Erica Lord, Artifact Piece, Revisited, performed in 2008 at the National Museum of the American Indian. Lord is Athabascan and Iñupiaq.
This performance reflects the ever-present theme of the exhibition of peoples and lived materials, that is such a conflict in indigenous aesthetic issues. For centuries Western bodies of academia meticulously “collected”, “gathered” (to use the conspicuous terms) materials for exhibition of the many “exotic” and “primitive” nations of the world. Such collections then added prestige to the visual rhetoric that the non-Native used/s to define and confine “Native”, for it is hard to imagine white collectors not having the colourful, popular picture of “Native” in mind.
It is hard enough for objects that are defined by their use and by their makers - clothing, ceremonial garb, baskets, boats - to convey a people when they are not being lived in. But this work also shines a light on the more insidious topic in the exhibiting of peoples - the active collection and exhibition of human remains. The constant fight to repatriate human remains in museum and university collections around the world has often ignited opposition from the scientific community, that I can’t speak to (other than to say how can any individual or body, regardless of their purpose, claim to have rights to a person).
But let’s look at this from a curatorial perspective, for the vast majority of these remains are not actively studied. What, could exhibiting, collecting, hoarding away these stolen people seek to accomplish beside upholding the idea of indigenous cultures as stagnating at best, more often dead, and so the pretext of white superiority, because it lives on? Beside exciting an attraction to the macabre, that keeps alive both the myth of indigenous peoples as bloodthirsty, and especially the role of Native Americans as enemy, by conjuring up images of gore and warfare? And what does it say that this is the theme most highlighted in exhibition placards, the story of war, and not that in North America, orders were sent out by courts that Native Americans should be killed and their bodies taken, for extermination, and implicitly, for sport? That is the real bloodthirst.
And in this and any academic rhetoric, is lost the fact that the exhibited material was a person, with a life entirely their own. In such exhibition design, the assertion is that - whether the material is human remains or lived objects - a fractional artifact from a single life can be made into an easily digestible visual, and expanded and held up as a representative first for a whole community, then a whole nation, then for all that falls under “Native American” then again for all that falls under “Native.” And so Lord places among the traditional clothing and jewelry, childhood photos, and in an entirely separate display are photos and objects that could in no way, visually, be called “Native” except that they belong to a Native person. But through ownership they are as native as the anorak and the body lying beside them. And the body one confronts is neither dusty and withered nor battle-torn, but warmly lit, healthy and peaceful. And still as a viewer one can’t know her by seeing her, though of course, one knows she is alive. She is still reduced to “exhibited material” and if she exists as a person it is to reject one’s “viewing”, to separate viewing from knowing. So when an exhibited person is as present as they possibly could be, and still one can not know them by viewing them, how can a withered piece of a person from another time be expected to speak for a multitude of living nations?
Related: Inuik at the 2nd Nordic Fashion Biennale in Seattle, Pia Arke at the permanent Greenlandic exhibition in the National Museum in Copenhagen.
Another excellent work by Pia Arke, from the series Legends. In these works Pia attempts to counter the major historic means of Western understanding of Greenland from the first explorations through to today: mapping. From this belief, mapping illustrates the “truths” of the land, it informs and brings confidence to the explorer (scientist, general), and it conveys what is most interesting to these figures; that being mainly its vastness, ruggedness, geographic uniqueness, and in his mind, reveals the nature of the lives of those in the land. The way such figures read an extensive coastal map like this with many fjords and natural harbours, is that the people of Ittoqqortoormiit are bound by their connection to the sea, and so it defines their lives. But it is the people who define their lives. And so Pia places portraits atop these maps, in the foreground, to say that people define the land just as the land contributes to their definition. But to know a land one must know the people, and to know the people one will inherently know the land, because their knowledge of it extends far beyond any maps, ice charts and satellite images.
Ariel Schlesinger. So all of these works have their basis in the sort of Felix Gonzalez-Torres harmony and duality, everyday objects imbued with emotions and roles in their interactions with one another. And by examining the delicate play between these objects we see poetry in the slightness yet precision of their relationships. This then informs how we view human interaction, from its most basic and unknowing to the most long-standing intimate bonds.
I might like this kind of thing too much and so whenever I see well-articulated varieties of it I get excited. But what distinguishes these, and really builds on Gonzales-Torres, is the proximity of danger. Especially in the last work, A Car Full of Gas, an actual installation with a miniature burner attached to a car with gas tanks inside. Of course we can not ‘really’ know if the presence of danger exists, if they are full of gas. If for no other reason than - if they are, and by us disturbing the stasis it is in - the risk to us is enormous, not to mention the artwork and its harmony. We even see the reflection of the flame on the other side, threatening us if we interrupt its stability. Similarly in the sculpture above anyone walking by too quickly could blow the papers off their pedestal into disorder. These works show how volatile and potentially destructive the very fragility of these small or large moments of intimacy is, the same thing that gives them poetry.
