A paper presented at 'Relate North' 2016 (UHI Shetland, UK) by Kristine Thoreson, PhD
In June of 2014 I travelled to Ilulissat Greenland for the first time and I had a chance to witness the grandiose icebergs (that I had been seeing in popular art photography exhibitions and books) in person. I was surprised to discover the difference between looking at photographs of icebergs, and actually being there to witness them. Icebergs are, of course, embedded within a landscape that has geologic and cultural history. And, they are accessible for most photographers in a just few prime locations globally, yet the resulting landscape photographs appear very similar. Images from Greenland, Norway, Russia, Iceland, Canada, Alaska and other regions are easily conflated and often the specific location hasn’t been clearly indicated. Travelling to Greenland allowed me to see the landscapes in person, to get a sense of place and community, and to understand what art photographers had been including and excluding from the photographic frame. Once on location, I discovered a different kind of Greenland; it was one that I did not see represented by the popular art photographers whose works I kept encountering in museum exhibitions, monograph book collections, and touring group exhibitions.
This photograph by Tiina Itkonen (fig. 1.) is a good example of the kind of art photography that, over the past 15 years, has become very well known and well circulated in North America and Europe. This photograph offers the viewer an encounter with the strange, and awe-inspiring polar North. The blue grey tones of ice appear like mountains stretching across a perfectly framed panoramic view. Yet the moody sky and dark water hint at the unforgiving nature of the landscape despite the beauty pictured. It is characteristic of photographs by other prominent artists who have photographed Greenland and other Arctic regions including Olaf Otto Becker (Germany), David Burdeny (Canada), Tiina Itkonen (Finland) and Camille Seaman (USA) to name just a few. But, as I discovered, there is much more to Greenland than just icy views. So where were these other kinds of representations? Why were there so many prominent artists and exhibitions featuring a sublime kind of North?
It is true that stunning photographs of ice-clad landscapes do impress. They are commercially viable, and a strong message about the need for environmental sustainability is easily communicated. These are not negative things, of course. However, the power to shape global perceptions of place through art should not be taken lightly, and in the case of art photography, this power can be attributed to at least two main factors. Photographs inherently carry a connotation of truthfulness due to the historic use of photography as a medium of authentication, as well as because of its representational veracity (Tagg 4). Thus, photographs have long been thought of as ‘truthful’ as often as they have been ‘artful’. Furthermore, because in the West we are in the habit of looking at pictures of land as ‘landscape’ (a term and an idea that emerged only in the early 1600s with regard to painting) we sometimes ignore important ideas contained within them—rich information about power relations, ownership, truth and representation and cultural identities. In the face of evocative and internationally published art photography of the north, we can lose sight of the fact that local perceptions of place exist, as do local representations of the north. And these images made by both amateurs and professionals may differ completely from the few popular and grand artist exhibitions, and monographs that are readily found in libraries and bookstores in major centers today.
With regard to the art photographs made in Greenland, there is an overwhelming tendency to present Greenland as “otherworldly” and the photographs are often tinged with a modern sense of Burkean sublime (Tøjner and Seeberg 5). Arctic researcher Robert McGhee writes that: “[t]o most southerners the Arctic remains what it was to their counterparts centuries and perhaps even millennia ago: the ultimate otherworld” (Ibid). Things haven’t changed much it seems. Indeed, the art photographs of Greenland that I have viewed by Becker, Itkonen and Seaman re-call the Victorian sublime feelings of awe, insignificance, exaltation and terror. Their unfamiliar, fantastic scenes evoke for me imagined ideas of an extreme place with bitter cold and very few modern resources. From the art photographs I saw before my trip, I imagined Greenland to be a place largely unoccupied with long dangerous trips required for travel between settlements. I even started to wonder if I had any business at all trying to go there myself. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this kind of work? I am not, it seems, alone in my imagined thoughts of Greenland and the Arctic, and Robert McGhee explains why: “[s]tories, the true and the false, have gradually accumulated to form the vision of a distant and fantastic Arctic as seen through the window of Western culture” (McGhee 10). He goes on to say that “[t]his Arctic is not so much a region as a dream; the dream of a unique, unattainable and compellingly attractive world. It is the last imaginary place” (Ibid). The photographs then, that I had been looking at did in fact do a very good job at upholding McGhee’s observation and made me long for this imaginary place. If not always sublime, then the photographs of Arctic places that caught my attention surely can emphasized the strangeness and ‘otherworldly-ness’ that could be found there. Some examples are found below:
