It is not by chance that the works and writings developed by Pia Arke (1958, Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland – 2007, Copenhagen, Denmark) center on the consequences of colonial relations between Denmark and Greenland. Born to a Danish father and a Greenlandic mother, Arke spent her childhood in Greenland without being taught to speak the local language. The artist had been concerned with Western stereotyping of Inuit identity and culture since her MFA thesis Ethno-Aesthetics (1995). In her work, Arke combined her own image and mixed heritage with historical and geopolitical references in order to address the power relations between Denmark and Greenland, and the identity problems that arise from colonial exploitation. Through her conceptual and performative practice, Arke gave new meaning to appropriated materials such as photographs of her mother taken by her father, annotated maps, traditional clothing, objects found in the vicinity of a military base, and journals and photos from Nordic explorers. Her own body and face, which are themselves charged with the history of ethnic representation, and Greenlandic natural landmarks are repeated subjects for her large-scale pinhole camera and double exposure photographs, in which different layers of negotiated reality are juxtaposed.
The selection of works at the 34th Bienal includes her video titled Arktisk hysteri [Arctic Hysteria] (1996) in reference to a mental illness that Inuit women allegedly suffered from. The silent 6-minute video shows the artist crawling naked across a black-and-white photograph of Nuugaarsuk Point, a landscape she inhabited as a child and that is present in many of her works. In this piece, the mountain lays flat on the floor and is crumpled, stroked, and sniffed by Arke, until she rips the photo into strips and lets the shreds of paper slide across her shoulders in a moment of strange intimacy with the surface that once held the represented landscape. Nuugaarsuk Point also serves as the background in a large series of self and group portraits. At the Bienal, it can also be seen behind the silhouette of a car, in one of a series of works depicting objects that did not have names in the Greenlandic language prior to colonization.
Perhaps less characteristic of Arke’s artistic procedures and results, Jord til Scoresbysund [Soil for Scoresbysund] (1998) is an installation comprising of 151 used coffee filters wound with string and displayed as a square on the floor. The work is connected to one of the artist’s stays in Scoresbysund, when her sister-in-law told her that used coffee grounds should be thrown out of the window to fertilize the otherwise stony soil. If in its origin the installation refers to “the whole idea of Denmark’s right to Greenland’s underground”, as Arke once wrote in a letter, in São Paulo, a city built on the profits of coffee plantations, new layers of readings will surround this imperfect geometric form and the smell it exhales.
Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).