Ha, the Nordic flags used in Julie Edel Hardenberg’s installation for the exhibitionRethinking Nordic Colonialism in 2006 are for sale. In the installation they were arranged into a circle with blood IV bags hanging beside them, and for the flags of the semi-autonomous regions (Greenland, Faroe Islands, Åland) and Iceland (being a former dominion) there were more bags at their feet, suggesting a difference in stability from countries with colonial pasts. So if you have 300kr, live in Denmark and want one of Julie Edel Hardenberg’s flags…
Edit: I now see they are no longer for sale. Too bad.
Pia Arke. A series of pinhole photographs installed in the ethnographic wing of the National Museum in Copenhagen for the 2010 retrospective Tupilakosaurus, placing the artifacts in situ.
It is a critical examination of the format of ‘exhibiting’ artifacts of life and culture, which systematically isolates ‘cultural identifiers’ (national costume, tools, musical instruments, etc) from their actual culture. The ethnographic exhibit - especially ones related to Inuit - always seem to make their subjects seem ancient and dead, and shrouded in mystery (ie, why these museums are always so dark) and dustiness no matter how recent the materials are or how they are still used in daily life, let alone how they were used. Despite any corresponding material the exhibit can never seem to express livelihood within their objects, because the ‘cultural object’ is defined by its usage within a culture. So Arke attempts to give back sense of identity and place - the photo above is identified as the South Greenland fjord at Nuugaarsuk.
But I like this best. The ethnographic wing has an entire room filled with kamiks and anyone no matter how genuinely interested could be forgiven thinking they look entirely lifeless. But even the smallest photo, in a size resembling a commemorative photo, gives an echo of celebration, which was the only time the more extravagant boots like these would be worn. The photo is Arke’s Three Graces, one version seen here, a series expressing first ambivalence and voyeuristic detachment of modern East Greenlandic women in reclaiming the cultural signifying objects-turned ethnographic evidence, but concluding in ease and confidence, an acknowledgement that Greenlanders can be both modern and ancient on their own terms.
Not to get ‘culture-y’ on you all. What is equally interesting is the element of critique of exhibition strategies, acknowledging the complexity of curating and how vulnerable objects alone are. Arke’s photographs almost look like they were left by dissatisfied spectators, and it opens up an invitation to critical examination when the formatting of exhibitions - of any kind, but especially ethnographic ones as they are self-described as ‘historical’, and so, supposedly factual - often shun any interaction.
More photos from Karen Thastum’s multimedia installation in Nuuk, Where I Come From. For this exhibition she had children from not just Nuuk as I had thought but from all over West and East Greenland as well as Greenlandic children in Denmark, where they attempt to answer the question of ‘Where do I come from’. Some children drew, others contributed photographs and objects all of which Karen drew from in making the light projections on and inside Katuaq as well as around the city. It’s especially interesting that she selected Bloks 6 and 7, seen here, for a large part of the installation. The juxtaposition of many images that represent ‘traditional’ life onto a remnant of imposed 70s Scandinavian urbanizing efforts seems also to pose the question to all living and visiting in Nuuk. To what extant is our heritage hindered or enhanced by a divergent environment.
A continuation of Karen Thastum’s multimedia installations, this time in Nuuk, titled Where I Come From, and incorporating images given by Nuummioq children.
Inuk Silis Høegh, The Top of the Iceberg, 2009. Reposting this because I still think it is so cool. Printed fabric and scaffolding turn the edge of Nordatlantens Brygge in Copenhagen - which houses a cultural centre for Northatlantic (Greenlandic, Icelandic, Faroese) arts, the Greenlandic and Faroese Representative Offices, the Icelandic Embassy and was a historic point of trade in Denmark from the outlying regions - into an iceberg. Inuk’s performance/installation Melting Barricades also followed this theme of bringing the Brygge into its own realm and emphasizing separateness of the cultures it represents from Denmark. But while Melting Barricades was militant and asserting a complete breakaway - turning centuries of feeling foreign within one’s own country around to the colonizer - the Iceberg is more peaceful and meditative, as if it drifted into central Copenhagen from the Arctic and carries with it burdens of geographic, climatic and cultural messages but never actively settling on one, and merely prompts viewers to make their own associations.
I have mentioned him before but this is by Henrik Menné. The machine on the left drops acid on a block of stone while another sits beside it. His projects are all constructed as large-scale, low-tech machines where some basic natural elements are pitted against one another. In the end the natural object is disfigured by the natural processes and so his works reflect a bizarre attitude towards science and experiment, primitivism under the guise of technology. They all have a misleading appearance of complexity though the actual process is very basic and repetitive, which plays with their ‘art’-y, odd aesthetic interest. How here the grain in the second piece of stone is positioned to look almost drawn to the acid. And, to conclude, as I said before, delusion, failure, the constant need to throw things into flux.