Photography and film works spanning the period 1990 to 2005 by the Danish-Greenlandic artist Pia Arke (1958-2007) are exhibited in Trondheim Kunsthall with the title Wonderland. The exhibition Wonderland in Trondheim, Norway runs through 10 November.
Ever heard of Arctic hysteria? Neither did the Danish-Greenlandic artist Pia Arke until 1995, and then she forever changed the way we view Arctic explorers.
The complex ethnic and cultural relations between Denmark and Greenland
Pia Selskabit Arke (née Gant) was a Greenlandic Inuit (Kalaaleq) and Danish visual and performance artist, writer and photographer. She is remembered for her self-portraits and landscape photographs of Greenland, as well as for her paintings and writings which strove to make visible the colonial histories and complex ethnic and cultural relations between Denmark and Greenland.
Throughout her artistic-research practice, the artist used the metaphor of her own mixed-heritage (the “mongrel”) as an opportunity to engage these historical relationships, as well as address significant questions of Arctic indigenous identity and representation.
Related: The Viking Mystery on Greenland
The relationship between Denmark and Greenland
The relationship between Denmark and Greenland, and their shared history, is at the heart of Pia Arke’s artistic work, in particular an investigation into the ways in which the western presence has shaped Greenlandic identity and what ethnicity entails. She posed questions related to how history is created and to whom it belongs. Arke explored what happens to a place and its people when a foreign power exposes it to systematic mapping and scientific research, and what happens when the foreigner has the power to determine the way in which the other is represented.
In the late 1980s Arke began to exhibit her paintings. In 1988, the artist developed her own life-size pin-hole camera (camera obscura) which she hand-built using pine and plywood, to photograph the landscapes of Greenland that she had known as a child. The results were exhibited in her exhibition Imaginary Homelands in 1990. The structure had a small entry-way where the artist would climb in and attach a sheet of film along the back wall. Light from the outside would then stream in through a small hole at the opposite end of the enclosure.
When Arke was digging through the archives of New York City’s Explorers Club in the spring of 1995, one photo from American explorer Robert E. Peary’s collection shocked her. The photo showed a native woman, topless and screaming, restrained by two fur-clad and seemingly untroubled white men. A curator told Arke the woman could have been suffering from a madness called Arctic hysteria.
In his Editors’ introduction to Pia Arke’s Arctic Hysteria 1997, Iben Mondrup describes how her exhibition was provocatively called “Arctic hysteria“, given the controversial irrationality that was said to affect indigenous women. Her exhibitions and accompanying explanations encouraged Denmark to reexamine the colonial history of Greenland. While a number of exhibitions were held during her lifetime, the first major exhibition of her work in Denmark did not take place until after her death with Tupilakosaurus (2010).
The history of Denmark’s colonial past on Greenland
The history of Denmark’s colonial past on Greenland has not been well known internationally and was rarely talked about. The Greenlandic side was also silent on the subject, as this part of their history was seen as shameful. Pia Arke wished to break the silence which characterized the history of Denmark and Greenland, which she herself had been born into.
The colonial history is primarily described in sources written by European explorers. Arke wished to collect the small stories which had not been told previously.
Arke’s mesmerizing film Arctic Hysteria, which she created the year after she found that dark photo, was looping endlessly in an alcove at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, a museum which enjoys the kind of international acclaim that makes it a dream exhibit space for most artists.
Greenlandic mother and Danish father
Pia Arke was born not far from the town of Scoresbysund (Greenlandic: Ittoqqortoormiit) in North-Eastern Greenland. She was a result of the relationship between Greenland and Denmark, with a Greenlandic mother and a Danish father. For Pia Arke the history of the two countries was a personal matter, directly connected to her own family history. Her artistic praxis was a means to process the colonial history, but also a recovery of history for the artist herself and her ancestors. Arke’s artistic oeuvre is a work against the collective loss of memory which silence has led to.
The art of Pia Arke
Her art and photographs re-examine the places where she lived as a child revealing Denmark’s repressive colonization. The exhibition Tupilakosaurus consisted of over 70 photographs, paintings, videos, installations and reports. As a result, Arke is now recognized as one of the Nordic region’s most important postcolonial critics and players as a result of the artistic research which she practiced for two decades.
The woman that Peary called crazy, Arke considered kin. That sad knowledge drove all of her work, even the high-concept Artic Hysteria. “I make the history of colonialism part of my history in the only way I know,” Arke once wrote, “namely by taking it personally.”
The fight over what’s remembered and what’s forgotten is far from over. Arctic hysteria – and Arke – beg us to remember.
Wonderland in Trondheim, Norway
The exhibition title, which is loaned from the work Wonderland (1996), points to the arctic landscape as a symbol of resources and prosperity, as seen through the international interests which the western presence was a result of. The exhibition Wonderland runs at Trondheim Kunsthall through 10 November.
Wonderland in Trondheim, Norway, sources: Trondheim kunsthall and Wikipedia