Neither the West nor the Marginalized Rest: Pia Arke beyond Thule

The recent issue of the Afterall journal is dedicated to the topic of “Ethno-Aesthetics”, a term coined by the Greenlandic artist Pia Arke in her manifesto of the same name in 1995. Explored across the issue’s “Forward” by contributing editor Candice Hopkins, the manifesto itself and in two essays by Stefan Jonsson (“On Pia Arke”) and Carsten Juhl (“Being and Origin – A Presentation of Pia Arke’s Exhuming Gesture”), this issue of Afterall enacts a disturbing of perspective in which ‘the West’ is demarcated as the center and instead seeing European culture from the outside.

At the core of Arke’s decentering of Western art and culture in terms of ‘Ethno-Aesthetics” is an attack on the process whereby the European claims self-sufficiency by both fetishizing and ostracizing the ethnic other.

Two of Arke’s works demonstrate this process in a simple, yet damning, engagement with ancient Greek and Roman mythic and geographical fantasies.

In the two photographs of her De tre Gratier (The Three Graces), 1993, Pike shifts the perspective of the three clothed figures, with their ‘native’ props, by turning their backs to the camera and the viewer’s gaze and towards the (photographed) landscape. This subtly enacts a parallel demystification of the mythical Graces (think Rubens’ fleshy figures) in terms of what Jonsson describes as their turning from their roles as ‘exhibited natives’ to ‘subjects scrutinising the representation’. At the same time, the Thule that captivated ancient authors, from a passing reference in Virgil’s Georgics to Antonius Diogenes’ novelistic The Wonders Beyond Thule, is contained within four photographs of the four sides of a modest house in Imaginary Homelands or Ultima Thule or Dundas ‘The Old Thule’, 1992/2003.

In clothing and turning her Graces and documenting and delimiting her Thule, Arke is offering a perspective on the Western culture that both encompasses and undercuts the privileged position of Classical myth and history within it.

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