“All my life I’ve been trying to defy gravity,” says Jessie Kleemann with a firm look in her grey-green eyes. “But how do you do that when you can’t fly?” She rises resolutely from our table inside the National Gallery of Denmark café and demonstrates how breathing can pull the body up into a pose that sets the spirit free. It’s as if she steps out of the situation, away from coffee cups and audio recorders, and into her own space. Suddenly, everything vanishes around the small and intense woman, except – perhaps – empty, open air.
She’s reproducing a situation that took place in the late 1970s at the Tuukkaq Theatre outside the small North Jutland town of Fjaltring near Struer. At the age of 17, Kleemann – then a student – was attracted to this experimental theatre troupe and school created by and for Greenlandic young people. Here, the seeds were sown for an artistic career with performance art as the main focal point and Greenlandic cultural heritage as a contextual springboard – a mixture that seemed foreign and provocative to the Nuuk art scene at the time.
At the Greenland Art School in Nuuk, which Kleemann attended from 1979–81, physical forms of expression and any interest in what Kleemann calls “the old culture” were conspicuously absent, and her later expressive performances and insistence on expressing cultural shame and rifts were received with some scepticism.
Born in Upernavik in 1959 in what was then known as North Greenland, Kleemann now lives and works in Copenhagen, and is still preoccupied with how the Greenlandic identity seems to shift and transform over time. But much has changed over the years, and the relationship between the two countries that have alternately served as Kleemann’s home through most of her life is once again up for negotiation. Bolstered by decolonial discourse, the Danish art scene is currently turning its attention to the colonial era as never before, while the younger generation of Greenlanders are revitalising Greenland’s cultural heritage and national pride.
“The Greenlanders have become a different people than we once were,” says Kleemann. “We are no longer just an ‘Indigenous People’, because our culture and language – even our DNA – have become mingled with others, going with the flow. So who are we now – as a people and as a nation?”
Kleemann’s installation ORSOQ (2012), which means seal blubber in Greenlandic, was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Denmark, a sign of official recognition she accepts with perfect calm. She stands where she has always stood: divided between national identities, languages, and cultural histories, hovering in space.
Do you remember the first artwork you made that gave you a sense that you were on to something important?
I remember we used to get the Danish Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s journal in our home, and I read it with avid attention. The world felt far away then, so this journal offered insight into something very different from what was going on at the art school in Nuuk, where we mostly concentrated on matters of technique. I think that was where I read about Marina Abramović and Ulay’s performance on the Great Wall of China. I was completely enthralled with that gesture – that it was just an action, a span of time, and a physical, bodily thing.
In 1988, I borrowed my younger brother’s video camera and created a work with myself as director and performer, and that became my very first performance before a camera. Shot in black and white, the footage only showed my face, which was painted to resemble a spirit mask of the kind used in Greenlandic mask dances, so my face was blackened and painted with coloured lines. The lines have different meanings – the colour red represents blood, and so on – and are associated with different spiritual values. In my video, the mask keeps changing because I added more paint and rubbed out the colour until it was completely distorted.
What is your own relationship to the ritual meanings embedded in the mask?
All the things associated with the old culture which disappeared or were banned with the spread of Christianity in Greenland are now being revitalised. However, the mask dance never completely disappeared because there were always a few people left in East Greenland who continued to perform such rituals in secret. I have seen something similar in my childhood in Upernavik in North Greenland, and back then we were told not to talk about it. I have used some brief, fleeting memories from that time in my works.
Today, many people perform the mask dance with pride. It’s a craft tradition that I’m not necessarily entirely faithful to. I use some elements of it, such as the face painting or certain movements. I take it apart a little, turning it into something else.
Do you have any concerns that the cultural meanings might completely disappear when they’re placed in a present-day context?
It’s rather like moving on thin ice because you definitely risk being met with condemnation. Of course, you need to be mindful of doing it the right way. But what is the right way? Many cultural characteristics of Greenlandic culture have become so faded and blurred, and the culture has changed so much and so quickly that it’s difficult to determine what is truly Greenlandic today.
When I draw so extensively on that cultural heritage in my works, I do so with respect, of course. But it also feels quite natural. If a culture is not active – is no longer in use – it ossifies and becomes a museum exhibit. And if I’m not allowed to use it, who is? It must be the Greenlanders themselves who have the right to examine their cultural heritage, and that includes pushing back the context a little.
It can be said that colonisation – perhaps especially the religious aspect – has caused many changes to escalate. Suddenly having only one god prompted a very major shift in Greenlandic culture, I think. Today, Christianity plays a huge role in Greenland; it has gained a really firm grip on the culture. It has become a lens through which we read the various things that affect us in our daily lives – life, birth, illness, and death – but it is difficult to properly express our relationship with nature that way. When I use characters such as the Mother of the Sea in my performances, I partly do so to recall the forces of nature and the way of approaching nature that disappeared with the colonisation.
