FAVORITE THEORISTS

Pia Arke

Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen

September 2018

Pia Arke (1958–2007) was a mixed-race Danish-Greenlandic artist and cultural theorist whose adult life was bookended by two momentous events in Danish-Greenlandic relations: the 1979 adoption of a home-rule system of governance in Greenland, which marked the first major push toward a Danish decolonization of Greenland, and the series of Greenlandic protests that culminated in the 2009 implementation of a self-rule system of governance, which saw Greenland win sovereignty from Denmark in most areas except foreign policy and criminal law.

I offer these details about Arke’s life upfront because Arke’s art and theory both insist that we consider the artist/theorist’s vantage points—positionalities, to use a phrase in vogue—to be central to and inextricable from her works. In Arke’s case, being split at the root lent her a complicated and complex perspective on the Danish-Greenlandic cultural dynamic.

Arke’s most noteworthy theoretical work is the manifesto Ethno-Aesthetics (1995, English translation 2010), which she submitted in place of a physical product to earn a degree from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Ethno-Aesthetics beams a flashlight into the psyches of Danes who travel to the North Atlantic to encounter their supposed Others, the “Eskimos” [sic], on whom they project fantasies of cultural purity and backwardness. She ascribes to Danes who romanticize Greenland and Greenlanders a Rousseau-like fetishization of the Noble Savage; an almost pitiable need to ignore signs of Danish-Greenlandic syncretism or of Greenlandic modernities to sustain their racial fantasies; and a pervasive obliviousness to the systematic construction and perpetuation of these reductive images of Greenland and Greenlanders.

Pia Arke

Source: Wikipedia

It seems tempting to frame Arke’s manifesto simply as a North Atlantic incarnation of Edward Saïd’s theories in Orientalism (1978) that the European construction of exotic others reveals less about those cultures than it does about the fragility of Europe’s self-perception and cultural coherence, but Arke goes further than Saïd. Not only does Arke equip critical observers with an intellectual apparatus for “watching them watching us,” i.e. for critiquing Denmark’s construction of Greenland as its other, but she also calls for direct and concerted action from Greenlandic persons to call out their Danish counterparts on their reductivism, and to double down on representing Greenlandic modernities instead of merely playing into essentialist Danish expectations of “what Greenlandic art is.” Arke implores her peers to reject the aesthetic paradigm that Danes tend to impose on Greenland and Greenlanders. Her underlying project, I suspect, is to rouse cognitive dissonance in Danish readers and consumers of Greenlandic culture, calling them out on their stereotyped and reductive visions of Greenland by presenting them with representations of Greenlandic life that diverge so brazenly from what they expect it to look like.

She ascribes to Danes who romanticize Greenland and Greenlanders a Rousseau-like fetishization of the Noble Savage.

Pia Arke ranks among my favorite theorists for numerous reasons: She lets her theory complement her artwork, evinced by the photography exhibit Arctic Hysteria’s dramatization of the violent European gaze on Inuit bodies. She flips the tables of ethnographic inquiry, returning the critical gaze that North Europeans have cast on Greenlanders for centuries. She admits to and even flaunts the anger that these repeated confrontations with Danish scientific racism rouse in her, viewing that frustration not as an unwelcome emotion that leaves her cognitively hamstrung but a feeling that emboldens and sharpens her acumen as a cultural critic. But most significantly, she owns up to and champions the political cause that underpins her theoretical and artistic works: to fight for better, rounder, more complex representations of Greenlanders by Greenlanders. Her dissection of the Danish ethno-aesthetic reduction of Greenlanders to a monolithic category of premodern Inuit sealers who live in igloos (a chimeric dwelling that no Greenlanders actually inhabit; the vast majority of Greenlanders live in apartments in cities and towns along the country’s—mostly ice-free—coastline) has a pointedness to it that lets it contribute directly to the avowedly political cause of decolonizing Greenlandic minds.

Shot while Arke was working on her book Scoresbysund historier, published by Borgens Forlag.