Yet when I arrived in Greenland, I was sharply reminded of the extent to which photographers can frame a view and lead a viewer to certain conclusions. I understood first hand the difference between experiencing a place, and experiencing a photograph of a place. I went to Greenland in the capacity of a researcher and artist, and my experience was quite comfortable and even urban, actually. To make photographs of icebergs and Arctic landscapes I didn’t have to bravely rent and operate an inflatable Zodiac in icy waters and travel all alone up the ‘wild’ coasts of Greenland as I feared that I would have to—just as art photographer Olaf Otto Becker had done and has since written about. Nor did I need to live in tents and small villages with local families for months on end like Tiina Itkonen had. I simply took a plane from Calgary, made one connection in Reykjavik, Iceland and was picked up at the airport by my hotel shuttle. I had booked my hotel in advance online through www.booking.com. It was a newly built and modernly designed hotel in a town of around five thousand local Danish and Inuit people. Everyone whom I encountered spoke very good English and tour companies were plentiful and well organized for the most part. Many of the people that I encountered were of either Greenlandic-Inuit or Danish decent and could speak English, Danish and Greenlandic. Teenagers wore G Star jeans, many people carried iphones and I even found that I could get a decent price on a Canada Goose parka if I had wanted one.
During my week-long stay, I photographed the ice from the streets of the town and from the deck of mid sized tourist boats alongside dozens of other tourists who had come to see the ice as well. Mythic notions of the a wild, frozen and ‘great white North’ that I had witnessed in the above mentioned art photography evaporated in front of me as I sat in the eighteen degree Celsius, June sunshine drinking a latté on the deck of a shop on the main street in town. Following Yi-Fu Taun’s definition of myth, I mean a belief that is not easily verified or proven false (Tuan 85). Mythic space is defined as “a fuzzy area of defective knowledge surrounding the empirically known” that “is a conceptual extension of the familiar and workaday spaces given by direct experience” (Tuan 86). Thus as I sat drinking my coffee I was struck by the incongruity between the fuzzy kind of knowledge of an Arctic place that I had derived from art photographs, and the fact of the parents, children, tourists, water trucks and shuttles that streamed by within site of the dramatic looking icebergs on location in Ilulissat.
Once again, the same experience repeated itself when I compared the impressions that I had gained from photographs, with what I experienced when I went for a hike along the famous Ilulissat Icefjord. Since it has been a World Heritage Site since 2001, there is a well-maintained and marked trail spray-painted with large yellow dots. It led me along a path alongside other visitors, who just like me, held published maps to guide them. The icefjord was packed with icebergs, tourist boats dotted the water, and hikers travelled the walking trail with cameras and books in hand. All the while the magnificent ice heaved and cracked mysteriously beside me—the fuzzy realm of the imaginary became at once even more fantastic, yet also more grounded in the empirically known of my experience at the same time. Following the hike, I ate pizza and drank a Coca-Cola on the patio of the Icy Café and I wondered if Olaf Otto Becker had eaten there before me. These kinds of events characterized my stay.
Thus, I learned through practice what theory had already taught me. Photographs are, for one thing, slices of a subjective reality that when separated, as images, from the scene (and timeframe) from which they were taken, can tell incomplete or even misleading stories. Author and artist Deborah Bright, in writing about the genre of landscape in art, states that “[w]hether noble, picturesque, sublime or mundane, the landscape image… is a selected and constructed text” and that the social significance of the decision to include or exclude subject matter within a landscape is rarely considered (126). Having been now to Greenland, I understand that the Arctic art photographs that I have seen show only a select and deliberately framed view, and that view is chosen according to particular art historical, commercial or personal interest. This is of course not saying anything new. Yet with regard to photographs of the Arctic, and because Greenland is still one of those less traveled, ‘off the beaten track’ kind of places, it becomes an increasingly important point. It is important because viewers of art photographs who reside outside of Greenland (or Northern regions) may be unaware of any other kinds of northern landscape possibilities, and perhaps already aware of the imaginary ones that McGhee has described.
