Even though artist Pia Arke died untimely in 2007, her artworks live on – and they have neither lost their voice nor their relevance. A relevance which is aptly exemplified by a work like Arctic Hysteria.
Arctic Hysteria is a video piece from 1996. Naked, artist Pia Arke (1958–2007) crawls around a black-and-white photograph of Greenlandic landscape, which she eventually tears to pieces. Before that, she sniffs, crawls and rolls around with sensual and slightly erotic movements, leaving no body part to the imagination. At the beginning of the video, we can clearly see the room it is filmed in, we notice a date and time on the camera, and the artist is heard saying the word “record”. She emphasises therewith the staging of what follows.
But what is Arke staging? First and foremost, she stages our gaze. This gaze is complex though, and points into many different directions. Nudity involves a form of exhibitionism – and, for us onlookers, of voyeurism as well. Her movements constitute a more or less staged choreography – and not necessarily an unambiguous one. For instance, is it hysteria when she – in an otherwise very controlled manner – rips apart the landscape beneath her? Her movements do not appear fluid, rather choreographed. Is there anything sensual or sexual about her sniffing, crawling, rolling – all these staged movements?
The spark for Arctic Hysteria and a series of other works was the discovery of a photograph taken by Robert Edwin Peary (1856–1920)*, an American explorer who repeatedly travelled to Greenland:
“I was at The Explorers Club in New York, where I found a photograph from Peary’s collection showing a Greenlandic woman held tightly by two white men,” recounts Arke in an interview with Synne Rifbjerg for Weekendavisen in 1999**. “Her body is naked and she bows her head backwards, screaming in anguish, while the two men pose standing next to her. I had never seen such a picture in an archive before, considering that many archival photographs resemble each other, that is with the savages alone in kayaks, landscapes, icebergs. It was also a fairly big surprise to suddenly hold a tangible proof of the white men’s abuses on the native population.”
Arke was not allowed to take the picture with her. The local curator at The Explorers Club claimed the photograph showed a case of arctic hysteria, although as Pia Arke remarked in the aforementioned interview, she would also turn a bit hysteric if two fully dressed men were to clutch her naked.
Nowadays can men and women alike be, or become, hysteric, but historically the condition has been characterised as a disease afflicting especially women. The Robert Peary expedition claimed that, during winters, Inuit women were afflicted by arctic hysteria due to vitamin deficiency; that would result in cries, cramps, lack of self-control, and insensitivity to cold, which then caused women to run around naked.
THE LOST NUDITY
On a visit to Nuuk Art Museum’s collection, the first thing one comes across upon reaching the first floor is Pia Arke’s video work Arctic Hysteria. Some guests look away, others are captivated. Some shake their head and move on, others take a seat in the small alcove and reach for the headphones.
One afternoon, the screen on the first floor was unusually black. Earlier that day, some teenagers had flocked together around the video, giggling, for a short while. As revealed by the security cameras, they had eventually grabbed with them the small USB-key behind the TV screen as they left. Nuuk is a small town, so we were able to find the boys quickly and explain that it was actually a work of art that they had stolen – at which point, they gave it right back.
However, the point is not that they took it, rather why. These were not art thieves: they would have never taken a painting or any other artwork from the museum. It was a group of teenagers who pinched a USB-key with a naked woman on – which had provokingly caught their eye, and they were eager to see more of.
The inappropriate behaviour addresses a central element of the work: the gaze – at once what we see, and who sees it. Arke impersonates both. With her body and the staging of it, she becomes both the woman who is being looked at, and also the one staging our gaze on her. Such gaze can be described as a male gaze on a posing woman – we may be captivated or want to turn away from it. Or we can try to analyse it.
ETHNOAESTHETICS – THE ART OF FALLING BETWEEN TWO STOOLS
The work is not univocal. It is difficult to encapsulate it in its entirety in one or a few comprehensive words. After all, ambiguity seems to be exactly what characterises Arke’s works: that nothing is stated once for all or from one specific point of view, rather by including multiple voices and positions.
Arke was both Danish and Greenlandic – she is the bastard – but first and foremost, she was a human being with a body and a history. Her mother’s East Greenlandic name was Arqé, a name Pia took up in 1983, altered in Arke. Arke is also a pun with the word ‘archetype’, meaning some original pattern or form*** – a model coming forth before other forms, or generating them.
Erik Gant, Pia Arke’s brother, writes in his foreword to Ethno-Aesthetics that ethno-aesthetics is the art of falling between two stools – “an art that we bastards must perform at all times,” he adds****. Arke insisted on the mix and the mixed race, both in herself and in a broader perspective.
Arke’s works inhabit a complex area, that is the space of the relationship between Denmark and Greenland, between the micro and the macro history, between personal stories and grand narratives. Colonial history is not univocal, neither black nor white, evil or good, it is endlessly nuanced. It is, in broad terms, not pleasant – shaped as it is by power and privilege, prejudice and racism. It is neither a matter of guilt nor shame, it simply is. And the existence of this colonial history is exactly what Arke digs into in her works, with her personal history and physical body as a starting point.
