Friday, 30 October 2009

Arctic Book Club: Artists Respond to An African in Greenland

This autumn, Flux Factory and EFA Project Space presented Arctic Book Club in Manhattan. Curated by Jean Barberis and Michelle Levy, the exhibition was the result of an epic several-month long journey by a group of artists responding to Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s book, An African in Greenland.

An African in Greenland recounts the author’s pilgrimage from his native Togo to Greenland. Fascinated with the distant Arctic, Kpomassie embarked on a ten-year journey across Africa and Europe, working as a translator along the way, and eventually saving enough money to complete his odyssey.

In the Spring of 2009, Flux Factory and EFA assembled a cross-disciplinary group of artists to respond to Kpomassie’s book. Those selected were Amber Cortes, Jenelle Covino, The Green and Bold Cooperative, Katerina Lanfranco, Fabienne Lasserre, Valerie Piraino, Greg Pond, Annie Reichert, Julian Rogers, Ranbir Sidhu and Christopher Ulivo. They met regularly as a book club, and upon completion of the book, they all created new work inspired by Kpomassie’s narrative.

Some artists responded very closely to the text. Members of The Green & Bold Coöperative (McDavid Moore, Matthew Gribbon, Steven Thompson) produced a hand-written transcription of the original French text L’Africain Du Groenland. The work was conducted live within a complex installation comprising four work benches protruding from what appeared to be a large stack of boulders. In Nomadic Work Desk w/ Approximate Lodestone (Exhibition Format) the artists took their cue from the Inuit hospitality demonstrated in the book, and broke off from their calligraphic labour to engage gallery visitors in conversation and offer coffee in a service modelled on the “Kaffenik” of the Greenlanders.

Other artists used the opportunity to explore the Arctic landscape. Katerina Lanfranco’s work reflects the extreme scales adopted by the elements, from the microscopic and elusive snow flake to the massive iceberg. Glacial Specimens (flame worked glass with clay and acrylic paint) consists of several small mixed media glass sculptures which capture the ephemeral nature of snow and ice crystals.

Midnight Sun, (hand-cut paper, 80 inches high) is a large paper-cut sculpture of an isolated iceberg seen in silhouette. A complex web of positive and negative spaces and shapes imply the angular ice forms and the contrast of dark and light are symbolic of the region’s Polar Night (total darkness) and Midnight Sun (total light). The form, like Greenland itself, drifts alone in the ocean and exists partially above and below water.

Christopher Ulivo designed a theatrical tribute to the story through a shadow puppet theatre. Rather than attempting to imitate Kpomassie’s style as storyteller, or engage in critical commentary, Ulivo chose to pay homage to the text by reworking it as a script for a shadow puppet show. As Ulivo developed his project, he realised that the puppet show was dramatically effective, not only because it conveyed the story directly, but also because its absolute dependence on the contrast between light and the absence of light is in direct correlation to Greenland’s black winters and endless summers. The naïve, playful characteristic of the medium was also important to the artist: “There are repeated references in the book to ways in which the Inuit entertain each other in so barren a place. Tété’s vivid descriptions of dances, birthday parties and Christmas festivities all have the feeling of homespun craftiness and companionship. I hope our show can channel some of the spirit of Inuit mirth.”

Fabienne Lasserre created an installation made of human hair and plaster (Untitled). Long, dark hair hung down the gallery wall, overflowing onto the floor. The hair was covered in a thin layer of white poured plaster. Through the fluid texture of the plaster the disorderly and fibrous texture of the hair was visible; there were stark contrasts between the dark hair and the white plaster, between the shagginess of the hair and the smoothness of the plaster. Formalism and process, idealism and goofiness, purity and corruption exist in mutual agitation. The work drew inspiration from a similar tension in Kpomassie’s account of Greenland, which displays a contrast between the whiteness, the stillness and the beauty of the landscape and the dirty, visceral lifestyle of its inhabitants. Kpomassie constantly shifts from descriptions of faeces, guts, and blubber, to quasi-spiritual encounters with the environment.

Annie Reichert’s contribution to the Arctic Book Club was Souvenir Desk, an installation comprising a wooden desk in which the drawers were filled with mementos of Kpomassie's journey. The desk was a found object that had been painted over several times by its previous owner. The artist sanded down the negative space around succeeding layers of grey, blue and white in order to reveal a topographic map of Greenland. The compact piece of furniture, comparable to one found in the cabin of a ship, was evocative of the physical space where an explorer would record his travel log. The desk also functioned as a metaphor for the writer’s mental space as he reconstructs his journey through memory and reflection.

Friday, 23 October 2009


Clare Carter was born in Yorkshire in 1980. Her work as an artist ranges across disciplines, with a focus on painting and composing music.

