When Denmark commemorated the centenary of the sale of the Danish West Indies in 2017, the nation saw a glut of exhibitions – of which no less than twenty-seven centred on visual arts – and conferences about Danish colonial history. At the time, I was puzzled to see that the occasion did not incite more people to also touch on a more recent chapter within the same story: Denmark’s exploitation and ill treatment of the people of Greenland.
It is also striking to note how the otherwise relatively woke Danish art world, where decolonisation has been high on the agenda in recent years, has paid very little attention to Greenland, whereas the other Scandinavian countries have spoken far more extensively on matters such as the living conditions and art of the Sami community. In 2017, any reference to Greenland was swept off the table with the objection that, technically speaking, the country was never a ‘real’ colony. However, the fact that Denmark has behaved like an imperialist power in the Arctic ought to be indisputable – ‘real’ colony or not.
Take, for example, the mineral cryolite, the only significant occurrence of which was found at the village of Ivittuut in south-western Greenland. From the 1860s to 1986, the mineral was mined there, by Danish and Greenlandic workers, and subsequently used commercially by the Danish-owned Oresund Cryolite Company (Kryolitselskabet Øresund).
Cryolite was used in the mass production of aluminium, a metal of crucial importance to the shipbuilding and aviation industries during the First and Second World Wars, making it so precious that it was referred to as “the white gold.” If none of this rings a bell with readers, this is probably because the mine at Ivittuut is now depleted and disused; the mineral is now only present in such small quantities that enterprises have begun producing it chemically instead. Perhaps the lack of recognition also reflects how the history of the cryolite mine in Greenland has been virtually erased from the Danish collective consciousness.
This less-than-flattering story forms the backdrop of Anne Haaning’s (b. 1977, graduated from Goldsmiths in London) installation Half Hidden. In the dark basement space of Den Frie, we are met by a ruin-like wooden structure. Behind it, on two screens, Haaning unfolds a fragmented narrative of resource extraction, technological progress and imperialism interspersed with snippets of speech, writing, and reams of visual material.
The installation cuts between documentary archival material dating from the time when the mining activities were at their peak – full of confident Danish sailors with pipes carried at jaunty angles and smiling Greenlanders wearing traditional kamik boots – and new footage from the now-abandoned village. One screen shows clips from a documentary film describing the happy home life of the mine manager, while the other shows Haaning entering the ruins of the same building, its wooden structure exposed and pieces of plaster peeling from the ceiling.
The work is structured along the lines of a crime narrative where we search through yellowing case files with typewritten labels to find out what happened to “the lost one.” Where did it go, the cryolite? And what became of our memories of what happened in this particular place, in the midst of the remarkably beautiful Greenlandic landscape?
Our quest leads us out into that landscape in search of the mine, which is now flooded and has formed a huge lake which mirrors the surrounding mountains. In a sense it has disappeared, hidden beneath the surface of the water. Yet is also highly visible as a visual, geographical, and symbolic void in the landscape. Like the cryolite, which has the unusual property of being transparent underwater, the mine – and thus an essential chapter of colonial history – is quite invisible to anyone who does not dive below the surface.
Haaning consulted the myths about stone spirits written down by Danish arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen in 1923 while also entering into a correspondence, conducted via text messages, with the shaman Nakasuk. We follow this conversation on one screen, mimicking the touch screen of a smartphone: “Why do you write in English?” the shaman suddenly asks in Danish, to which Haaning replies in Greenlandic: “Why do you write in Danish?” With this exchange, the work points to an ongoing discussion about the link between language and national identity in present-day Greenland, which is facing massive linguistic influence not only from Denmark, but also from globalisation processes.
Haaning’s work incorporates an important narrative about the erasure of colonial history: in language, in memory, and in terms of very concrete dematerialisations. Soon, the final remains of the mine manager’s house will be gone, just as nature has already transformed the mine into a lake whose reflective waters cover the past. In the exhibition, a plastic-like material that catches and reflects the light appears to form a pool of water on the floor beneath the two screens. The texting scene in which an invisible finger presses the keyboard also conveys a sense that the screen is breaking down as the physical relics of the “Unity of the Realm” [the motto defining the formal relationship between Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland] dematerialise.
Today, the Oresund Cryolite Company no longer exists, and the traces of its existence – currently housed at the Danish National Archives, where the artist studied them – are about to be digitised and thereafter discarded. Haaning’s work is not only relevant because there are once again major economic interests at play in the Arctic, but also because it points out how important it is to ensure that our knowledge about the colonial period in Greenland doesn’t disappear along with the physical evidence.