Tag Archives: exclusion

Identity and stereotypes

Like some Aladdin with his Open Sesame, we suddenly have all the offers and riches of Club Denmark available to us once we had our address registered. Crown jewels in Rosenborg Slot. Photo: Mick. 2015.

Like some Aladdin with his Open Sesame, we suddenly have all the offers and riches of Club Denmark available to us once we had our address registered. Crown jewels in Rosenborg Slot. Photo: Mick. 2015.

After all this time of worrying and fretting, we suddenly hold the Open Sesame that lets us access the multitude of riches and offers of Club Denmark. While it took some waiting at International House, wondering if we were in the right place for the right purpose, suddenly we were registered in the Central Person Register with our bohemian address and assigned to a doctor.

My residence card runs out in December 2019 and I am required to send it back should I leave the country to take up residence in another country. My husband, as an EU citizen, is not required to even have a residence card or return anything. Smugly, I swear to myself that I will not return the card: on the commencement of new laws enabling dual citizenship on 1 September 2015 I will reclaim my Danish citizenship without losing my Australian one. I hope.

Aside from the judicial technicalities involved in being a former Danish citizen wanting to be let back into my country, there is also the question of welcome. We have received an overwhelming welcome from the people we know – who seem genuinely excited that we are in Denmark – but what do other Danes think about us staying?

Nørrebro, our new neighbourhood, is quite multicultural. On the street I hear a multitude of languages spoken by people from all over the world. The food stores, restaurants and even fashion stores signal origins from the Middle East, Africa, India and Asia. Around the corner is Copenhagen’s Verdenskultur Center or World Culture Centre, a place for growing cultural projects, with particular emphasis on people from ethnic backgrounds other than Danish.

On Monday night we were stopped in our path. We were walking home from the inner city and were stopped by a demonstration. It turned out that Pegida-dk held their first demonstration in Copenhagen. A spin-off group from the German Pegida – which stands for Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West), their message is against the influence of Islam in Denmark and easily builds on a fear that Christian indigenous Danes will become a minority. The leader, Nicolai Sennels, claims to be the middle class and this fits with Pegida’s slogan, We are the people. This seems to parallel the Occupy movement’s We are the 99%. It claims a space for ordinary people, who are concerned about the impact of muslim immigrants and fundamental Islamism on Danish society. The 10-year-old Danish Mohammad drawings and the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo are also somehow mixed into it as Danish support of the publication of the Mohammad drawings has grown larger than in 2005.

Right next to our flat, a counter demonstration started. It was a group labelling themselves Revolutionary Antifascists. You are not the people rang through the air and placards advised that refugees and muslims are welcome here. Given the nature of our neighbourhood, it is probably not strange that such a counter demonstration should start here.

An exclusion message in Copenhagen? What is wrong with Jutland? Photo: Lone. 2015.

An exclusion message in Copenhagen? What is wrong with Jutland? Photo: Lone. 2015.

In our street is a rather puzzling message of apparent prejudice on the garage door that protects the entry to the very busy lolly shop when it is closed. The message reads: Hvad er der galt med Jylland? (What is wrong with Jutland?) The intention of this message is not at all clear, but the best interpretation I can think of is that it is a manifestation of an age-old power struggle between the main land and Copenhagen.

According to H.C. Andersen’s lyrics Jutland is Hovedlandet (the head or main land). During the earliest mentions of Denmark as a country in the 10th century, the locus of power and control was in Jelling in Jutland. To this day, the Danish legal system takes it root in Jydske Lov – the law of the Jutes – a codification of the laws of Jutland from 1241. Around the same time Copenhagen was established as part of the Bishop of Roskilde’s jurisdiction and grew in importance over the next centuries. By the 16th century King Christian IV expanded the city and made it the centre of power for all of the Nordic countries.

But why would a lolly shop owner in a small street just outside the lakes in Copenhagen think it ok to remind people of this old rivalry? I think it is a way of constructing identity by differentiating oneself from others: Copenhageners defining themselves in juxtaposition to their fellow Danes, the Jutes, perhaps feeling that the migration from Jutland to Copenhagen is cramping their style and their claim to ancestral lands? Why are you all coming here – why not stay in Jutland?

The exclusion message was given graffiti treatment. Anyone understands its meaning? Photo: Lone. 2015.

The exclusion message was given graffiti treatment. Anyone understands its meaning? Photo: Lone. 2015.

The sign of the lolly shop somehow reminds me that my ‘real’ identity and roots are not here in Copenhagen, but in the sandy soils of Midtjylland. Just like the judicial difficulties associated with my loss of Danish citizenship, it questions whether I belong here. While I admire graffiti artists whose work is humorous or thought provoking, I am not for graffiti of the destructive sort. But I must say I was secretly pleased when one morning the security door’s message had been obscured by another message.

Perhaps it is symbolic that it is a message in a language I do not understand.

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Identity and Biography

Last chance to see Biography by Elmgreen and Dragset at Statens Museum for Kunst. Photo: Mick. 2014.

Last chance to see Biography by Elmgreen and Dragset at Statens Museum for Kunst. Photo: Mick. 2014.

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.

Elmgreen & Dragset Andrea Candela, Fig. 3  2006 (Virtual Romeo) Voks, t.shirt, hættetrøje, sokker.  Courtesy: Andrea Thuile & Heinz Peter Hager. Foto: ONUK http://www.smk.dk/om-museet/presse/pressefotos/presse-udstilling/biography-elmgreen-dragset/

Elmgreen & Dragset, Andrea Candela, Fig. 3
2006 (Virtual Romeo), Voks, t.shirt, hættetrøje, sokker.
Courtesy: Andrea Thuile & Heinz Peter Hager. Foto: ONUK
http://www.smk.dk/om-museet/presse/pressefotos/presse-udstilling/biography-elmgreen-dragset/

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.

Elmgreen & Dragset Powerless Structures, Fig. 124 2001 Træ, maling, hængsler, beslag, dørhåndtag.  209,5 x 100,4 x 50,5 cm Courtesy: Galleri Nicolai Wallner. Foto: Anders Sune Berg http://www.smk.dk/om-museet/presse/pressefotos/presse-udstilling/biography-elmgreen-dragset/

Elmgreen & Dragset, Powerless Structures, Fig. 124, 2001,
Træ, maling, hængsler, beslag, dørhåndtag, 209,5 x 100,4 x 50,5 cm
Courtesy: Galleri Nicolai Wallner. Foto: Anders Sune Berg
http://www.smk.dk/om-museet/presse/pressefotos/presse-udstilling/biography-elmgreen-dragset/

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.

Biography selfie - a chance to reimagine ourselves? Photo: Mick. 2014.

Biography selfie – a chance to reimagine ourselves? Photo: Mick. 2014.

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.