When politicians talk about preservation of Danishness, I often wonder exactly what they mean. Perhaps Danishness is most clearly expressed through the traditional celebrations. The Danes do love a good celebration. At one point the calendar had so many holy days to celebrate that a whole host of them had to be combined into just one holiday, Store Bededag or Great Prayers Day. Far from all Danish celebrations are of the religious kind. Many, including those appropriated by Christendom, have their genesis in pre-Christian traditions and beliefs.
We did not learn about the Copenhagen shootings until we lay in bed, checking facebook on the Ipad. We heard sirens when we strolled around the lakes after dinner, but this is normal given Riget (the hospital of Lars von Trier’s tv series) is quite close by. We saw nothing out of the ordinary to reveal the horror that was happing around us: three people, including the offender, killed and several wounded right here in our local area.
The first incident was on Østerbro at an event to debate art, blasphemy and freedom of speech to mark the 26th anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Police attended due to participation of the Swedish artist, Lars Vilks, who has given name to the organising body of the event, The Lars Vilks Committee. In 2007, a couple of years after the Danish Mohammad cartoons, Vilks drew a picture of Mohammad as a dog, following on from a participatory art installation movement in Linkjoping in Sweden, also known as Rondellhund. Following terror threats, his protection by police is now constant. This event followed a similar event last year and watching the YouTube clip of it is like watching a prophecy of what happened at 3.30 pm on Saturday 14 February 2015. A man with a machine gun shot randomly into the cafe and killed a man – Finn Nørgaard, a Danish filmmaker, who was attending the event. Three police officers were also wounded.
The second incident took place at the synagogue in Krystalgade in the inner city of Copenhagen. The Jewish community was celebrating a Bar Mitzvah. In the early hours of Sunday morning, a young man, seemingly drunk, walked up close to the 37-year-old guard, Dan Urzan, who was protecting the entrance of the synagogue. The young man shot Urzan with a gun and two police officers were wounded, while the offender escaped.
At about 5am on Sunday 15 February 2015, Police confronted a young man, 22, on Nørrebro. He opened fire against the police officers and was promptly killed. Police expect him to be the gun man and are still investigating if the actions were part of organised terror against the Danish people, or whether it was the actions of an unstable person acting alone.
As police continue to investigate, there are many reactions possible. As we walk the streets of Copenhagen, there is little evidence that anything is different. People still walk the streets, rush by on their bikes and stop to feed the swans at the lakes.
Like many others, I went past the Synagoge on Monday morning. I don’t know if it was the number of people, the masses of flowers and lit candles in front of the Synagoge, the eager news reporters and photographers reporting in a variety of languages, or the police officers with machine guns, but I was deeply affected by the mood, the situation. While machine guns displayed in public is disconcerting, I left with an overwhelming sense of solidarity and even security in this mass of people of very diverse backgrounds who came to show respect.
How do we react to protect this wonderful country from future threats? I believe we need to do three things:
- We stand up for freedom of expression. We cannot be bullied into fear and quiet. And we must not stand by silently when others are persecuted, no matter their religion or ethnic background. Freedom of expression, by the way, includes the right to wear religious or cultural symbols.
- We resist the temptation to engage in divisive Us and Them narratives. It is not Christians against Muslims. It is not immigrants against Danes with pedigree. It is not right against left politics. We need to embrace diversity with empathy, inclusion and solidarity.
- We hold on to the social trust that is Denmark’s greatest asset. All people living in Denmark must extend trust and hence respect to a greater diversity of people in the community. If we shift the Danish foundation from trust to fear, we could find ourselves in a very different community, with security gates, segregation, firearms for protection and rising inequality.
Denmark must not lose this trust that builds social capital. As French Ambassador to Denmark, Francois Zimeray, said our trust-based society is valuable and a role model to the world. It is what makes Denmark such a wonderful place to visit and make home.
Thank you to the dedicated police officers who protect us. Sincere condolences to all who have lost loved ones. I wish speedy recovery to those who have been wounded. And speedy recovery to this country, this town. I am sure we can grow it stronger, together. Peace.
