; ; 8 Mar 2017

Words and objects, a Greenlandic enquiry

By Johanna Himmelsbach and Maxime Brousse

The following article is a proposal that graphic designer Johanna Himmelsbach and writer Maxime Brousse put together for a residency program in Nuuk, Greenland. The ‘Hors-Piste‘ residency aims to connect designers with local craftsmen. For its 2017 edition, eight applicants will spend one month in Nuuk, Greenland. Although they weren’t selected this time, they still plan to conduct their project.
Charioteer of Delphi, Delphi October 2016 (2), Photograph by Johanna Himmelsbach

In Nuuk, we plan to conduct a poetic and ethnological —sometimes fictional— enquiry of Greenland. A slow exploration in the shape of various wanders, backs and forths between language, culture, nature and materials.

With the help of Borges [1], Hustvedt [2] and Rischel [3], we will meet people named after everyday objects, see anthropomorphous cairns and write strange poems made up of one immense word, by candle light. We will compose a new saga, exploring design ideas in this Greenlandic-Danish cultural context, through text and images.

Our enquiry —enquête, in-quest in French— will be a theoretical and physical exploration of the land. A Greenlandic quest focused on the word-object rapport, which we hope will enlighten us on the island’s culture. An early Internet research led us to dig into Greenlandic, Kalaallisut, a language spoken by the 57000 residents of the world’s biggest island. Once there, we plan to talk to the inhabitants, read the linguists’ works and visit the only forest —either physically, or in thought.

Our enquiry will attempt to name the objects produced by the designers in residency and wishes to offer a poetic report of the experience. A series of publications will superimpose a language conveying images and physical visuals.

What we learn from Siri Hustvedt’s candle
Lys — both in Norvegian and Danish, and ljus in Swedish— means both light and candle. The same word is used to name the sunlight, continuous in summer and the candle lit in winter, when the sun is rarely seen. This word alone contains something about the very peculiar relation Scandinavians have with light. The author continues and seems to join us in our residency: “Movements of people create new words, new ideas and inspire new art”. Our enquiry hopes to approach language and to identify the images it conveys in relation to climate, objects and their functions. We call it the “candle example”.

A person named Kettle
What words are used in Greenland ? Even if Greenlandic is the only official language since 2009, Danish is quite present in Nuuk. Those two cultures, rather apart during the 4200 years of alternate and simultaneous occupation by native and Scandinavian settlers, are today undoubtedly tied.

The enquiry will try to gather mixed impressions of both cultures by looking into their words.
Rischel, a Danish linguist, explains how variations in Greenlandic dialects probably happened due to people being named after common objects. After death, their names became taboo and the object had substitution name until a newborn with the former name allowed its use again.
He references to a person named Uutsiit: Kettle. And so we ask ourselves: Will we meet people named “Table” or “Knife”? Does this particularity tell us something about a peculiar relationship to objects?

Cairns, Livadaki Folegandros, Greece, October 2016, Photograph by Johanna Himmelsbach

Stones that act in the capacity of a human
Greenland has 0.03 inhabitants per square meter, so human beings are scarce, even though no one lives year-long on the inlandsis that covers 80% of the island. Our enquiry will take us to some of these remote sceneries. Before the beginning of the residency, we would like to walk the 200 km long trail from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut, where at times, the only way to follow the road is to find the inussuk: anthropomorphic cairns which name translates as “stones that act in the capacity of a human”, and which were also used for caribou hunting.
This immersion into the wild will allow us to make pictures of these mineral milestones and their surroundings.

Ideal objects
Kalaallisut is a polysynthetic language: whole sentences can be compiled into a single word. Thus, in the Inuit language: Angyaghillangyugtug means “He wants to buy a large boat”, where Angya: boat, ghilla: big, ng: acquire, yug: will, tug: he/she. Kalaallisut has incorporated words from English an Danish, but it also makes up words to describe new realities, such as the word computer: qarasaasiaq, which translates as “artificial brain”. In Greenlandic, words from a same lexical field often derive from the same root.
In another faraway land Borges tells us about, Tlön, is a very peculiar language. It contains “ideal objects”, that can be made up of two terms, “one of visual and another of auditory character: the color of the rising sun and the faraway cry of a bird.” These objects can also be combined, and some famous poems are made of one single “enormous” word.

The similarities we see between the language described by Borges and Greenlandic make us think that we could imagine a way of play with language. For example, we would like to ask the residents and the craftsmen to name the objects produced together. Each one will bring a part of the name, being related to facts (materials, technique) or poetic interpretation.
The aim of these experiments around names is to question and unveil what people put in the making of their work.

Thus, the link with language will be explored from different standpoints: linguistic, ethnologic, historical, poetic and practical. Concerning this last one, we ask ourselves: how do resident designers and local craftsmen talk to each other? How much is lost because none of them will use their native language?
And what do we understand when we buy a local, crafted item, if not the story that’s put into it and passed as it is sold?

The tourist and the craftsman
We went to Greece recently and we wondered about the meaning of “authenticity”, which comes to mind when thinking about craftsmanship. How does tourism change local production? Does it change the way some items are used? We realised that this encounter is nothing new: when the Delphi sanctuary was at the peak of its fame, between 8 and 7 B.C., the entrance to the sacred path leading to Apollo’s temple was paved with souvenir shops. Are things really different in 2017, in a country where tourism is still a recent phenomenon? Is the fact that we still know how to produce an object a good reason to continue making it, even though it is not useful anymore? The Greenland’s tupilak for example, a mythical and feared object, was quickly drained out off its magical symbolism at the beginning of the 20th century, when the amount of foreign researchers grew.

A change in the local culture can also have an impact on the crafts practice. In French Guiana, an Amerindian family taught Johanna basketwork. Like the rest of the village, this family would not wear the necklaces they used to carry during traditional rites, a dozen of years ago. Populations converted to Evangelicalism have rejected their previous traditions, and as the Church forbids them from wearing jewellery, it is produced only to be sold. Guianese necklaces, Greenlandic tupilaks, are still handmade but have lost their meaning. It is a shame for sure, but we also keep in mind that a living culture is not fixed; it is constantly changing.

Basket work with the Nacis family, Norino Village, French Guiana, 2015, Photograph by Johanna Himmelsbach

Our saga will be a blend of explorations and experiments, in the field of linguistics and through the landscape. It will be issued as several publications of the same format. It will display the results of our enquiry, through images of objects, words, scenery descriptions, portraits of people named after items, academic articles and/or fiction stories. We may not approach all the ideas mentioned here in the final saga, because as we dig into our matter, we will drop what seems unnecessary. The leads exposed in this document come from researches conducted on books or on the Internet. We now feel the urge to compare our thoughts to ground reality.

Our saga will give an account of the residency as one of Borges’ ideal objects: the meeting point of various know- hows and cultures,“convoked and dissolved in a moment” according to the poetic needs of each member of the residency.

Jorge Luis Borges. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in Fictions.
Siri Hustvedt. “Some Musings on the Word Scandinavia” in Living, Thinking, Looking
Jørgen Rischel: grønlandsk i Den Store Danske, Gyldendal. Hentet 23. november 2016 fra http://denstoredanske.dk/index.php?sideId=86628
A saga in Swedish is a tale. Folksagor are tales with uncertain origins, from a dark and unknown period in History. A saga is a tale that travelled.

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