Writings"Listening to Traces"

By Louise Wolthers

Excerpt from Essay in the book, Displaced

Published in Displaced, Dogwalk Books, 2021

Double Vision
Arke was ground-breaking in articulating the complex colo­nial relationship between Denmark and Greenland in her art, based on the stake Greenlanders had in its equivocal narratives and representations. Several of her projects are, for example, based on appropriations of the anthropological portraits taken by the Danish doctor Thomas Neergaard Krabbe combined with private photographs of her own family. In her situated research on archives, postcolonial theory, as well as the history of art and science, she highlighted the construction of culture, identity and belonging, demonstrating that history is “the flesh and blood of human beings.”6 Arke’s extensive practice provides a crucial basis for later visual art that underlines the need to constantly re-examine and qualify the history of Greenland’s relationship to Denmark in new, politically conscious forms of representation. Forms that both address the complex relationship of photography to colonisation, and that use photographic representation to generate new narratives.
Methodologically Displaced is driven by a range of approaches to photography. First and foremost, the photo­grapher herself goes in and out of the role of investigator, inviting the reader to join her in thinking like a historical detective. Tina Enghoff manifests this strategy as essential in mirroring the injustices of who normally has access to history and its narration – an inequality based on colonialism. David Kristoffersen has shared his hospital records (written in Danish) with Enghoff, records that are held by the Danish National Archives and require both the physical presence and former patient’s personal electronic log-in to access. The colonial language of power is Danish – and for Danes. A similar division of the roles of narrator and narrated applies to the three photo albums from Refnæs Coastal Hospital that Enghoff has sourced through private individuals and found in Raklev Local Archive. The photographers of the past have written “Greenlander David” and ”Greenlander Kaj” in Danish under some of the snapshots – a blatant othering repeated every time the pages of the album have been turned and looked at. It was only recently that David Kristoffersen saw them for the first time. With their glimpses of the daily life of children at the hospital, the photo albums provide valuable and moving traces of David Kristoffersen’s past. There are small signs of friendship between the children, as well as the care provided by the hospital staff. Now and then we see David. Enghoff zooms in on details in the photographs and their textual anchoring. The connotations of authenticity that cling to amateur and private photography is supplemented by an awareness of the continuous construction of meaning, which takes place long before the photograph is taken and long after it has been glued into an album. The almost brutal cropping of the images has a displacing and alienating effect, which whilst not entirely puncturing the pleasure of exploring them, at least reminds us of the privileged position of the historical detective, a privilege that demands situated awareness – and respect. Despite the richness of traces and details in Displaced, Enghoff makes no claim to be able to reconstruct or represent an entire life.
The present-day photographs in Displaced are in dialogue with both the photographs in the albums and David’s memories. The trees in the series Evidence have been photographed in the area where Refnæs Coastal Hospital used to be, and point to the story in one of the albums that has Danish captions saying: “Exploring nature – but not in the forest – because there are wild animals.” David Kristoffersen recalls feeling overwhelmed the first time he saw trees and the wooded nature of Denmark, something that also links to the memories of the 22 children who were brought to Denmark in 1951. In interviews they tell how the unknown country they came to had been described as paradise, but that in their first shocked encounters some of them experienced trees as ugly and the nature of Denmark as alienating.7 For the hospital staff the wild animals in the forest probably seemed like the imaginary elements of a children’s game, but for some of the children they could have been more complex monsters. In this way, the combination of disparate traces and fragments forms a new, interwoven archive that brings more “flesh and blood” to the reading of the individual words and images. As details are gathered, nuances are added to the reconstruction of an event, opening the story to multiple interpretations. Here the album photo of a landscape of elves with cottonwool snow decorated with real fir branches and a paper Christmas tree can also be seen as evidence of absence and dislocation for the Greenlandic children who spent Christmas at the hospital.
The theme of landscape dominates in You Run but the Circle Surrounds You, which consists of stills from the video work of the same name. The young man, Greenlander Kristian Qasdi Mikael Sanimuinaq, who sets out into a small Zealand wood appears simultaneously as the hunter and the hunted. He makes a wordless performance, embodying an experience that superimposes movements in and between Danish and Greenlandic nature.
Instead of assuming the position of master narrator and serving a chronologically ordered overview, Displaced thus presents a series of different traces to investigate.
A key element of this photographic strategy is Enghoff’s renunciation of the epic landscapes the nature of Greenland usually invites. Photography and art history is full of stunning images of alluring icebergs and sublime coastlines as seen by Danish explorers and other visiting photographers and artists. In opposition to these, the photographs of the coast of Nanortalik in Displaced where David was left when he returned to Greenland in 1955 are taken from a low position on a small boat tossed by the currents of the sea, images that move at eye level.
Between 1936 and 1962 the Danish photographer Jette Bang travelled between Denmark and Greenland. Instead of shooting large-format landscapes, she photographed everyday life in Greenlandic communities. Living in Greenland and Denmark, her gaze was influenced by both places. In her memoir she describes how the x-ray boat for tuberculosis tests, Misigssût, came to the village where she was staying during one of her many trips to Greenland. Bang recalls how she rushed around photographing, at the same time as she, like the Greenlanders around her, experienced the efficiency of x-raying in the sterile rooms as alarming and potentially humiliating: “My eyes were now both Danish and Greenlandic”.8 Such double vision is based on experience and empathy, and is therefore – unlike a clinical x-ray – open to multiple impressions.
Read more in the book Displaced, Dogwalk Books, 2021. See https://dogwalkplatform.com/books/displaced