Identity is a construction in progress at all times – you are not the person you were yesterday, nor the person you will be tomorrow, suggests experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe. To me the exhibition, Biography by artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset at Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst is all about constructing identity. We caught it last weekend before it closed.
In the hall of the gallery towered a tall concrete housing block – The One & The Many – which let us peer into the imaginary lives of people living there. So close to each other, yet so lonely. The living room with heavy-set and well-worn leather furniture, complete with a soccer match on tv and empty beer bottles on the tile-top table represents a particular masculinity of a generation and era – one associated with armchair sport and beer. The bedroom with the young man on the mattress with his computer open on a gay dating site – complete with a live profile that real people are contacting – represents a very different type of masculinity and maleness. And the kitchen with Asian noodles in the drawer, a plastic plant next to the Chinese cat, incessantly waving on the microwave, and karaoke playing on the television provides for a completely different cultural identity in an increasingly culturally diverse community. Each room is carefully constructed and portrays the individuality of its inhabitants, yet the common entrance is cold and uncared for with as little aesthetic quality as the anonymising grey construction that houses this diversity. The idea that The Ones make up The Many is inescapable and beautiful in its base concept of solidarity, yet the result is bleak, an uncomfortable and ill-fitted patchwork, rather than a unified whole.
To the right of the housing block, in a dark exhibition hall, several works are installed. A neon sign reading The One & The Many on the back wall (The One & The Many, 2011) reflects in a lit pool with a floating body (Death of a Collector, 2009). This pool is protected by a chain-wire fence, angrily guarded by a rottweiler (The Guardian, 2014) and overlooked by a boy sitting in a spot light on a fire escape stairway (The Future, 2013). In front of the room is Welcome (2014), a silver camper van stopped in its struck by a fallen Las Vegas neon sign – representing freedom and opportunity to win the great prize; a dream which is so violently crushed by the sign, now on the ground, but still blinking its shiny promise of an American dream.
There is a particular discomfort to this room, not just because of its darkness. Like some ill-fated character in Westside Story, the boy – the Future – overlooks a scene of broken dreams and segregation. Has he seen what came before? How will it affect his life? The deep connection between our individuality and society leaves us questioning whether we really have a chance at inventing our identity, our future. Bellevue, July 17, 1994 (2009) is a bronze sculpture, cast and painted to look just like an esky, forgotten and left behind after a picnic in the park. At first I did not even notice it in the dark room, and when I did, it took me a while to realise it was part of the exhibition. The valuable material is cast in the shape of an everyday household item which is neither functional nor aesthetically beautiful. What happens when we strive to be something we are not and can never be? Does the identity we construct belie our value?
The installation to the left of the housing block spoke directly to the experience we have had since coming to Denmark. The long labyrinth corridor was reminiscent of public institutions and let us experience a version of public service that is anything but welcoming. The waiting room (It’s the Small Things in Life That Really Matter, Blah, Blah, Blah, 2006), complete with the ubiquitous requirement to take a number, had a sad-looking dried out fig in a pot reflecting the uncared-for nature of the room and its users. The digital sign showing the number currently being served was permanently stuck on ‘000’: never will your turn come in this waiting room, even once you have discovered the need to take a number. This sense was reinforced by the clock face with its minute hand taped into eight minutes to the hour (Powerless Structures, Fig. 243, 2014), reflecting the sense of time standing still when waiting to be served in a public institution.
The doors in the Powerless Structures series promised openings of inclusion throughout the corridor, yet each one of them was dysfunctional in its own way. One was partially opened to reveal another closed door directly behind it (Powerless Structures, Fig. 124, 2001), another had its handle placed on the wall next to the door (Powerless Structures, Fig. 131, 2001). One straddles a corner (Powerless Structures, Fig. 129, 2001) and yet another is a version of a double door, one cradled within the other (Powerless Structures, Fig. 135, 2002). It seemed things happened behind the doors, yet they offered no opportunity to peer into this hive of public service activity.
