The artist Jessie Kleemann’s work has always, exclusively, revolved around Greenland and Arctic history, reflecting the ways in which centuries of Danish colonisation have profoundly impacted Greenlandic culture, language and narratives, on both the individual and the collective level. But it can address the more universal experience of the world’s indigenous people, too. In a new film portrait, Kleemann unpacks her thinking and work, centred on the body and climate politics.
Jessie Kleemann is one of Greenland’s foremost visual artists, the first from the country to work in the medium of video. Her artistic journey began in the 1980s, experimenting and exploring, initially in Greenland, later in Sápmi (the traditional lands of the Sami in the northern part of Norway), and now in Denmark, where she has established a strong reputation for a body of performance and video art in which Greenlandic traditions, language and mysteries are integrated into a contemporary setting.
But although Kleemann so frequently draws on symbols and cultural references from the Arctic cultural sphere, the physicality and humour that also mark her work can be universally read and sensed, transcending identity and historical consciousness.
Last year, Jessie Kleemann was selected by Art Hub Copenhagen (AHC) to participate in the Artistic Practice programme. With her selection comes interview and film portrait communicate the artist’s practice to the public with the aim of spreading awareness to an international specialist audience.
This film now serves as an introduction to both Kleemann’s art itself and to the themes she has worked with over the years: Greenland’s experience as a colonised country, and the northern hemisphere as a battleground for geopolitics and climate policy.
Global climate change, something overwhelmingly evident in the Arctic, is a central theme in Jessie Kleemann’s work. And in her recent solo exhibition at the National Gallery, her first in a major Danish venue, her new video work Running Time gives material form to the sense of powerlessness and anxiety that it creates. She runs between four screens, one to the other, breathless in the snow – an image of the rapidly changing climate and mankind’s attempts to catch up with it, simultaneously, poetic, beautiful, and disturbing:
“It used to be nature that decided the parameters of culture, but today it’s the other way around. And it’s happening so fast that we can barely keep up. Climate change is escaping our time. We’re trying to understand what’s happening to our bodily presence, how it’s running away with us,” says Jessie Kleemann.
With reference to Greenland’s long experience of colonisation, Jessie Kleemann also talks about a decidedly “Arctic pain” – about the wounds and grief carried by the Arctic region and its history.
“There are so many claiming ownership, fighting for the Arctic world, but at the same time there are people who’ve always lived here, people who live from the land. There’s a long history of grief in the Arctic.”
The film also includes clips from the conversation Jessie Kleemann had with Catherine Wood, Director of Programming at Tate Modern, in connection with the Artistic Practice programme and the exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark. Of the video work Arkhticós Dolorôs (‘Arctic Pain’), Wood said:
“I was blown away. It has to do with your staging of figure and ground: the body in the landscape, and how you’re able to invoke this very intimate attention to the experience of being in your body in this landscape, conjuring the biggest planetary questions of our time.”
Remembering with the body
Kamiks, kayaks, seal fat and dog sleds. Jessie Kleemann lets a number of familiar cultural symbols shine through in her art – but not to summon nostalgia for a lost, unspoilt, Greenland; she uses and challenges them, rather, in a situation simultaneously performative, sculptural and embodied, taking them on to renew them for both herself and her audience.
Jessie Kleemann is particularly keen on bringing her own cultural heritage and identity into play for her audience. She uses her own body to arouse our memory and our understanding of our world and relations to pass on – especially, perhaps, to the younger generation – a wise, bodily, language about Greenland for them to reflect on and to use: “We have to move forward, and we must do it for our descendants, because they have to learn from us. We must give them hope, take responsibility and let them know that something’s happening in the world. And we have to form a chain, of all the possible languages, saying: we’re there for each other.”
The Artistic Practice film was made by the photographer Christian Brems, who has followed Jessie Kleemann over the past year in Greenland for the creation of the solo exhibitions at SMK and Kunsthal Rønnebæksholm in autumn 2023, and at Folkemødet on Bornholm. It includes screenings of Kleemann’s previous works.
More on Jessie Kleemann
Jessie Kleemann (b. 1959) has been a significant figure in the world of contemporary art for three decades. Her work is formed of an original and expressive approach to video art, experimental theatre, feminism, the body and performance art.
For most of her life, she has travelled back and forth between Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat), where she was born, and Denmark, where she lives and works today. Based on the complex relationships and exchanges between cultures, her practice explores the ways in which Greenlandic identity and tradition, the body, land and language, change over time. She is inspired by the artist Brian Catling, co-founder of the performance collective Wolf in the Winter, and the American artist Joan Jonas, a pioneer in performance and video art.
Jessie Kleemann also works with painting, graphics and poetry; in 2022 she was nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for her poetry collection Arkhticós Dolorôs (2021). In 2022–23, she was appointed to Art Hub Copenhagen’s public communication programme Artistic Practice, which includes a live event where the artist meets an international curator of their choice. In this case, Jessie Kleemann met Tate Modern’s Director of Programming Catherine Wood, who has curated performance and other live art for the past twenty years.
In December 2023, Jessie Kleemann was invited to COP28 in Dubai, where she will both show the video work Arkhticós Dolorôs and participate in a talk.
More on Artistic Practice
Artistic Practice is a communication programme for established visual artists in Denmark who have made their mark in a ground-breaking and innovative way; while predominantly exhibited in Denmark, these artists are considered to have the potential to reach into an international context.
The programme is built around a video portrait and an interview with an international curator who focuses on the individual artist’s practice with the aim both of communicating it and of offering support with a view to building an international network.
As the artists are selected by a jury, it is not possible to apply for admission to the programme. Artistic Practice is organised in collaboration with editor and project manager Karina Lykkesborg.
The programme was initiated by the Bikuben Foundation, which ran the programme from 2019 to 2022. Artistic Practice continues to be supported by the Bikuben Foundation.