Since studying fine art, she has continued her painting practice with residencies across Europe, most recently working in a studio in Leeds. She also composes and performs music in The Horn The Hunt, a 2-piece electronic band. Carter is interested in different kinds of environment; her newest musical experiments are sound-scapes (or soundtracks for which the film waits to be written) exploring imaginary landscapes ‘that have an absence of people, places where the emotions are in the trees and plants and rocks.’

Introduction No.2 (Woman from the Old Upernavik), 2006, oil on board, 24 x 31cm

This sensitivity to landscape encompasses not just the pastoral idylls of the English Romantics but ‘inner and outer, physical and psychological, inhabited and uninhabited, rural and urban/domestic’. She is intrigued by ‘the pathways and entry points between these worlds, and how humans cope and adapt to different environments.’ She examines contemporary responses to Nature, and finds links between modern society and our primordial instincts. She is also fascinated by beliefs and practices that are less common now than in the past, particularly anthropomorphism.

It’s becoming clear why Carter might be interested in Inuit culture, but I asked how her three-month residency at Upernavik Museum in Greenland affected her work. She responded with a wonderful evocation of the landscape and the darkness.

Following Travels, 2009, oil & acrylic on canvas (diptych), 76 x 76cm each

‘I arrived in Upernavik completely shell-shocked by this unique and frightening environment. I couldn’t contemplate the vastness of the landscape and how I was supposed to communicate my feelings through painting. So I spent most of my time in Upernavik looking through photography books about north-west Greenland and the people of Upernavik, from the last century. Mainly black & white photos, some very old. These photographs of people and the landscape made a visual link between myself as a westerner and the brutal nature of Greenland. So I painted them, along with photographs I took of the museum exhibits at the ethnographical museum. This is where I began to understand my interest in taxidermy and illusion, the exhibit, the performance.

‘I think it’s the colonial mind – if we cannot understand what is new and different about other cultures we have to make small reconstructions or dioramas … as if by taking the exotic and putting it through our own fabricating process we can somehow begin to contemplate it’s reality – or the reality that we engaged with. It’s as if looking alone is not enough, we need these eyeglasses that help us digest the unknown and make it seem more familiar.

‘The Cave’ and 'Following Travels' explore the notion of putting things – experiences, landscapes – in a situation where they can be viewed as performance. ‘The Cave’ was made in Norway; it’s a modern cave painting. My husband sits at a desk in a flat making music. The unfamiliar and unexplored landscape fills the room and penetrates through so much that he is absorbed into it. The room and the landscape toy with each other for control of the stage.

‘For me, Greenland was the key to unlocking all these ideas that had been with me since my childhood days of building miniature landscapes on shelves in my bedroom. The darkness (we spent 6 weeks of our 3 month stay in perpetual night) and the extreme landscape we experienced were a life-changing and questioning process that will forever stay with us.

‘The hardest and most unusual experience about living in the darkness is that you have no view, no way of projecting emotions outwards. There is no landscape to absorb or give perspective on existence, except that of the domestic space. So everything becomes internal. It’s like being in a cell – you know there’s space and life outside but you have no visual access to it. The only visuals are man-made: the electric light illuminating a path; lamps glowing inside a living room; the television projecting scenes from places with daylight. In a sense, everything becomes imaginary, an illusion – or if not an illusion, a human fabrication of ‘day’ in a nocturnal world.’

The Cave, 2008, oil & acrylic on canvas, 250 x 130cm

Saturday, 10 October 2009


I visited Oxford to interview the performance artist Kirsten Norrie about The Wolf In The Winter performances at Katuaq Cultural Centre in Nuuk and in Sissimuit in 2003. Norrie is a Scottish artist who trained at Ruskin School of Fine Art, Oxford. Her work, which encompasses music, literature and performance, is gutteral and haunting.

The Wolf In The Winter is an international group of solo performance artists who come together as a pack to 'speak through physical action in a tough poetic about the world around us.' The Greenland performances were instigated by the Inuit artist Jessie Kleeman.

Before we discussed the Wolves' work in Greenland, Kirsten and I strolled into the gardens of Wolfson College and sat drinking coffee. It was still early morning and strands of spidersilk were drifting sideways in the sunlight. The dew was rising as mist down by the river: a warm day was promised. These moments of unexpected grace in the temperate zones contrast with the abrupt seasonal changes in the far north. In Oxford, time is mutable and contrary. The sunshine is not necessarily benevolent. Later, shortly after we had turned off the microphone, Kirsten noticed that the windows of the room were seething with ladybirds. They had interpreted the late autumn sunshine as a new spring, and were attempting to escape the safety of the flat to hurl themselves to certain death by frost outside.

You can listen to Kirsten Norrie on her performance with The Wolf In The Winter here