When an Artist Writes: Poetry and Nanna Debois Buhl’s Journey in Two Directions

By Jill Magi
www.jillmagisblog.blogspot.com, summer 2010

What happens when an artist writes? Here is one possibility:

An artist’s book cover features a lone donkey as subject—but not really, because the donkey isn’t looking at the camera, or caught in a particularly cute or compelling pose. The donkey is grazing, calmly, and placed in a small part of the upper right part of the compositional field. And where the line of dark green represents the forest, the sliver of a background, into which this donkey might fade, the emphasis is on the glowing yellow foreground, a foreground that comprises more than three quarters of the space. With a generous space between the photographer and the subject, this cover image privileges the approach. But not just visually.

Enter: writing. In an important counterpoint to the subject, who might be the donkey we can see, artist Nanna Debois Buhl marks herself as present: book title and author name rests on the bottom left. Artist and author are part of the same field as the subject upon which she fixes her gaze and investigation.

Two directions: watcher and watched are both animated and figured, composed and constructed, known and questioned. How is this performance possible when the image, often signaling arrival and captured knowledge, persists?

One answer: through writing. The presence of the artist’s text and voice throughout Nanna’s projects, I want to say, facilitates this intersubjectivity.

Susan Sontag’s thesis in Regarding the Pain of Others is a revision of her earlier thesis in On Photography. She argues we are not, in fact, desensitized by the preponderance of images. Sontag does not call for the end of the image, but for an expanded narrative space—a cultural space that requires the viewer to engage in thinking, in slower contemplation. She argues that the movement of time in a novel, for example, is more apt than a single image to create empathy and a shifting awareness, a shift in perception.

Integrated into her visual projects, Nanna’s writings create a wider narrative space than a visual frame can provide.

In her book’s introduction, Nanna explains: “A Journey in Two Directions concerns Denmark’s colonial past in what is now the U.S. Virgin Islands and the ensuing intersection of Afro-Caribbean, American, and Danish histories.” She continues: “The title of the book thus refers to the movement between geographic locations, but also to a movement across time, among past, present, and future.” We learn that the donkey is not just any animal, but an abandoned Danish colonizer’s work animal that now populated the island of St. John’s and roam, feral.

I want to suggest that the two directions in Nanna’s work might also be thought of as between text and image.

I write hybrid texts and work with images sometimes. I often think about the impact of visual and textual modes on each other. I am particularly interested in the following possibilities for text, possibilities that Nanna’s work exploits:

1. Denaturalizing a language given to you by altering its context.
2. Using language to indicate a feeling of not-knowing, or about-to-know.
3. Using the formal strategies of poetry to embody knowledge.

I will write about Nanna’s work as a poet, with a poetics in mind. (Note: A Journey in Two Directions contains fine essays that explicate Nanna’s work and discuss related topics—essays by Thomas J. Lax, Edgar O. Lake, Louise Wolthers, and Johanna Burton. There are also two urgent prose poems by Greenlander Naja Marie Aidt. The book is very complete. Therefore, the ideas I bring up in this essay are based on my responses to Nanna’s projects, the first two thirds of the book and while some of my ideas may dovetail or slightly contrast with ideas in the essays, I am not writing in response to those works.)

I met Nanna three years ago during an LMCC Workspace residency—she was an artist in residence and I had just finished my year as one of two writers in residence. I stayed on as a studio assistant and in a curious simultaneity, Nanna was assigned the same desk and space where I had worked on my writing the year before.

1. Denaturalizing language by altering its context.

On the first salon evening of the residency, Nanna presented her series of lightbox drawings installed in Copenhagen’s streets—drawings that lay bare the Orientalist/Colonialist architectures of that city’s iconic 19th century amusement park, Tivoli. Nanna used the language of architecture, stripped down, re-presented in a different space to call attention to the history of cultural import and “otherness” in Copenhagen.

I wanted to talk to Nanna right away about the way poets do this kind of re-presenting with found text, and with the language of everyday prose. She was immediately interested and so began our work together. We met every Tuesday afternoon of that year to write, look, and talk. I provided exercises for writing and working with text; Nanna gave me lists of artists to research and text-image experiments to try. To play with language, to uncover its own workings and possibilities: this was Nanna’s quest.

Made during that residency year, Nanna’s film “From the Guidebook” performs the same kind of denaturalization as her Tivoli project—but the denaturalization is not only visual, it is conducted with text from a Danish guidebook to the Virgin Islands.

A polite awareness of Danish colonial history seems to be commonplace in the guidebook, yet compartmentalized, almost “written off.” But in Nanna’s work, the found text, re-presented in startling decontextualized single sentences, strips the present-tense colonialist ideology bare. The subtitles include: “The friendliness concerning the Danish past is apparent, also at an official level.” Followed by: “We must have done something right” and “. . .we are attracted to a fascinating and thrilling chapter of our past.”

The erasure, conducted by the guidebook’s discourse, of the horrors and present-day effects of the Triangle Slave Trade form a kind of capsule around historical experience and freeze the white consciousness and body in an amnesia—actually, an informed amnesia—something Nanna discusses in the book’s excellent, Danish-context-setting conversation with curator Tone Olaf Nielsen. In “From the Guidebook” Nanna uses the denaturalized guidebook language to indicate one way this informed amnesia is perpetuated.