The photograph torn apart in the video had been taken by Arke herself with her man-sized homemade pinhole camera – the camera placed on the spot where her childhood home in South Greenland had used to be, overlooking the same view that she had grown up with.
Placing the camera by her childhood home in South Greenland was an attempt to look for a zero, an origin – both by visiting a place which at one time had contributed to shape her way to see the world, and also because the pinhole camera itself acted as the infancy of the photograph.
“It also had to do with a desire and a necessity to create a space that could contain all the hope, wishes, questions, and understandings of what had happened, what is happening, and perhaps even what is yet to come,” wrote Pia Arke in the catalogue of the exhibition The Flying Kayak*****.
Arke’s works combine past, present and future. They look beyond her body, the personal history, and the Danish-Greenlandic one. The homemade camera and its particular placement involve an act of capturing a space that once was, without yet recreating what it used to be – and in doing that, a recreated past meets the present and looks further, into the future.
The act of tearing apart the Greenlandic landscape may also be seen as a commentary on Greenlandic art history – including all the male Danish painters who since the mid 19th century have created scenic representations of Greenland’s nature where the Inuit feature as but an element of the spectacular view. Such representations illustrate a conception of Greenland shaped by romantic ideals, and of the Inuit as people living in harmony with nature. Far from belonging to the past, this kind of romantic and idealised view is still evident today, particularly in the work of photographers who travel to Greenland and capture a magnificent nature and dying culture. The narrative about modernity – previously called “civilisation” – that conquers and appropiates indigenous cultures in harmony with nature, is – independently from its artistic disguising in painting, photography, or literature – more than 200 years old, and a recurring theme in Danish-Greenlandic colonial history and Danish descriptions of Greenland and Greenlanders.
In an interview with Synne Rifbjerg, Arke recounted how missionaries and explorers would in their writings and diaries express disappointment upon finding out that native people had previously got in touch with so-called civilisation, by the time they reached what they pictured as a new land. Simply, Greenland has never been undiscovered: this huge island has been inhabited by several different cultures, while ships have sailed on these routes for thousand(s) years.
“If one is ethnocentric, he’ll try to keep the picture clean, make Greenland and Greenlanders very Greenlandic, even though the population is very mixed,” said Arke**. In several of her photo series she deals exactly with the staging of the Greenlandic, and that is also the case for the video piece Arctic Hysteria.
“I have spent much of my time at the Academy wondering what it is about the pictures and photographs from Greenland. Although photographs are often meant to illustrate something in a text, they do live their own life, and position themselves somewhere between the told and the untold,” said Arke in the interview from 1999**.
There is a search in her works – she gropes her way around the landscape in Arctic Hysteria.
IN SEARCH FOR REDISCOVERY
In another work, called Arctic Hysteria IV, Arke composes a series of pictures of Inuit women posing naked beside fully dressed men from Peary’s expedition. All of the photos featured come from Peary’s archives. This piece, which is now conserved in the form of a sketch on a slide, was considered by Arke a rediscovery: a rediscovery of the explorers’ working methods. One of the women is actually Robert Peary’s girlfriend, although that won’t be guessed from the photographs alone. And once again, the work seems to revolve around the staging of our gaze.
A series of opposites are conjured up here – summer and winter, nature and science, savage and explorer******. And, one could add, man and woman: the active, conquering (white and civilised) man and the passive, conquered (primitive) woman.
Arke’s work was not political – while the individual works can be curated and perceived in a political way, and their subjects do constitute political explosive, nonetheless to Arke it was not a matter of ideologies, agendas, or political slogans. It was rather this search for a rediscovery and an understanding – perhaps first and foremost of herself as a person framed by a certain history, and in turn of what that history meant for the individual, how it staged them. She insisted on the mixed-race person, the bastard, all the in-betweenness that we have inherited from 300 years of colonial history and cultural encounters.
Behind the Art – Pia Arke is written by Stine Lundberg Hansen. 2020. // Translation: Lorenzo Imola. 2021.
* Robert E. Peary travelled numerous times to North Greenland and is believed to have led the first successful expedition to the North Pole, an expedition whose Inuit participants were swept aside, with the American ones being the only remembered. Peary’s expeditions allegedly left a legacy of countless children among Inuit women.
** Rifbjerg, Synne: “Det mørke kammer,” in: Weekendavisen, 29.4–6.5 1999
*** Kleivan, Inge: “Hulkamerafotografier i Grønland,” pp. 247-269, in: Tidsskriftet Grønland, nr. 7 1999
**** Arke, Pia: Etnoæstetik, Pia Arke Selskabet & Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010
***** Den Flyvende Kajak – Nutidskunst fra Grønland, Nordiskt Konstcentrum, 1993
****** Mondrup, Iben: “The Photo Montage Arctic Hysteria alias Arctic Hysteria IV (1997),” pp. 267-68, in: Tupilakosaurus – An Incomplete(able) Survey of Pia Arke’s Artistic Work and Research, Kuratorisk Aktion, 2012.
https://kunsten.nu/journal/hvad-glor-du-paa/ (in Danish)