How do you use the Mother of the Sea in performances?
The Mother of the Sea concerns the myth of a young girl being thrown overboard from a woman’s boat by her father. When she tries to get back in the boat, he cuts off her fingers, which is why Inuit have traditionally had tattoos on their finger joints. The fingers became sea animals, and the girl became an angry old crone who rules the sea and the animals in it. She is a primordial force to be respected; one must keep her house clean and comb her hair, remove human waste, and counteract our iniquities to make her content. I use the myth to ask questions we often try to ignore. Why is the Mother of the Sea so angry, and why can only mankind appease her anger?
All people go through difficult times. Today, we’d probably say that life is a journey – but what does that mean? It’s not simply about us having the best time possible because life always gets in the way. We must accept the course of life in the sense that it is our duty to persevere and do things right. It also follows that we must do the right thing for the planet; we should refrain from destroying the oceans and we should take care of the ecosystem. I think that’s why the myth of the Mother of the Sea speaks so poignantly to modern man: we are in the midst of a climate crisis, and it is us humans who must solve it and appease the planet.
Here at the National Gallery of Denmark, your recently purchased work ORSOQ (2012) is currently on display. It incorporates bottles of seal oil, which is to say seal blubber that has been rendered into a kind of oil. Is this also about our alienated relationship with nature?
It is about alienation and displacement on several different levels. Historical sources inform us that right up to the 1950s blubber would be fetched in Greenland and sailed to Copenhagen where there was a whale oil refinery in Christianshavn. But in fact the extraction and sale of blubber started long before Hans Egede came to Greenland. The Portuguese and the English both travelled to the Arctic to trade with the Inuit, buying – among other things – blubber to be used as fuel for street lighting in Europe. Today, there is much talk about biofuels and sustainability, which is something we want more of. So it’s funny to think that the whale oil refineries were about that very thing: sustainable biofuels.
To me, the work is about establishing links between a range of different positions that are not usually regarded as connected. In Denmark, I often find that something changes when people realise I come from Greenland. There’s this slight shift in perspective, and people ask: “So, what are you doing here? Your Danish is excellent.” All that sort of thing.
But there have always been exchanges between Greenland and Denmark. The Norse peoples visited Greenland, and the Inuit have travelled the world extensively. I feel that we have arrived at a place where we have as much right to be here as the Danes have the right to be in Greenland. There are always these small shifts in terms of how we view the relationship between Denmark and Greenland.
We also see similar shifts in our relationship with nature. When I was a child, eating blubber was considered shameful because it was associated with coming from a primitive culture. But today, Greenlandic delicacies have become fashionable and something to be proud of. In Nuuk, you will now sometimes find someone shooting a seal or a whale just to sell their blubber and skins. They care nothing about the rest of the animal, or even about the fact that we are dealing with an actual, live animal here. What does that make us? Have we become Danes? We’ve certainly become a different people than we were.
You can no longer claim that simply because we are Inuit we should be allowed to extract as much oil or as many rare earths as we want. That because we are Inuit, we’re entitled to destroy the earth. That’s obviously not case; the earth is not ours to destroy just because we’ve been oppressed for a period of time.
Your Beaddress from 2012 is based on a
traditional beaded collar that seems to have expanded until it enveloped the
entire body like a kind of cocoon. What is your relationship with traditional
The beads used for such collars came to Greenland before the Danish colonisers and were traded in exchange for blubber, fur, or amulets. Before that, Greenland only had bone beads in natural colours. But trading with the Dutch gave them access to glass beads in all sorts of bright colours. It’s fun to think that what we now consider Greenland’s national costume is made of something that comes from outside.
I got my second national costume for my church confirmation in 1973, and I remember feeling rather conflicted and resentful about it. I come from a generation that rebelled against the costume, which we perceived as a symbol of imperialism: Why should we wear a uniform pieced together from colonial things? It’s an interesting question and yet another example of the ever-shifting political issues that keep changing our ideas about what is truly and properly Greenlandic.
Today, the national costume has had a comeback; people are hugely proud of it again. Now, if you can’t afford one of your own, you can rent one just as you rent party frocks or tuxedos. It has become a status symbol associated with a renewed national pride. When I made Beaddress, I wanted to examine different layers. Entering into that conversation with my own culture is exciting for me because if you’re always wrong, then what are you?
What are your thoughts about the growing attention to colonial history during the last few years in Denmark, which has perhaps focused more on the Danish West Indies than on Greenland?
I perceive it as a way of rendering Greenland’s colonial past invisible. But then again, this is a kind of invisibility you get used to as a Greenlander, and one I’ve learned to live with. If I can make some art that can push back at things it a little bit, that’s fine. And if not, then maybe that’s fine too. It’s ultimately a question of whether one feels that one needs to be validated by someone else.