In keeping with the notion of art as a medium through which we can tell stories, Deborah Bright further suggests that we should ask questions about, “what ideologies landscape photographs perpetuate; in whose interests they were conceived; [and] why we still desire to make and consume them” (Ibid). Author and Professor in Photographic Culture at Plymouth University (UK) Liz Wells explains that “[o]ne of the functions of art is to explore and comment upon individual and social worlds of experience. Historically art has been understood as contributing to myths and discourses which inform ways of making sense of and responding to cultural phenomena” (Photography: A Critical Introduction 282). It is my view therefore that the above artists in fact collectively (yet with a love of their subjects) present a narrowly defined notion of the Arctic that is based on one kind of social world of experience.
The technical quality and compositional integrity of these artists’ photographs is exceptional. The climate change awareness piece is commendable as well, and I don’t criticize the artists ability or need to make money from their art – we all need to pay the mortgage. So while it is true that creating awe-inspiring photographs for the pleasure of it or for the purpose of promoting an appreciation for polar-regions makes for legitimate and valuable work. It is also true that taking a wider view of a whole field can reveal important beliefs that we hold and make us aware of other ones. This is where the work of critics and curators becomes important – in that they should discuss a range of perspectives and show a variety of work – and not just the “blockbuster” themes and sublime imagery. Indeed, the impact that various kinds of ‘images’ have on our perceptions of space and place is widely written about. We learn to expect certain things from the places that we live in, travel to or avoid based on (among other things) the images that we encounter over time. From postcards and gallery plaques to advertisements and tourism brochures, imagery creates impressions of places. Once narratives of place become popularized to the extent of becoming ‘common knowledge’, they become established cultural myths. Photographs are complex, cultural signifiers that can act to establish, sustain or challenge popularly held notions towards specific places. They can both feed and challenge perceptions that are made about regions or types of places too. Liz Wells states, “[t]he pictorial offers more than graphic representation. It articulates subjective memory and cultural currencies... .” (Land Matters 4). Indeed, the subjective memory of generations of rugged explorers is held within Arctic motifs of sublime space that are still circulating. The belief in Arctic regions as peripheral and strange is exemplified in awe-inspiring, sublime rendering of the imagery and in the popular circulation of seemingly vacant (or nearly vacant) and eternally wintery expanses of land. The photographs leave me to silently wonder, is there no spring or summer in the North?
Thus, what begins as one person’s impression (based on their own subjectivity) or artistry ends as an accretion of artifacts that together create a site of knowledge that is circulated through and by various channels of public dissemination. These artifacts may then be used as the basis for decision-making on personal and societal levels. In his book Places on the Margin, Rob Shields explains that images and ‘imaginary geographies’ of places actually underpin political rhetoric, pervade development policies and contribute to the creation of a sense of community (6). Just as the American West was pictured as vacant by railroad companies and surveyors to encourage funding and public support for their project, so too can diverse Arctic regions be exploited when pictured as containing only ice, snow and a few small settlements. Thus the problem in using sublime vistas of an imaginary and largely empty North to promote environmental awareness is twofold: first, the images that portray the North as a uniform and vacant place- an image that is not true- are often made by foreign artists who can not speak for local people’s points of views, experiences and values. In fact, in his book The Last Imaginary Place, Robert McGhee underlines the fact that true and false stories of the Arctic have accumulated over time “And that our concept of the Arctic is based more upon mythology, history and “artistic conventions” than to the “actual physical reality of the North” (McGhee 9). His hope in writing the book is to present a human history of the Arctic so that it becomes less “out of this world” and more familiar to those who might have the impression that the Arctic is a bizarre and alien place (Ibid). Further to this, with her opening remarks in the exhibition catalogue Isi, Øje, Eye, Greenlandic curator Pipaluk Lykke Løgstrup writes: "Greenland today enjoys a great deal of global attention due to climate change and the growing interest from the international oil and mining industries. Despite this, the knowledge of contemporary culture and everyday life in Greenland is not yet so widespread." (n.pag.)
Acting as a counterpoint to the sublime northern landscape photography, Løgstrup's traveling exhibition of photographs by local residents presents a view of Greenland from the perspective of contemporary Greenlandic and Danish culture instead of from a foreign one. In the entire exhibition of forty-five photographs there are only a few images of winter and perhaps tellingly, only one that shows a sublime scene of ice (and this was submitted by the Danish-born physiotherapist who is living in Ilulissat). The other photographs include children playing, women four-by-fouring, a man hunting with a rifle, and another man having tea in his living room. They are photographs of a place lived in and experienced by local people, and not contemplative scenes featuring the aesthetic qualities of the landscape.
