Rock art, remarked philosopher Thomas Heyd, transforms land into landscape by imbuing it with cultural meanings. When someone looks at an old inuksuk, as Arctic researcher Norman Hallenday similarly opined, he is seeing more than a pile of stones—what enter his gaze are also the thoughts of another human being. And depending on how the viewer further engages with the stone structure, he adds new meanings to this landmark.
Traditionally used by various indigenous Arctic peoples as markers for food, direction and danger, as codes for private messages and as decoys that lead animals to hunters, inuksuit (the plural form of inuksuk) can carry a strong connotation of survival. In their unpolished states, they show mankind triumphing over nature by reconfiguring rather than destroying all its key elements. Co-existing on these man-made stacks of boulders, flat stones and/or broken rocks are the rustic beauty of unadulterated mineral formations and the moving beauty of human fortitude. To modern, non-Arctic viewers, these attributes add layers to inuksuit‘s exotic charm, harking back to a long-lost age of simplicity and primitive magic.
Amidst the snow-covered wilderness, where no human may be in sight for miles on end, the stone markers, possibly left behind as acts of kindness by previous passers-by, may also symbolize human warmth to a traveler. Indeed, the term inuksuk means “acting in the capacity of a human” in the Inuktitut language. Fittingly, numerous Canadian establishments and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics Games organizing committee have come to use inuksuk motifs and models as emblems of friendship, hospitality, etc.
In 2014 Korean family drama Mama, human-shaped inuksuit resembling the Vancouver Olympics emblem in structure are found in the titular character’s residence and her ex-boyfriend’s home. The story explains that the stone formations mark a place as “safe” and “peaceful,” welcoming and promising good fortune to those in need of help. Overall, they reflect the terminally ill heroine’s wish to find a new, decent family for her son as she moves back to South Korea from Canada in search of the boyfriend, who fathered him, and his wife and daughter.
Some Inuit (indigenous peoples speaking Inuktitut), however, decried the commercialization of inuksuit, especially human-shaped ones. Luke Suluk, president of the Inuit Heritage Trust, for one, pointed out that in their culture, people are told not to construct any inuksuk without reason. From an environmental perspective, this advice makes sense as rampant destruction of rock habitats to build the structures can upset the delicate balance between nature and Man. Suluk also argued that the prolific use of inuksuit outside their original contexts might dilute their traditional meanings. Already, the literal meaning of inuksuk itself has been distorted, as the proper name for the human-shaped figures above is really innunguaq, “in the likeness of a human.” Chiming in, Peter Irniq, a former commissioner of the Arctic territory Nunavut, shared the chilling knowledge that Inuit rarely pile stones to resemble humans and when they do, the stones symbolize violent death at the particular location.
Such concerns about cultural misappropriation are not unique to Inuit. Besides the obvious issue of cultural ownership, they raise questions about the nature of artistic relationships. There are arguably five levels at which participants in art experiences build relationships with aesthetic objects. The first deals with visual appreciation, a relatively basic endeavor except that the objects’ surroundings may enhance or diminish their aesthetic values. Viewing inuksuit in sterile, urban settings is probably a weak substitute for viewing them situated within and interacting with the dynamic wilderness, rendering the pre-packaged experiences of targeted art audiences outside indigenous Arctic communities even more artificial. The second relates to cognitive engagement—understanding the nature and significance of the objects. This is what the non-Inuit innunguaq imitators, in particular, may have neglected. Beyond scholarly details, knowledge of the emotional weight attached to objects could have prompted more prudent treatment of them.
Passive viewership and reception of knowledge, though, can blind one to undiscovered merits, flaws and potential. The third level, deliberation and discussion, is thus of monumental importance. In this area, outsider perspectives, relatively free from forces of habit, can be particularly enlightening, provided that opinionators have first acquainted themselves well with the subject matter. Even when an ethnic group is justified in protesting against cultural appropriation, some of the ideas incorporated into the artistic product by the other party may yet offer food for thought. Rejecting both product and ideas outright may not be the most advisable approach.
At times, the potential of artistic objects can be fully realized only at the fourth level and beyond. This fourth level refers to utilization of the objects, beyond simple display and viewing. In Dream of the Red Chamber, an 18th-century literary masterpiece beloved in China, the aesthete protagonist encourages a servant girl to tear up fans for amusement, reasoning that objects should serve the diverse needs and temperaments of users, not the other way round. The aesthetic and intellectual significance of artistic items, one could add, may be of little concrete relevance to people in ordinary life and less still to the underprivileged. Sometimes, it is when such items propel and enhance an uplifting story onscreen that they finally make a practical contribution to some unfortunate individuals’ lives. Nevertheless, the author did not advocate irreverence towards objects, only a broader definition of reverence. He thought that venting anger on them would certainly count as abuse. In like manner, without categorically condemning non-traditional celebrations of traditional art forms, a line can still be drawn at highly offensive and unethical aspects of cultural appropriation, including outright blasphemy, exploitation, unsustainable manufacturing, misrepresentation (e.g. misnaming; branding derivative works as “authentic” as opposed to “inspired”) and intellectual property theft.
The highest level one can take an artistic relationship to, however, is to live the art. Art becomes part of the self when the viewer lives according to the ideals it stands for. That would be something owners can never lose and thwarted users need not miss out on.