Grönländisch. Und die Tücken von Artists’ Residencies

[English below] Es ist heiß, also lesen wir uns nach Grönland, dabei das Bewusstsein der Künstlerin um die katastrophale Situation des Ewigen Eises teilend. Der untenstehende Beitrag von Nancy Campbell beschreibt zwei Werke, die die Künstlerbuchsammlung der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek bereichern. Es handelt sich um Künstlerbücher im klassischen Begriffsverständnis, die Text und Bild miteinander in Beziehung treten lassen, in eine sehr poetische. Vorgaben für Artists’ Residencies, etwa “Bildende Künstler müssen ein Werk im Museum zurücklassen, aber Autoren sind nicht verpflichtet, dies zu tun”, lassen einmal mehr das Grenzgängertum von Künstlerbüchern aufscheinen.

Nancy Campbell

In midwinter 2010 I travelled to the “most northern museum in the world” on the island of Upernavik in north-west Greenland. I had been offered hospitality on the island – an artist’s residency – in exchange for a creative response to the museum collections. Unknown to me, the island and its language and landscape were to form the subject of my work for the next decade. I have since published a series of interrelated books – artist’s books, poetry and non-fiction – about cultural and climate change in the polar regions and elsewhere. This blogpost describes the first (and largest) artist’s book, How to Say ‘I Love You’ in Greenlandic, and the most recent (and smallest) proviso.

I’d planned to make work about ice, to highlight the catastrophic changes happening in the Arctic environment. Inevitably, once I had spent some time in Upernavik, my approach became more nuanced. The museum curator began teaching me the Greenlandic language, so that I could talk to the islanders. (Most Greenlanders speak both Greenlandic and Danish, the latter a result of Denmark’s political involvement in the region.) In Greenlandic a single word can express concepts that other languages tiptoe around with a phrase. I was delighted to discover that on waking up in the morning I could say nuannarpoq rather than ‘I am full of a delirious joy in being alive’. Or illisiverupa, which means ‘to put something away in a safe place and be unable to find it again’. Greenlandic is also a rich resource of traditional knowledge, with an extensive vocabulary relating to the Arctic ecosystem. It is indispensable for climate scientists’ understanding of the environment. Yet four of the seven official dialects are already extinct, and in 2010 UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger declared West Greenlandic ‘vulnerable’, and East and North Greenlandic ‘definitely endangered’.

Nancy Campbell, How to Say ‘I Love You’ in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet,
Bird Editions 2011. Image credit: Peter Abrahams

My training is in letterpress printing and typefounding, and as a result my understanding of language is concrete: my process employs metal type, and the goal a printed page. But in Greenland, my experience of language was far from physical. It is an oral culture, where for centuries words were passed on in songs and stories. Even as I was learning the language, I didn’t see words written down – spelling was not considered important. As a writer, I found this different perspective on textual authority both challenging and stimulating. I came to realise that print is not necessarily a guarantee of permanence. When the first Danish missionaries arrived in Greenland in the 18th century they introduced printing, despite the problems presented by using ink in arctic temperatures. But their printed records ensured neither the survival of the stories nor the language they had been spoken in. Danish became the language of administration, a situation that remained unchanged until the late 20th century, and by 2010 West Greenlandic was accorded vulnerable status on the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.  

Nancy Campbell, How to Say ‘I Love You’ in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet, Bird Editions 2011. Image credit: Peter Abrahams

I soon realised my work would be about this disappearing Arctic language as much as the landscape. I wanted it to be accessible to the island community as well as readers in other parts of the world. I chose to make an alphabet book, a genre familiar to me from when I first started learning to read as a child, to reflect my own experience as a newcomer to the language. All 12 initial letters of the Greenlandic alphabet are represented with words ranging from A for akunagaa (‘it is too late to begin’ – which seemed as good a way of any as beginning a book, especially in a time of climate crisis) to U for unnuarpoq (‘there is no night any longer’). A concrete poem, if you like. These words and their English definitions present a romantic narrative as well as a lesson in linguistics. As so often in contemporary Arctic life, the denouement is caused by the disappearance of the ice. These minimal texts are accompanied by a series of pochoir prints depicting icebergs, a mood, a sonograph.

