviet character of the works when he visited Latvia in 1989. Several years later he recalled his encounter with Juris: “The work he showed was remarkably different from the other Latvian work we were seeing. It was out of step with the generally conservative and classical orientation of the other Baltic artists.”1 In the same article, Bennion postulated that the originality of Berginsʼ creative work resulted from, among other factors, isolation from the influence of Western art. Bergins sought to overcome the isolation factor after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, coupled with Latviaʼs restoration of its independence in 1990, and the opening of borders. This brought about an accelaration and strengthening of artistic processes matched with an unprecedented dynamism. Bergins was one of the artists who put enormous effort into learning from the experiences of democratic countries and exhibiting his work in exhibitions abroad.

In 1992, Bergins won a three-month residency at the Banff Centre (in Alberta, Canada; Program Director: Les Manning). The works he made there were included in Refleksija (curator Daina Augaitis), an exhibition of works by Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian artists held at the Banff Centreʼs Walter Phillips Gallery, and reflecting the political and spiritual changes in the life of the Baltic countries.

Self-reflection and the will to tell history from his own point of view were characteristics of Berginsʼ works from the beginning. Searching for his identity, the artist dove deep into the political reality of those days, and the experience of a Soviet citizen’s relationship with global reality. A sculptured head mottled with Soviet passport entries (Autoportretas, 1989), a fish wrapped into a Playboy magazine with a Soviet film star on the cover (Pusryčiai, 1989) and the head of the artist himself resting on a real brick, sticking out of a bucket (Never But, 1990) were works that made Bergins well-known at the end of the last century as one of the most original Latvian ceramic artists of the younger generation. His works were full of expressive hints as to the inner feeling of a person from that period, the political realities, and the trappings of Western mass-culture inundating the grey every-day life of an Eastern European.

... Bergins had not passed through an academic programme of ceramics ... he was protected from clichés and taboos arising from a traditional ceramics education.