Artist Calum Johnston shares his experiences of life in Copenhagen and the response to the city’s recent tragedy.
Firstly let me introduce myself, my name is Calum Johnston and I am a Scottish visual artist based in Copenhagen, Denmark. I first moved to the city 3 years ago for the primary reason to learn the language. I managed to persuade my girlfriend, a Dane with little to no appetite for the city that it was a good idea and after Art School we could both do with a fresh start. So we packed our bags and headed east. At the time I never realised exactly what I was letting myself in for, but needless to say it was considerably more difficult than I thought. In reflection, I was probably running away from post Art School blues and the inability to make work. Having adapted, albeit slowly, I have managed to carve a small corner of Copenhagen into home. As an artist whose primary subject matter is language, it has proved to be a fruitful process. Learning a language from the bottom up is a great way to consider the idiosyncrasies of both languages.
It was 7.15pm on a cold, wet Monday night in Copenhagen. I was in a supermarket with my girlfriend, we were in a queue trying to buy some flowers. There was something like forty thousand people walking past the shop window as we waited. Just as we were leaving the store an older lady, possibly in her mid seventies, stopped me to ask if we were going to the Synagogue. This took me by surprise but I soon realised that the flowers were a give away. ‘Yes… We are’ I said ‘Would it be ok if I walked with you’ she asked ‘Of course, not a problem’.
This is strange for a number of reasons. I love Copenhagen, it is a great city but one thing it most certainly is not is warm or particularly friendly. The chances are if you have visited here you would have experienced some sort of dodgy customer service. There are a number of contributing factors to this, but what you are left with is a fairly inward facing city with many people in closed relationships. People like to stick to their own. It takes many years to make a lasting friendship in Copenhagen.
The Lady was Iranian. She had recently suffered a stroke that affected her temporal lobe so she had lost the part of her memory that controls names, places and faces. Everyday she would do the same thing so not to get lost or confused. As we walked towards the Synagogue we talked and she told us that she was going to a meeting for Iranians for Democracy. Once we completed the short walk we said goodbye and each lay our flowers. I couldn’t help but think that the flowers were a reflection of the people all side by side, hand in hand. Irrespective of race, creed or colour we were all there, all together. Since then the city has changed.
The idea behind this article was to talk about the cultural hot spots and to give my take on what is ‘happening’ in Copenhagen, instead I am going to talk about two places, the first being café Halvvej. Café Halvvej is as traditional and as Danish as Stæk flesk og pasli sauce. In the afternoon they serve smørrebrød and you can buy a klippekort for your beer. It’s small, wooden and smokey (after the lunch service is finished). There is one thing that I love more than anything else. In café Halvvej mobile phones are banned. If you want to make a call, then you go outside. Great! This brings the bar back to basics. After all, isn’t the reason we go to bar’s to enjoy each other’s company? I am not a smoker (5 years free) but this is one bar I don’t mind sitting in for hours. This to me is the real beating heart of Copenhagen. A place where it does not matter what you earn, where you work or what you believe in, you will feel welcome. This is the warm underbelly that Copenhagen exposes all too little.
As an artist, and a pretty low rent one at that, I have always been interested in underground art and music scenes. Copenhagen doesn’t have the same DIY history as parts of the working class UK. I suppose you will find all over the world that the cities with money don’t need a DIY scene. Yet, sandwiched between Tivoli and Copenhagen’s postal sorting office you will find a little rough diamond. There is a rag-tag group of artists in a disused council loft space with limited electricity and even more limited heating. Tietgensgade 31 or TTG 31 is everything that is great about artists; ingenuity, creativity and community. This formally disused space in the centre of the city is a hub for live music, exhibitions and parties. It has a real buzz and excitement in a place where the people are doing it for the right reasons.
Copenhagen is a great place. For me it is like the relationship I have with my big brother… quiet, distant but when needed he is there strong and supportive willing to defend what is right. Complicated but brilliant.
Read Calum’s recent interview on Made in Mind here.
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