It is a moving tale of love and grief and the devastating moments that change the course of your life and relationships forever. Its narrator, Leo Hertzberg, is an academic art historian residing in New York. The story follows 25 years of his life when he befriends an artist, Bill Weschler, and tracks their lives alongside each other. The story is bookended so we understand it comprises Leo’s reflections on his life as an old man.
The plan to come to Copenhagen for a year did not come to me in a flash – it evolved slowly from that feeling of not quite belonging where I was. A tiredness from being a just little bit out of place, a little bit different. A feeling of being surrounded by truths a little bit – or sometimes a lot – different from what I knew to be true when I was much younger than today.
We have now been in Denmark for eight weeks and in our flat for five. It is four weeks since our older son left to go back home to Brisbane, Queensland, Australia – home to our younger son who did not want to come. Thankfully, they report that they are both doing well.
In that time we have been exploring our new place. And: I love Copenhagen. There are so many things to see, to do, to enjoy. I love hearing Danish language around me. I even love the cold, especially on a sunny day when every spot of sunshine on the street walks fills up with people catching just a bit of that sun. I love seeing my family and my friends. And I love that my husband is so completely on the journey with me. But it is too soon to say if I belong here.
It is hard to come home when you don’t belong writes Maren Uthaug in her debut novel Og sådan blev det (And so it was) from 2013. Like the main character, Kirsten, Uthaug lives in Denmark, but her parents are Sami and Norwegian. The story is about going back to ones roots to discover identity. Kirsten is born as Risten in Northern Norway into a Sami community. When she is seven years old, her parents separate and with her Norwegian father she moves into the home of a well-meaning Danish woman. In all her well-meaningless and desire for minimum conflict and otherness in her midst, the woman changes the girl’s beautiful Sami name to a Danish one. She also changes the name of the Vietnamese orphan who came to live with her when Vietnamese boat refugees came to Denmark in numbers so large that authorities had to billet them with private individuals.
Kirsten’s plan to reconnect with her Sami family also does not come in a flash and when she finally visits her mother in Northern Norway, her sense of belonging to the country and community in which she was born is blurred by years of absence, growing up in a different country, community and culture. Even the belief system for keeping evil away that she learnt from her grandma; the silver, the chants in an old Finnish language, Kvensk, the warning to never look at the northern light; are foreign to the Sami community to which she returns.
Just before she leaves with her father for Denmark, young Risten commences a massive project to draw a fantastic tree covering numerous taped together pieces of A4 paper. She wants to draw the roots, the crown, the branches. The roots of this tree – of this girl – are clearly deeply buried in the northern country near the arctic circle. When she returns she probes to discover just how deeply her roots are buried – they are so well covered up by an alternative truth that they are nearly impossible to discover.
This is a touching and moving story, well written and beautifully told. Being out of place in a well-meaning, but much misguided ‘civilisation’ parallels stories of first nations people across the world. And I am happy to say, it is a far cry from my own experience: my struggle for belonging are nothing on a scared little girl far away from home, clutching her grandma’s silver ring and chanting to keep evil spirits at bay and holding tight to cultural truths that no-one surrounding her has any possibility of understanding.
My story has none of that drama at all. I deeply respect the genuine struggle of all people who are displaced, especially to those who did not – and cannot – themselves chose to be where they are.
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.
It is a bit of an Australian cultural paradox. On the one hand the Australian self perception as the pioneer bushman who braves new frontiers and the carefree larrakin who will do anything for a bit of fun; and on the other hand the extreme risk aversion manifested in the way we defer to the government to fix everything. The paradox was highlighted for me recently, when driving with my brother in the rented car.
Holidaying in Australia from Denmark, he and his family had driven up the east coast from Sydney to Lamington National Park and had encountered numerous stretches of roadworks, where traffic was directed by ‘authorised traffic controllers’. They thought this form of risk management quite contrary to the anti-autharitan image they had of Australians. As we drove back to Brisbane through road works at Logan, mobile lights controlled the traffic seemingly adequately, yet several ‘authorised traffic controllers’ were also on site with their lollipops. Like keeping your pants up wearing a belt as well suspenders, really.
Every time something happens – something dreadful – Australians are quick to deny any personal role in it and suggest that ‘they’ must do something about it. A train hits a person at the level crossing, and the safety precautions are dreadfully insufficient. A crocodile mauls a person swimming in its habitat, and the animal must pay. A serious road accident holds people up on the highway, and it is the appalling state of the road. And the funny thing is the way the Government responds to this outrage and finger pointing: trains are ordered to toot when approaching level crossings and elaborate pedestrian gates are built which fence in pedestrians; crocodiles are caught and killed or relocated from their home; and endless authorised traffic controllers are employed when the road conditions change and road works require car drivers to take care.
Thus Australian governments assume responsibility and create rules and preautions to minimise risk for citizens. It acts as a nanny state. And this is a downward spiral that confirms and strengthens the culture of ‘it is not my fault’. All of these rules remove risk assessment and decision making from citizens and place responsibility with government, should something go wrong in spite of precautions and the rules being followed. Instead of Australians taking responsibility for their own lives and the local communities they are part of, politicians and policy makers seem content to invent new processes and make more rules that remove responsibility from citizens. How come it is necessary to have both trains tooting, warning lights, alarms sounding AND pedestrian gates at level crossings that close even before the train stops at the nearby station? Who is to blame when crocodiles act in ways perfectly natural and normal to the species and why do they have to pay the price of the patent stupidity of the swimmer, probably disobeying multiple warnings about crocodiles? Why can we not rely on Australian drivers to obey the signs and drive with care and consideration of other road users?
