Nanna Debois Buhl, Sketch for Installations, Eyewitness Accounts, 2008
Sparsely poetic, the work of Nanna Debois Buhl explores the inherent power and politics of visual pleasure.
Her most recent project began in the Virgin Islands, an innately beautiful and historically complex site. The architectural landscape of the islands is a pastiche of its unlikely histories: as a past colony of Denmark, a former port for the slave trade, and a current U.S. territory. Interweaving stories of this layered past, Nanna Debois Buhl focuses on the gaps between identities. In the process she reveals cultural interstices that are often overlooked.
The artist, a native of Denmark, addresses the colonizing role of imagery in ‘Eye Witness Accounts.” The body of work, consisting of photographs and monochromatic gouache paintings, reads as an open letter to Hugo Larsen, a fellow artist whose work predates Nanna Debois Buhl’s by over a hundred years. Sent as a visual emissary to the region in 1902, Larsen’s traditional paintings and prints depicted his country’s outpost with ardour meant to inspire a sense of nationalistic desire – to sell the idea of these Danish colonies to the Danish public. What Larsen didn’t realize was during the years he spent painting on site, the Danish had instead decided to sell the islands. Upon returning to his homeland, Hugo Larsen found his imagery stylistically outdated and culturally irrelevant.
By resurrecting this historically real counterpart as a part of her fictional exchange, Nanna Debois Buhl gives Hugo Larsen an opportunity to participate in a critical dialog, albeit posthumously. In the first image we are obliquely introduced to this otherwise forgotten character in the form of an open book. He is a photograph of a photograph, of no more substance than a ghost. A cautionary muse to Nanna Debois Buhl’s journey, Larsen serves as a reminder of the changing currency of visual power.
Nanna Debois Buhl’s work also speaks to another type of economy. From the rich, verdant landscape, she distils somberly beautiful silhouettes of horizons, where opaque gray landscape meets paper white sky. The intricately painted shapes conceal as much as they reveal, leaving the viewer to piece together the idea of a place from sparsely given clues. Minimal yet seductive, these images attest to their own limitations.
A sense of visual restraint runs through Nanna Debois Buhl’s Virgin Island project regardless of media. In the eight minute film loop ‘There is This House’ she punctuates scenes of saturated film with blank frames of white, letting subtitles stand alone. There is no sound. Her photography project ‘From the Guidebook’ repeats the same image in every frame: a non-descript hotel pool in which only the caption changes.
Withholding and silence are time-tested tools in the process of concealing history; here we see those same devices used to unearth. Nanna Debois Buhl will return to the US Virgin Islands this summer as a resident artist to continue this on-going body of work. Over the course of the project, the islands have become a different kind of destination; here a critical traveller can weave together narrative while she simultaneously unravels her roles as artist, tourist, and cultural navigator.