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Issue 239

Jessie Kleemann Pays Homage to Greenlandic Identity

At The National Gallery of Denmark, the artist’s retrospective interrogates the space between coloniser and colonized

BY Alice Godwin in Exhibition Reviews | 13 SEP 23

In the glacial landscape of Greenland, global warming has caused the ice that once covered 80 percent of the island to melt, with the dog sledges used by trappers now more frequently seen bearing tourists. Conceived by Greenlandic artist Jessie Kleemann for her first solo institutional exhibition in Denmark, The sledge on the way (2023) is an oversized sleigh bound with vibrant cords, which pays homage to a way of life that is evolving as the ice melts. Yet, Kleemann does not romanticize a Greenlandic identity that no longer exists. Instead, her work is imbued with moments of tragicomedy – like the sledge’s glow-up – that reflect the complexities of life in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) and its relationship to former coloniser, Denmark.

Jessie Kleemann, ‘Running Time’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Frida Gregersen

Born in north-western Greenland, Kleemann moved to Denmark in the 1970s and has long interrogated the space between coloniser and colonized. The artist’s first video performance, Kinaasunga (Who I Am / Who Am I?, 1988) – screened in an annex of the National Gallery – expresses the enduring tussle with identity that has defined her career. The title can be seen as a question or a declaration of self, while the heavy make-up the artist wears alludes to both traditional masked dances and 1980s punk. Another central character for Kleemann is the qivittoq – a mountain wanderer of Greenlandic mythology who possesses supernatural powers. The term can also now be used in a derogatory way, however, to describe someone who has left a smaller community for a larger one. Kleemann adopts this hybrid qivittoq identity, at once desirable and unwelcome, to represent a person caught between two cultures.

Jessie Kleemann, Orsoq, 2012, wood, nylon cord, glass containers, seal blubber. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Frida Gregersen

Similarly, Kleemann has drawn upon the conflicting connotations of blubber, which is both revolting and coveted by colonial powers. In the installation Orsoq (2012), for instance, vials of blubber dangle from a structure that recalls the drying racks of Greenlandic hunters. It’s a curious echo of Joseph Beuys’s shamanistic use of fat in works such as The Sled (1969), which evoked his mythologised rescue by Tatar tribesmen. By contrast, Kleemann breaks down the myth of an uncorrupted Greenlandic identity by employing materials like wood and glass in Orsoq that were brought by colonial trade. Likewise, a series of brightly coloured kamiks (Kamiit, 2023), inspired by Kleemann's own sealskin boots, are placed on the coffee grounds that Greenlanders throw from their windows to nourish the soil, in a habit developed since Danes started importing coffee into the country.

Jessie Kleemann, Don’t touch me, 2023, undergarment, teeth from beluga whale, silver thread. Courtesy: the artist

The discovery of abundant rare minerals in Greenland which could be used in the green energy industry has drawn international attention, not least with former US President Donald Trump’s suggestion, in 2019, that the US might be open to buying Greenland. Kleemann’s response to Trump’s proposal comprises three items of lingerie – adorned with walrus and whale teeth, cow bones and seal claws – that bristle with erotic and violent tension, as if the pussy might bite back against the sexual and colonial predator (Don’t touch me, Without consent – with consent and Oil and amulets, all 2019).

Jessie Kleemann, Running against time, 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Kleemann often anchors her work in the body. In the video Arkhticós Dolorôs (Arctic Pain, 2019), she places her bare hands and feet on the Ilulissat Ice Sheet to commune with the landscape. She exudes a supernatural presence that contrasts with an almost comedic role in her most recent film, Running against time (2023), in which she stumbles back and forth over the ice, puffed and wide-eyed. Her laboured breath expresses an exhaustive societal effort against the winds of climate and cultural change, both running out of time and running down the clock. Far from simply lambasting the colonial past or the current climate disaster, though, Kleemann positions her art at the blurred edges of identity and culpability.

Jessie Kleemann’s ‘Running Time’ is on view at the National Museum of Denmark until 26 November

Main image: Jessie Kleemann, The sledge on the way, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Frida Gregersen

Alice Godwin is an arts writer, editor and researcher based in Copenhagen, Denmark