Government taking risk minimising measures does not make us safer. They give us the perception that we are safer, and they may even provoke a rebellious response to circumvent the measures and break those rules. After all, the Australian self-image is all about taking risks and pushing life at the frontier – the bushman, the larrikin and the rebel.
‘I would be so bored as a traffic controller’, said my 16-year-old niece.
‘Perhaps you could play games on your phone in between cars coming?’ suggested my 10-year-old nephew.
Perhaps the authorised traffic controllers are an employment scheme. Not only for the people with the lollipop signs, but the authorisation that needs to be processed and controlled by bureaucrats, the training that needs to be designed and delivered, the authorised traffic controller vests that need to be designed, produced and sold, traffic controllers that need to drive cars to get to places where their services are needed – it is a whole value chain, helping our economy to grow(!)
And it gives us the sense that we are safe in this dangerous world, which is in our Australian self-understanding to want to conquer. Go figure.
The Australian landscape is so unlike what I grew up with. The land is so vast with properties as large as all of Jutland and red dessert running the depth and breath of the continent with sparse populations of people, sheep and cattle. The population density is 2.9 people per km2. Comparatively, 131.3 people live on each Danish square kilometer and every bit seems cultivated and tamed.
The Australian fauna is like something out of a magical picture book: kangaroos and wallabies get around by bouncing, koalas look like cuddly teddy bears from a toy shop, mammals lay eggs and colourful parrots and lorikeets screech rather than sing, drunk on the concentrated nectar of native flora.
The flora is also uniquely evolved, none better than the eucalypt, tall timber with sparse crowns, providing at best speckled shade to those seeking its protection, risking the dropping of massive branches at no particular notice. They have learnt to suck every bit of moisture out of the ground that surrounds its roots and provide just enough nutrition in the leaves for sleepy koalas living in the fork of their trunks. Red gum, blue gum, scribble gum, rose gum, ghost gum – there are more species of gum tree than can be counted. The smell of eucalypt in my nose, clearing the sinusses in dry winter, is so different from earthy dank smell of the beech, oak and pine forests of my wet childhood winters.
When we lived in Bunya, on the Samford Range, dry schlerophyl forrest surrounded us. Tall gums towered over us and young saplings crowding the understorey, observing our transformation of the landscape as we built our home and gardens, knowingly nodding to the kookaburras’ laugh ringing from their brances. Our hopes to live gently and sustainably on our land were challenged by the years of drought, the hard baked soil of clay and shale and water-stealing gum trees. We later learnt that the land was cleared in the late 1800s to build Brisbane’s wharves and public buildings and then abandoned when farmers found it too poor for a sheep run. So it regenerated to its natural state until subdivided into 2 hectare blocks in the late 1900s. We bought our land in 2000 and lived in our self-designed house from 2002 to 2010. We loved our time in Bunya: it was a time of Australian dreams, plans and optimism; but eventually we were beaten back to comfortable suburban Brisbane.
In his award winning novel, Eucalyptus, Murray Bail touches on the myth of Australian identity. It is a timeless story about a widower landowner, who loves two things: his carefully cultivated eucalypt collection on his vast rural property and his beautiful daughter, Ellen. Like in a fairy tale, he announces he will give his daugther away to the first man who can complete the challenge: naming all the eucalypts on his property. Strangely resigned to her fate, his daughter gradually fades away. Two suitors are on the scene – Mr Cave who walks the land with her father to identify each tree, and a stranger, who turns out not so strange, meeting Ellen in the forrest and on her sick bed to tell her stories that sustain her. The closer Mr Cave gets to name all the trees on the property, the sicker Ellen gets, and the more compelling become the stranger’s stories.
Each chapter is named after a spieces of eucalypt. As I read the story in my suburban home, I am reminded of the selfishness of eucalypts and the harshness of the Australian landscape that we felt when we lived in Bunya, just 22 km from the capital city centre. How much harsher would that landscape be away from the sea board in the red centre?
Bail seems to poke fun of that most enduring Australian self-identity: that of the bushman living in the outback, the brave pioneer of new frontiers. Even when the myth was developed in the 1800s by ‘bush’ poets like Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, people predominantly lived close to the sea, as did those writers themselves. But the idea of Australians as conquerours of the landscape still prevails today – perhaps most accurately depicted by open cut mines scarring the landscape – when really the majority of people live in safe, unchallenging and comfortable suburbia on the seaboard, rather than in the bush.
Australia is still a harsh landscape. It invites you in with its raw beauty and its potential, but offers little in return for hard work and spits you out when you have been defeated. We feel it perhaps not often, in our urbane homes with manicured palm tree gardens, where we have been able to cultivate and control the land to suit ourselves. Nonetheless, in 2011, Mother Nature demonstrated our limited security so devastatingly, when Brisbane River broke its banks and flooded the once swampy plains of its delta, where Brisbane now stands. Flood water sweept our status symbols and security out into the bay, leaving a trail of stinking mud and devastation.
Just like Ellen’s relationship with gum trees was one of ambivalence, so is my relationship with my adopted country: I love this country for its breath-taking beauty and I despise for its harshness and unreasonableness which reminds me constantly of my own insignificance and indeed that of our entire species.