Second, perceptions of place are important and as Tim Cresswell explains, “[p]lace is the raw material for the creative production of identity rather than ...a label of identity” (39). Wells agrees and similarly states that “[i]magery feeds our desire for a clear sense of identity and of cultural belonging” (Land Matters 5). Indeed perceptions of Greenland as a distant and unimaginable place, is a cultural construct of another time, and made by non-local people. It is the created identity of the Greeks, the early Norse explorers, and the colonial powers that sailed in search of the North Pole and the North West Passage (Ibid). Times have changed, people and places and technologies have changed, and the identity of Greenland in relation to the rest of the world has also evolved. Contemporary art photographers who continue to use nineteenth century motifs insist upon a stagnant and at times colonial notion of Greenland and refuse local opportunities for the creative production of identity in the twenty-first century.
Happily, there are alternative representations being made about the Arctic and Greenland that, as with McGhee’s intention, seek to present the North as a non-alien and relatable place. Artists such as Sarah Anne Johnson (Canada), Jurma Puranen (Finland), and curators Pipa Lykke Løgstrup (Greenland) (just mentioned) and Julie Decker (USA) are just a few examples of people who are pushing back against the popular and otherworldly motifs of the Arctic with their recent projects. Their works shift an existing emphasis on “beauty” and aestheticized appearances in landscape art and photography of the Arctic towards a more culturally engaged approach that considers a range of ideas including what it means to be an artist in the Arctic today; who the people are that live in the Arctic; what kinds of colonializing practices have occurred through art in the Arctic; how Arctic people are picturing themselves; and what kinds of space and place are being created through art of the Arctic. These artists and curators treat landscape as a part of a cultural geography, and resist placing the focus primarily on the scenery behind it.
Canadian photographic artist Sarah-Anne Johnson’s (Canada) Arctic Wonderland series is an example of a contemporary landscape photography project that explores both past practices and future possibilities in the Arctic. Johnson’s series is set not in Greenland but in the Norwegian archipelagos of Svalbard. Beautiful, humorous and even critical at times, this series purposely presents conflicting depictions of a ‘mythic North’ that range from celebratory to apocalyptic. Her series explores, in part, what it means to be an artist in the Arctic today; in the Fall 2011 issue of Canadian Art Magazine she explains her conflicting feelings about being there to author and art critic Nancy Tousley by saying “[i]f I am standing here, it’s all over” (119). She is referring to the idea that the Arctic used to be a distant place for southern people, where only well-outfitted expedition groups went—and even they were sometimes unable to return due to the extreme environment. Today, there are many opportunities for travel in the far North, the biggest restriction being the cost in getting there. With so many travel opportunities available, it is clear that times have changed. Now that the once ‘extreme’ places on earth are easily accessed by common tourists, it is a sign that there must be few, if any at all, untouched places left on Earth. And her photographs, instead of re-tracing old motifs, problematize the changes in the north and explore the impact and possibility of this new era of an easily accessed Arctic.
Like Johnson, Lars Tunbjörk has similarly worked to create a counter narrative to popular sublime representations of the North. Instead of picturing an idealized ‘great white North’ he explores the state of mind of the people living in polar darkness in Sweden. Curator Julie Decker of the Anchorage Museum in Alaska recently produced an exhibition and catalogue titled True North, Contemporary Art of the Circumpolar North (2012) where I first learned of Tunbjörk's work. In this exhibition project she highlights work that "examines the social, economic, psychological and environmental issues in the circumpolar noth" in what she calls an "unvarnished presentation" of the north (Decker Preface). Tunbjörk is known for his deadpan style and presentation of realistic images of urban life; using flash photography he creates stark images that capture the depressive mood of northern Europe during this season (Decker 98). Instead of scenes of a winter wonderland or vistas of frozen landscapes, Tunbjörk presents everyday photographs of the places where people live and work. Even in the Arctic, dogs wait for their owners to return home from work (see fig. 44.), children make snowmen that get dirty from street grime (see fig. 45.) and snow falls almost too deeply to be shoveled. Indeed, in Tunbjörk’s photographs beautiful scenes of crisp, white snow are interrupted with the reality of ordinary architecture and the black grime of urban pollution. The use of flash makes for harshly lit scenes that consciously lack the poetic construction of traditional and seemingly untouched landscapes of art photography. His photographs instead confront a viewer’s expectation of beauty in a winter snowfall and invite us to consider the reality of what it’s like in the city during a long Swedish winter season (see fig. 46. below).