I have come across Danes who say: “Why are you so hard on us?” And I don’t think I am at all, but then I’m not really sure what those comments are about.
What had you done to make this person feel that you were too hard on them?
It had to do with a performance where I draw on some of the pain, my own pain, associated with being in a postcolonial situation, and that was perceived as too harsh. But that’s what I have to work with, you know. I can’t be someone who entertains people – or, I could, but not in the way they might expect to be entertained.
Actually, I think it’s a good thing that we’re having this conversation in public. We have to constantly try to get closer to each other, circling each other to connect, and sometimes it has to hurt too. The parts I find hard are the invisibility and marginalisation. Greenlanders may be a minority in the Danish Commonwealth, but we are also the majority in an entire country. So what kind of commonwealth of nations do we have when we are always treated as a small, insignificant group of people?
Is it important for you that your audience understands the cultural references in the objects you use in your performances?
For me, the important thing is to perform the action itself, that I put myself through it. There is no contract between me and the audience, but there can be this unspoken agreement in the fact that we are present in the same room and that something may happen between us. Then both parties are free to take it in or leave it.
How do you begin a work of art? Does it start with physical materials and objects, or do the dramaturgic elements come first?
I often begin with picking a specific material I would like to explore. One example would be ship’s biscuits, which are a colonial product. When I was a child, we had them with tea instead of scones, and many people recollect them with fondness – you know, the taste of childhood and of the products arriving on the first ship every spring.
When I taste them now, it’s just a really, really dry biscuit that tastes of nothing. I have created some performances with ship’s biscuits where I examine the material itself; I paint them or walk across them so they crumble. I want to explore their attraction. What is so amazing about them?
Can you find answers in the materials if your question is linked to memory?
Of course not. It’s very banal. But it opens up questions about what it is I want from my childhood. What other things suddenly well up in you when you crush the biscuits? In that sense, the issue becomes universal. Another space emerges where things become more poignant, more magical than they were before. It’s quite a paradox: one tries to break down some things – in very specific terms, by crushing the biscuits – and in that process something even more magical arises.
You often return to seal blubber in a series of performances that I perceive as very intense, even violent – raw meat being carved open, blood running from it, and so on. Does this aspect of intensity prompt you to return to specific materials?
To me, what really matters are the connotations embedded in the materials. In the case of seal blubber, this is about its role as a commodity and as a food we have been ashamed to eat. Beneath all the things associated with colonisation resides a cultural shame that made it important to be able to show to the outside world that we had become ‘civilised’.
I know very well that the way I use my body can seem intense. I have first-hand experience of violence and abuse. It is part of my own story, and the performative space offers another way of approaching it. Here I have nothing to lose. I can let myself and my body be destroyed and obliterated in that space because I know that when the performance is over, I’m still here. It brings a huge sense of freedom; it’s almost a cathartic experience for me.
After a performance, I can feel completely drained, and sometimes I do not even quite know what has happened. After a while, the feeling of emptiness disappears and the thoughts return. It’s a cycle embedded in my practice. Then I have to go out and experience some other art, read or write.
You have published several collections of poems in which you mix multiple languages, typically Greenlandic, Danish, and English. What does juxtaposing more than one language bring to a work?
I feel that if I stick only to Greenlandic, there is a constricting structure to the language. There’s a certain tradition on how to write that I’d have to follow. There are so many grammatical rules, and you get into trouble if you don’t follow them. Mixing the languages creates some cracks and fissures enabling me to do and say some things that I might not otherwise have been able to say. It offers a certain freedom, even if it is a bit of an easy way out.
When I was very young, I lived with a foster family, and when I moved in with my mother at the age of 8, I was in some ways already too old for us to rebuild our relationship. But when I discovered the written language, it was as if the world opened up to me. Here, finally, was a place I did not feel was closed to me, the way I had felt my mother was when we lived apart. If you imagine that she had been deaf, then reading and writing arrived like a new way of communicating with the outside world. It was amazing! I had that experience as a child, that you can grow through words. By reading and writing, one can transport oneself into another life.
Given your feelings about language, why did you primarily get involved with performance art?
While I was with the Tuukkaq Theatre in 1978–79, we did this endurance exercise where the object was to elevate ourselves physically. But how do you do that when you are tied to a body?
All my life I have been trying to defy gravity. Either by the power of thought, or by making the body endure different things. It’s something I’ve been practicing, perhaps to kick some habits or break through some ceilings. And, suddenly, I had this breakthrough where I felt that this was something I had to do.
Before that, I had a sinking feeling that I couldn’t do anything, either in my own eyes or in the eyes of others. But at that very point I realised this was not true: I could take to the sky, at least in my mind or in dreams. When I work with performance art, I can suddenly feel that feeling again.
I’m not a Buddhist, but I think it’s a little like saying a mantra. It’s not just words or just an action you take; it’s not something you just imagine. It actually has an effect, sets something in motion.