Along the hall way we walked past a closed ticketing window (Back in Five, 2014), two pairs of identical Levi’s jeans and Calvin Klein underpants, clearly taken off quickly in one movement (Powerless Structures, Fig. 19, 1998), a strangely plumbed public toilet, complete with graffiti on the toilet doors (Marriage, 2004), a prison cell with a bunk bed where the beds and bedding face each other (Boy Scout, 2008), a morgue (Untitled, 2011) and a baby left in front of an automatic teller machine (Modern Moses, 2006). Was the stuffed rat peering down from a crooked ceiling tile also part of this dysfunctional public service?
In its completeness this corridor installation lets us see our institutionalised life – something the Danes are exceptionally good at, in spite of the staunch anti-authoritarian streak and loud complaints about the Nanny state. From cradle to grave, the state keeps tracking its citizens through the Central Person Register which allocates a number to each Dane on birth and consistently uses this number in every dealing with its citizens, as do many private companies such as mobile phone companies and banks. Yet the promise of inclusion is broken by the dysfunctional doors – it seems they are as much for keeping people out, as for letting people into Club Denmark.
In the booklet for the exhibition, curator Marianne Torp writes that the works reflect the era of self-portrayal and self-reinvention. The usual classification into family, class, profession, education and sexual orientation no longer suffices, so we create our own identity, solidarity and biography.
In returning to Denmark, I am very deliberately seeking to reconstruct an identity that is deeply connected with Danish culture. In doing so, I am not striving to rewrite my history of 23 years in Australia, but in a year’s time, I will be a different person to the one I am today. I, too, am rewriting my Biography.
If all the people who do not live in their nation state of origin were a country, it would be the fifth biggest country in the world. Writer Pico Iyer* claims this country – this great floating tribe – would have 220 million citizens. Both my husband and I would be citizens. My sons would not. Not yet, anyway. Iyer’s point is that this floating tribe has a different way of conceptualising home: identity can no longer be defined by where you were born or where you live because it is not so much where you come from, but where you are going.
Over a quarter of people living in Australia belong to that floating tribe – they were born overseas. Most of the rest of Australians are descendants from floaters. Only two and a half per cent of Australians have not been floaters since time immemorial: the first nations people, in Brisbane the Turrball and Jagara peoples.
Yet, we – Australians – claim a particular ‘us-ness’ that is exclusive of other-ness. Our current government defends our borders fiercely from the masses of less fortunate people who are all under suspicion of plotting to float into Australia. Some we want: the economic migrants with skills and money. Others we are told to fear for their otherness: boat people, illegal immigrants, refugees. The dominant discourse criminalises and marginalises asylum seekers for daring to come to our door step on a boat.
At the same time, Australians are some of the most welcoming and accepting people I have come across. Multiculturalism was a policy in the 1980s and though scrapped as an explicit policy, its tenets still run strong in the Australian community. Embracing our floating diversity gives Australia an edge.
But being part of the floating tribe is not without its challenges. Many migrants to Australia migrate three times: once to come out to the new land, once to go back home to everything they miss and then once again because the old home was nowhere near as good as the memory of it. I personally know three families who did just that: my husband’s family, a Danish family and a blended Danish-Australian family. Is it just that the grass is always greener on the other side? I think it runs much deeper than that.
In his speech, Pico Iyer says that for the floating tribe, home is a project in progress. Home is less about a piece of soil than a piece of soul.
For me, home is certainly an ongoing project. At some point after my sons were born I proclaimed that I now belong here in Australia where my boys came into the world. However, despite my affinity to the place where my sons belong, something kept tugging at me – a sense of emptiness and being out of place. Too many of the people I care about most are not on the soil I thread, and my soul longs for elsewhere. This is why I must go back to Denmark to be where my extended family is, where my nieces and nephews are growing up fast, where my history is, where my roots are still firmly dug into the sandy soils of the reclaimed heath of mid Jutland. Yet it can only be for a time because my boys are so Australian and belong here. That is the migrant’s curse.