Finnish artist Jorma Puranen is also an artist who creates art that importantly reflects on past practices and uses of photography in the Arctic. Imaginary Homecomings (1991-1997) involves re-photographing portraits from 1884 that were made of Sami people by non-Sami anthropological visitors (fig. 50.). Puranen found the photographs, which were housed in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, and then physically and metaphorically re-placed them into their homelands by making copies of them and taking them back the places in which they were made. (Wells, Land Matters 252-53). Liz Wells describes Puranen as one of Finland’s best-known and critically incisive artists; his work considers the role of photography as a tool in imperialism and colonization (Ibid). Upon returning the copied images back to northern Norway and Sweden, Puranen photographed the acrylic prints outdoors amidst the snowdrifts of the Arctic (Wells, Land Matters 212). This project then challenges the practice of ‘othering’ and invites viewers also to think of the Arctic not in terms of vacant space, but rather in terms of these people’s home and history. Alas, when the various countries and places of the Arctic are thought of or pictured as marginal, this project smartly asks, marginal for whom (Wells, Land Matters 252)?
What makes the above projects interesting is that the artists and curators show that they are aware of historical events, past and present artistic representations, and past and present attitudes towards the Arctic and those who live / have lived there. They make stereotypes visible and re-imagine Northern and Arctic places through creative inquiry. By asking questions such as who is landscape imagery made for, who is pictured or erased from imagery, or what kinds of activities take place in the Arctic now these artists de-mythologize the North. Though it may be tempting to enjoy again and again the images of wintery wonderlands and mesmerizing topaz blue icebergs, we should remember that these images are only one version of the north. There are many ways to look at the north, both local and foreign, built from a multitude of unique experiences. As Julie Decker has invited us, let us then "[f]orget the poetic and utopian view of life in the north" and seek out a multitude of experiences and voices so that we may come to know a more dynamic visual north.
©Kristine Thoreson 2016
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"The New North Collective is an ensemble of Northern Canadian performing artists from Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. The New North Collective came together in 2015 after the individual artists had performed together in various configurations at events and festivals over the years. Each of the members of the ensemble have successful music careers as solo performers or as part of other groups, and bring a diversity of styles and experience to the collective. New music, folk, traditional, jazz and rock inform what the New North Collective creates.
Together, they explore their ideas of north - from the land to the people; from the traditional to the contemporary. Their shared music focuses on an in-depth look at being a northern person and a northern artist with the impact of north on the music all are creating. The expansive imagery of northern Canada also comes to light in songs co-written and performed by the group." www.banffcentre.ca
Get tickets here: www.banffcentre.ca/events/new-north-collective/20170129/1930
Greenlandic curator Pipaluk Lykke Løgstrup has put together a unique collection of Greenlandic photography in a traveling exhibition titled: Isi Øje Eye.
Løgstrup underlines the importance of her recent project by explaining that,"[f]or the first time a work is published with photos taken by Greenlandic people themselves."
This exhibition features the work of Greenlandic youth and residents of all ages who picture for themselves what their interest, loves, fears, traditions and inspirations are. For more information: http://isi.nebula.gl/
To purchase the catalogue, go here: https://www.saxo.com/dk/isi_pipaluk-lykke-loegstrup_indbundet_9788799635900
Photographs from: http://isi.nebula.gl/assit/
Portraits of Place: The Arctic in Photographs is at The Anchorage Museum (Alaska USA) is up until January 7th 2017 at the Anchorage Museum, Alaska.
"Portraits of Place breaks open the idea of a pristine landscape and replaces it with a North that is both inhabited and complex. Within this context, the artists in this exhibition examine the Arctic through contemporary photography that conveys a sense of place through human impact and lifeways."
In the KitchenAcacia Johnson
2013, 35" x 28" print from a digital negative
Dr. Kristine Thoreson is an independent researcher, visual artist, curator and writer. With a love for geographically northern regions, especially in the North Atlantic, Kristine practices creative research about how photography creates and reflects the worlds we live within. Her favourite books on the north are Winter: Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik and Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage by Kathleen Winter.