Source: YouTube.

Ethno-Aesthetics took the form of a dissertation in visual arts, yes, but the combination of Arke’s acerbic, satirical prose and her incisive dissection of Danish neocolonialism in Greenland slate it for wider circulation. Indeed, upon its trilingual republication in Greenlandic, Danish, and English in 2010, Ethno-Aesthetics has won scholarly attention even outside the Danish-Greenlandic context. The University of Chicago-based journal Afterall made Ethno-Aesthetics the centerpiece of its Autumn/Winter 2017 edition, using illustrations from Arke’s work on its cover page and devoting the three leading articles in the journal to Arke’s manifesto. Though popular interest in Arke’s theories of the European relation to its North Atlantic others has yet to swell, the freshness and daring of Arke’s work—theoretical and artistic—gives me hope that she may one day enjoy the posthumous recognition she merits.

Rereading Ethno-Aesthetics, I cannot help but ask myself: Am I complicit in similar reductivist practices to the Danish stereotyping of Inuit Greenlanders?

I have just started a five-year program at Stanford University. I find myself somehow at the edge of the Western world and near its nexus at the same time. Though I write from the perceived center of the Wallersteinian world-system that would place Arke squarely on a periphery, her words resound here.

Arke’s immediate theoretical contribution may have been a toolkit for better understanding and critiquing the Danish marginalization of Greenlanders, but the methodology of activist scholarship she perfects seems transferable to the context in which I find myself.

Rereading Ethno-Aesthetics, I cannot help but ask myself: Am I complicit in similar reductivist practices to the Danish stereotyping of Inuit Greenlanders?

Do I suffer from a similar ethnocentric myopia to the one that made a Danish missionary, whose poem Arke uses as an epigraph to her manifesto, feel somehow justified in lamenting the “too civilized” state of Greenlanders when he visited the country in the early twentieth century:

Sorrow and happiness wander together!’

We readily could appropriate these words

when we met the East Greenlanders.

We were happy to have reached them, yet,

undeniably, also saddened to see them;

for they did not appear as the unspoiled people

we had hoped to find! They were already ‘civilised’;

but what a civilisation! The year before, at Itivdlek,

we encountered a group of East Greenlanders

about whom we could say that, evidently,

these are ‘wild’ people. This year, at Angmagssalik,

we meet with East Greenlanders, one of which wears a top hat,

another knee breeches, stockings and shoes,

as if intent on going to a banquet at the emperor of Germany’s court.

One presents himself in a coat, another in a normal shirt! Etc. etc.!

I nearly burst into tears!

 

From the diary of C.P.F Rüttel, Missionary in East Greenland, 1894–1904

Arke’s manifesto seems apposite reading for scholars close to the center of the intellectual world-system who, like me, want to steer clear of ethnocentrism—of a reductive ethno-aesthetics—and show the requisite attunement to the experiences of persons whom we too easily fix in a position of subalternity and deny participation in contemporary cultural life.

Ethno-Aesthetics speaks with prophetic clarity and authority to protest and counter one of the most problematic intellectual tendencies of our moment.

It could, and should, be required reading for the burgeoning generation of thinkers striving for a more cogent, diverse, equal world.

FURTHER READING

Arke, Pia. Arctic Hysteria, 1996. Nuuk, Greenland. Film. 5:55 minutes, silent.

Arke, Pia. Ethno-Aesthetics. 1995. English and Greenlandic translation by Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Arke, Pia and Stefan Jonsson. Stories from Scoresbysund: Photographs, Colonisation and Mapping, 2003. English translation by Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Kuratorisk Aktio. Tupilakosaurus: An Incomplete(Able) Survey of Pia Arke’s Artistic Work and Research, 2012. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen is a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a B.A. in Literature and Creative Writing. His interests include contemporary culture, new conceptions of World Literature, and emerging strategies for literary studies. Contact him at nnielsen[at]stanford.edu

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