Nancy Campbell, How to Say ‘I Love You’ in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet, Bird Editions 2011. Image credit: Nancy Campbell


A Greenlandic–English dictionary in the collections at Upernavik Museum had helped in the making of How to Say ‘I Love You’ in Greenlandic and in proviso the reader finds an actual page from that dictionary (not the copy held in the museum, but one I bought later, after an extensive online search, from a rare book dealer in Paris). proviso is a collection of fragments documenting an intervention I undertook at Upernavik Museum as part of my investigation of lost languages.

A clause in my contract as Writer in Residence read ‘Visual artists must leave a work behind in the museum, but writers are not required to do so.’ This proviso irked me a little. I understood that it was merely a reflection of the lack of prestige accorded the written word in Greenland, the curator’s preference for visual media. Needless to say, it was liberating to be excused from producing any work during the residency. However, it seemed strange that I should be exempted on account of working with language, when the Greenlandic language had been such a rich resource. It set me to wondering how I might circumvent the rule and leave something verbal behind. Something not too obtrusive, something that no one would have to read. (At the back of my mind was the environmental caveat – variously attributed – ‘take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footsteps’.)

Nancy Campbell, proviso, Bird Editions 2015. Image credit: Peter Abrahams

For this intervention, I left a single word in Greenland. The word took the form of a physical object, which I’d been given by friends. Before I left the UK I spent time with Frances and Nicolas McDowall who run The Old Stile Press in Wales. It was December, and their house was surrounded by deep snowdrifts. It was like the trial runs polar expeditions go on: I practised all the activities I had planned for the Arctic. I don’t remember when Frances and Nicolas concocted the scheme to give me a ‘word’ to take away with me. This two-letter word was a beautiful piece of typography on a tiny deckle-edged card. It had been letterpress printed at The Old Stile Press years before as part of a commission: a keepsake for a dinner held by a major media organisation. But after printing was complete, the client changed their plans, and the large edition of tiny words lay forgotten in their attic.

Nancy Campbell, proviso, Bird Editions 2015. Image credit: Peter Abrahams

It was to the Greenlandic dictionary that I turned as a custodian, leaving the word between its pages. That action was a symbolic gesture, for at that moment I also excised the word from my language. I would never be able to use it again. This ongoing action seemed a commitment to the cause of lost words. The word I can no longer say is a word on which future actions depend, so it is relevant to a place where policy decisions are being made that may change the fate of the globe. Responses to climate crisis for example, or isolated events, like the recent, controversial proposal for a uranium mine in South Greenland. Of course, the word that now lies between the pages of an old book in a museum on an island many miles north of the Arctic Circle was only one of a large edition. Perhaps it was the weight of all these unwanted words left in a Welsh attic that led me to create proviso as a record of the intervention. Or maybe it was my fear that putting that word away in a safe place meant no one would ever find it again. Even after my years of work on Greenland, I am still wedded to the idea of physical records, of telling stories on paper.

Zur Autorin
Nancy Campbell ist Autorin und Buchkünstlerin (ein im Deutschen nicht unumstrittener Begriff, der hier seiner Kürze halbergewählt wird), aufgewachsen in Schottland und Northumberland. Ihr Werk beschäftigt sich mit dem kulturellen und klimatischen Wandel in Polar- und Meeresregionen. Ihre Gedichtsammlung “Disko Bay” war auf der Shortlist für den Forward Prize (Best First Collection) 2016 und für den Michael Murphy Memorial Prize 2017 nominiert. Ihr jüngstes Buch “The Library of Ice” ist nominiert für Rathbone Folio Prize 2019. Campbell lebt in Oxford (UK) – seit Januar 2018 Canal Laureate / Canal & River Trust und der Poetry Society – und ist derzeit Stipendiatin am Internationalen Künstlerhaus “Villa Concordia” in Bamberg.

Diesen Artikel zitieren: Nancy Campbell, “Grönländisch. Und die Tücken von Artists’ Residencies” [in English],” in Kunst zwischen Deckeln, 24. Juni 2019,

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
redaktionbookarts (24. Juni 2019). Grönländisch. Und die Tücken von Artists’ Residencies. Kunst zwischen Deckeln. Abgerufen am 12. Juli 2024 von

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