Curatorial Text
Pia Arke
Arctic Hysteria
6 July – 20 October 24


Curator: Sofie Krogh Christensen

Academic Trainee and Curatorial Assistant: Aykon Süslü


KW, in collaboration with John Hansard Gallery, Southampton (UK), presents the first solo exhibition of artist Pia Arke (b. 1958, GL – d. 2007, DK) to be shown outside of Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) and the Nordic countries.


From the late 1980s until the early 2000s, Arke questioned the intricate relations of identity, memory, and representation between Denmark and Greenland. Spanning photography, performance, text, collage, sculpture, and video, her work grew from an urge to map her family history within the countries’ coloniality. In Arke’s own words, her images are about the silence that envelopes the ties between Greenland and Denmark, and how she was born into that silence. The daughter of an Inuk mother and a Danish father, she carved out an identity that couldn’t be defined as either Danish or Greenlandic, weaving biographical components into her artworks while drawing on different historical, vernacular, and archival sources.


Arke is a pioneering artistic voice in the postcolonial circles of the Nordic and circumpolar regions, yet her work wasn’t fully recognized within the Danish art establishment and the broader public during her lifetime. With Greenland still being an autonomous region under the Kingdom of Denmark today, Arke’s work proves to be fundamental to the discussion about the continuing Danish presence in the Arctic as well as to contemporary Nordic and Greenlandic decolonial thinking.


The exhibition Arctic Hysteria at KW brings together a selection of over 100 of Pia Arke’s works, and seeks to introduce them and their inherent narratives to a wider international audience. The institution’s first and second floor arranges a deconstructed architecture, critically unpacking Arke’s apparatus of sightlines and her focus on the in-between. Taking its title from her influential, eponymous work series from 1996–97, it engages Arke’s focus on the condition and role of the (female) Inuit body and her use of performative strategies—montage, staging, re-enactment—in an effort to create a sense of belonging and stimulate critical self-reflection.


<p>Pia Arke, <em>De tre gratier (The Three Graces),</em> Photography, 1993. Courtesy Pia Arke Estate. Collection Kunstmuseum Brandts © Pia Arke Estate.</p>

Pia Arke, De tre gratier (The Three Graces), Photography, 1993. Courtesy Pia Arke Estate. Collection Kunstmuseum Brandts © Pia Arke Estate.


Pia Arke, née Gant, was born in 1958 in Cape Tobin (now Uunarteq) near Scoresbysund (now Ittoqqortoormiit) on the Northeastern coast of Greenland. After spending her early years in Ittoqqortoormiit, Arke and her family moved around the country due to her father’s occupation as a telegrapher. Between 1962–1987, Arke lived in Thule (now Dundas, Qaanaaq) in the North, in Narsaq in the South, and in Nuuk in the West, while spending intermittent periods at Danish boarding schools. In 1983, the artist changed her name to Arke, a subtle modification of Arqe, her mother’s maiden name. After relocating to Copenhagen, she enrolled at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts to study painting and photography in 1987.


Curious about the politics and colonial power structures inherent in the camera and its image-making, Arke hand-built a camera house—a camera obscura tailored to her specific dimensions—in 1990 with the prospect of transporting it to the places of her childhood homes in Greenland and Denmark. She managed once to ship it to Nuugaarsuuk Point outside Narsaq, where she shot the iconic panorama that would become the signature backdrop of many of her performances and staged photographic layering, most notably in the key work Self-Portrait (1992).


It was crucial for Arke to be able to go inside the apparatus and become a physical part of the image-making process; an act of reclaiming photography that had historically been a colonial archival technique employed by polar explorers. In her Copenhagen studio, she would perform in front of the large prints, taking on different roles as either a stoic statue posing with ethnographic objects in The Three Graces (1993), or as the disobedient colonial subject with a traditional Inuit boot on her head in Untitled (Put your kamik on your head so everyone can see where you come from) (1993).


<p>Pia Arke, <em>Untitled (Put your kamik on your head, so everyone can see where you come from)</em>, Photography, 1994. Courtesy Pia Arke Estate. Collection Malmö Konstmuseum © Pia Arke Estate.</p>

Pia Arke, Untitled (Put your kamik on your head, so everyone can see where you come from), Photography, 1994. Courtesy Pia Arke Estate. Collection Malmö Konstmuseum © Pia Arke Estate.


The exhibition’s first floor devotes itself to the performativity of the camera and the montaged human body, which were essential tools for Arke. The bodies in her works are mostly those of Inuit women, which, like Arke’s, are both objects and subjects, carriers of colonial history in an active and a passive sense. During the research and production process, Arke consciously shifted between the roles of artist, ethnographer, and explorer, and reinserted these forgotten bodies and their silenced voices back into history.