I will keep floating in search for moments when the piece of soul collides with the piece of soil that feels like home.
*I found Pico Iyer’s TEDglobal talk via fellow blogger Kirsten Fogg. Kirsten writes insightfully about belonging.
This week, one lunch time, I took a moment to sit in Queen Victoria Park. Just sit still and watch people milling about, eating their lunch, enjoying the not-yet-too-hot Brisbane sun. What struck me was the diversity around me. A cacophony of accents from people with features originating from all the continents in the world. Of course, the vast majority of people here are still of British or continental European origin, but our local strength in this globalised world is surely our diversity.
When I was a child in monocultural and provincial Denmark, I thought the Korean girl in my grade was beautiful and exotic. Her beautiful black hair, dark brown eyes and golden skin was different. She was one of the first children adopted into Denmark through the international adoption program. This ‘difference’ was unusual where I grew up in the early 1970s. Yet, she was just like any of the girls in my grade – we rode our bikes to school, sang in the choir together and went on camp with the local scout group together.
When in the late 1970s Danish Photographer Jacob Holdt visited our small town with his Amerikanske Billeder – a collection of photographs documenting life of African Americans in the early 1970s – my parents took me along to his talk. It had a huge impact on me to see how people – families with children – lived in contemporary America: the squalor and poverty, right there in the wealthiest country on earth. The African Americans too were different, yet they were not embraced by the privileged mainstream society.
At about the same time, the television series of Alex Hayley’s Roots came on Danish television. The family saga begins with a young African man brutally captured, trafficked on a sailing ship to America and sold as a slave. As if he was not human. It offended my sense of identity when I learnt that Danish sailors and ships were engaged in this human trade.
Safe and healthy in middle class provincial Denmark, my parents taught me that my comfortable life of opportunity was not a given for everyone. It was my luck that I was born to free parents in a place with democracy, social mobility and a strong sense of social justice and equality. Looking back, I can also see that it was easy to be tolerant of difference when you rarely meet it in monocultural Denmark.
It is at the edges of cultures that innovation and new thinking happens. When we are all the same and all think the same, it can be hard to generate new ideas and to imagine things could be any other way. At the edge of our ‘we group’, we are challenged by difference and, if we let it happen, new perspectives come together to see our issues and problems in a new light. This diversity of points of view helps join the dots in new and different ways. Monocultural societies – and ‘we groups’ – tend to protect their way of seeing, thinking and doing. And tend to fear difference.
A quarter of all Australians are born overseas. Another 20% have at least one parent born overseas. With more than half of Australians either born overseas or being children of people born overseas, we are still very much a country of migrants. Perhaps it is only Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, the people of Australia’s first nations – who make up only 3% of our population – who are not migrants to this country.
In Denmark, 10% are ‘Danes of other ethnic background’ though this number may include third and even fourth generation of ‘other ethnic background’. In my own extended family, I can count:
– one Swede and two children
– one native American and one child
– one Kurd, two children and two grandchildren
– one Pole and one child
– one German, three children and one grandchild
– one New Zealander, two children and two grandchildren living in England
– my own family of four living in Australia, including my husband born in England.
Mine is a rather multicultural family – though I would venture to say this is not the Danish norm. When does one’s identity change from Dane with other ethnic background to just Danish? Four hundred years and ten generations back on my father’s side is a German soldier and Rittmeister from Rodinger – does that make me a Dane with other ethnic background? If not, at what point did that change? Seven generations back, six, four? Or does it take 40,000 years to truly belong to a country?
Sitting in multicultural Brisbane that lunch hour, I saw people of many different backgrounds, who call Australia home. Some may have been here for generations and some, like me, be first generation migrants. You cannot really tell just by looking at people. However, at the end of the day, no matter how our government statistics classify us, we are all humans with fundamental human needs – including the need to belong and find our place in the sun. We are going to have to figure out how we live with diversity for it will not go away. Thankfully. It makes our lives all the more interesting.