2. Using language to indicate a feeling of not-knowing, or about-to-know.

Photo collages, in black and white, lead up to the book’s Table of Contents. These collages seem to be snapshots of Nanna’s notes, her work table and writing desk. The word “anthropology” is written in a notebook page and this is not surprising.

While studying “the other” and then writing home about it is one of the conqueror’s traditions, Nanna uses language to claim suppressed knowledge—and she is explicit about wanting to educate her fellow Danish citizens—but she also uses language to indicate moments of “being in arrival,” preparing for a knowledge about to come, a knowledge that might be beyond words and might rest inside the body.

Poetry, I want to point out, is the kind of language that can map, via metaphor, this important domain.

For example, this, from Nanna’s short film “There is this House,” footage of an abandoned 19th century colonial house in St. Croix: “There are these pigeons./There are these pigeons flapping,/as I enter/these beliefs.”

As Nanna enters the house, she marks off, in language, the intention of her project. Not just to capture what might be thought of as “beautiful”—an abandoned house and its pigeons, a kind of ultimate static subject for a filmmaker. Rather, Nanna is filming and writing because she intends, with her body, to try to enter the beliefs that made colonialism possible. The house is her metaphor for the structures that made colonialism possible. The house has slipped into “beliefs” as she announces an entrance to the film’s text.

The language of prose—the “straight” sentence—announces knowledge. “Good writers” of history, we’re told, avoid the passive tense, build paragraphs from a thesis, and conduct a coherent argument. These markers of fluency are meant to show expertise and deliver knowledge from the-one-who-knows to the-one-who-reads-and-learns.

While Nanna’s writing often includes the facts of Danish colonialism, there are an equal number of sentences that express doubt, thus challenging the supposed neutrality of acquiring knowledge. For example, the voice in “Looking for Donkeys” announces this: “I feel uncomfortable pointing my camera at other people./On my film, the island looks deserted.”

In fact, there is quite a bit of uncertainty and distance throughout this book. This distance is indicated not just in the text and image content, but in Nanna’s text form choices.

3. Using the formal strategies of poetry to embody knowledge.

Nanna often uses the quatrain in her writings—four lines that are end stopped, that appear to be “simple” subject/verb/object sentences. But the appearance of these units of language indicates to the reader that something else is going on: the text indicates is own constructedness. There are no full paragraphs, no fluent or complete narraqtion—hers is a language of stops and starts. And so we read, reminded that there is an author, an author who does not intend for us to take her language, her learnings, as natural or neutral.

In the “Maroon Mountain” series, Nanna uses textual juxtaposition—another poetry maneuver—to insert her present-tense body into a history of island plants and how escaped slaves used botanicals. Sidestepping traditional botanical drawings and classification texts, Nanna moves between providing scientific, factual information about the properties of plants, with sentences such as “Slowly, we climb down the cliff” and “My Guide says everything will be okay” and finally, “I hold on to the scattered tufts of grass as we descend.”

To me, this moment of physical contact—Nanna touching the plant life, nearly touching the earth, speaking with her guide, doubting her guide—are gorgeous moments when the language shimmers with relational tension.

And, throughout her book, the text is not really autobiographical and confessional, not only history or “fact,” and not quite poetry—yet Nanna has used all of these modes to keep the voice low, quiet, not too authoritarian, but also not willing, either, to give over to poetry’s sometimes hermetic language. And she is not willing, as well, to leave the image without annotation, to leave it too open to uninformed interpretation.

Finally, on race:

As Nell Irvin Painter points out in The History of White People, the word “race” is usually conceptualized as “non-white.” Yet more than once, Nanna uses text to identify her “pale skin,” her “Danish-ness.” Therefore, I believe her book gives us an example of how art-making turns out when the white artist does not presume that hers is a naturalized gaze. Text is one way to destabilize assumptions about who is behind the camera.

And the future?

I hope that Nanna’s work stirs up some dialogue about what is next. I know it is difficult to ask an artist for explicit wishes for the future, as if it is the artist’s responsibility to oversee some kind of outcome for their projects. I do not believe in this “activist” imperative for artists. Still, Nanna’s work begs the question: beyond the function of “to inform,” how might we imagine the shape of things that result from encountering such text image works, such suppressed content in innovative form?

In other words, now that the white subject can locate her relatedness to the wrongs of history, to the composite nature of a place, of an identity—including her own, now that she can identify how global capital has a past, and how that past is retained and carried forward, then does this subjectivity stop at the culmination of this expertise? How does bringing home this method of awareness impact future cultural actions?

Partial answers to my questions:

First, the educator in me plans on using Nanna’s book in my classes on literature, colonialism, documentary theory, art, cultural studies. Perhaps others will do the same.

Then, and maybe more subtly, there is a certain “between space” that Nanna’s book leaves me with. And this is one of the strengths, I want to say, of her work. As a subject who clearly does not identify with the colonizer’s values, Nanna also does not move from there into a so-called progressive “we are all the same” rhetoric either. Therefore, while Nanna’s book speaks of two directions, I am most excited by the psychological and cultural between-space she maps out. Nanna instructs, by example, to research, go, stay, re-visit home, and notice. There is great beauty in such steady and deliberate action and the loving, open-ended recordings that result.

(Note: Nanna will be reading from her book and showing one of her films at PS1/MoMA bookstore on Saturday, June 26, 2010. A Journey in Two Directions is published by Revolver Publishing, Berlin.)