Graduating from the Academy in 1995, Arke was based at the Department of Theory and Communication, where she published her thesis and seminal text Etnoæstetik (Ethno-Aesthetics, 1995). Just as she reclaimed the camera using her own body, Arke also reappropriated the term ‘ethno-aesthetics’, which was previously used by Danish art historians to reference art from Greenland. In her self-described ‘mongrel’ state as Danish-Greenlandic, Arke sought to escape the binary logic of being either an ethnographic object or subject. She wanted to create a ‘third place’ to speak from and to fracture this Euromerican ethnocentric worldview; a position from which to deconstruct culturally essentialist thought—like in her video work, Arctic Hysteria (1996), in which Arke crawls naked across a print of the Nuugaarsuuk panorama before tearing it apart.


On a 1995 trip to the archive of The Explorers Club in New York, Arke came across a file labelled ‘Pibloctoq – Arctic Hysteria’ that contained a photograph of an Inuit woman being seized by White male explorers. She was refused permission to reproduce the image due to its sensitive nature. To Arke, the assault, the making of the photo, and its later censorship were all part of the same pattern of intergenerational colonial violence and the encounter became a pivotal moment in her practice. Not only did it speak to her photographic work of the female body as map and archive, but it also demonstrated the malleability of archives as narratives within the continuous control of paternal colonial structures, which, again, was of consequence to the female body. Arke then intensified her trawling of archives. The second floor of the exhibition traces this mapping process and the construction and deconstruction of colonial and personal archives. 


In 1997, Arke returned to Ittoqqortoormiit for the first time in 35 years. A poignant experience, it was also the beginning of her most extensive and personal research work to date, which looked at the history and narratives surrounding the small colony. Ittoqqortoormiit was founded in 1924 and Danish authorities displaced 87 individuals from Tasiilaq (then Ammassalik) to populate the new settlement, including Arke’s maternal grandparents. The Danish mission was to gain sovereignty over Northeast Greenland in an ongoing territorial conflict with Norway, which had been asserting its colonial claims ever since the collapse of the Dano-Norwegian Union in 1814. In a 1933 international lawsuit in The Hague (NL), Denmark was granted total colonial control over Greenland.


Ittoqqortoormiit became an important example of how Arke tied the personal and the political together. Many works resulted from Arke’s research, including the bricolage series Legend I–V (1999), which critically layers vintage Danish geological maps with found images of her mother and colonial products—a nod towards to the colonial blurring of science, capitalism, and personal histories.


<p>Pia Arke, <em>Legend III, </em>Collage, 1999. Courtesy Pia Arke Estate. Collection Louisiana Museum of Modern Art © Pia Arke Estate.</p>

Pia Arke, Legend III, Collage, 1999. Courtesy Pia Arke Estate. Collection Louisiana Museum of Modern Art © Pia Arke Estate.


Over the next years, Arke found lost family members in numerous visits to her birthplace. She would interview the town’s other inhabitants, who had been silenced and forgotten, in order to unravel their past as well. Meticulously, she pieced together their personal stories, forming a patchwork of family relations, memories, and their silent gaps. Her extensive research resulted in the 2003 book Scoresbysundhistorier: Fotografier, kolonisering og kortlægning (Stories from Scoresbysund: Photographs, Colonisation and Mapping, published in English in 2010) and the collage-work Dummy (1997/2003). Made after the printing of the bound book, Dummy lays out its pages with Arke’s notes and revisions, inviting the viewer into the process of writing and illustrating that ‘in-progress’ might be the only way to present the history of Ittoqqortoormiit—and that of Greenland itself. It remains incomplete but is simultaneously a constructed (hi)story. Arke’s life was cut short in 2007 due to cancer.


While Arke’s practice was born from the bind between Greenland and Denmark, it unfolds as a structural critique of how stories and identities are constructed. Likewise, it is a feminist critique centering on the narratives of Inuit women and the way they structurally negotiate identity across knowledge traditions and reveal the persistent colonial barriers forcing them into silence. These women become a form of communal resonance, marking the contrast between photos and histories made about Greenlandic Inuit and the photos and stories made by Greenlandic Inuit. Staging these narrative shifts, Arke reasserts the right to photography and with that, to self-portraiture and history.


The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive publication with newly commissioned texts, who place Arke’s practice within a wider international discourse.



The exhibition at KW is supported by the New Carlsberg Foundation.


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<p>The exhibition and publication are produced in collaboration with John Hansard Gallery, Southampton (UK).</p>



The exhibition and publication are produced in collaboration with John Hansard Gallery, Southampton (UK).