Beyond the old warehouses of Østerbro, before the sea meets the sky, the water shouts louder than the people. The waves crash into the shoreline, vengeful that the land’s presence interrupts their flow. A golden ship passes, a pop of color against the gray sky. It draws my attention to it as it cuts through the water. I note how the cold dewdrops of the park bench seep through my jeans, how the seagulls fly freely above, how the dogs bark and play as they gallop by, leashless and full of life. The weather is surprisingly pleasant; the air is warm but the wind lightly plays with my hair and whistles in my ears.
A bronze mermaid gazes out from her perch, oblivious to the waves, the wind, the birds, the dogs and the gaggle of tourists, who openly gawk at her from the shore. They lurch toward her with their screens to catch a glimpse, a snapshot, a selfie to be Instagrammed or Snapchatted or Facebooked. Sirens roar, tires screech, horns blare, voices shout, bikes rattle — the inner city overflows into the harbor. The statue is inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid and is the most famous statue in Copenhagen.
I desire to get a closer look so I climb down the granite rocks and stand fully to see her. She sits with poor posture, curling her body toward the shore. She’s longing, apparently, for a prince she will never have. Her once completely bronze body has oxidized into a deep mossy green, corroding into multi-colored patches all along her skin. Her mournful gaze is painted with bird droppings. They streak down her cheeks like tears. My first thought? ‘Huh, I thought she’d be bigger.’ It’s not that she is disappointing, but I am just disappointed by her underwhelming size and lack of pizazz.
Later, I stand on blacktop beside a different harbor a few hundred meters away. The wind on this side of the harbor rustles past the warehouses; the February chill bites through my puffer jacket. The lack of people here creates the serenity I longed for observing the Little Mermaid. But here I can see a new mermaid, a cooler more interesting mermaid: the Genetically Modified Little Mermaid.
She perches on her own rock, crouching in a similar posture as her “older sister.” But her figure is disfigured and warped like melted metal. Her neck bends toward her chest, her legs spindle out under her body, her hips crack, her arms knob. Her face is blank and empty, erased and smooth. She’s nothing near beautiful.
A woman with hair as red as Disney’s mermaid tells me the story behind the grotesque figure. This story is even more tragic than that of the crying mermaid. The Genetically Modified Little Mermaid lives in a postmodern world, a world where the factory smoke has so polluted the sky that it becomes toxic. In this place, the people shout louder than the sea and the city overflows with litter and waste. The boats scatter trash in the harbors. The figure reflects this horrid world.
The sculptor, Bjørn Nørgaard, wrote in his artist statement:
“The form of genetic alteration we are confronted with is possibly an existence that will radically change the ways we perceive ourselves as people. The strange rudimentary human figures, that have come into being here, constitute a way of discussing what kind of an entity the human being actually is, what it looks like – and what it will look like in 100 or 200 years.”
The red-haired woman points her finger to the other sculptures in the series. In the stone plaza behind us, the metal statues stand just as warped as the Genetically Modified Mermaid. The woman points out Jesus, who contorts his body. Adam and Eve are unrecognizable. Mary Magdalene twists and turns, her figure more spindles than human. All of them are the products of a postmodern world, the woman says. This is our future if we don’t do anything. She lists statistics, passionately preaching of the somber reality our climate is facing, that we are facing.
“Even the deniers of climate change can all agree they don’t want the Little Mermaid to look like this,” the woman tells me.
I note the lack of people here. No tourists gawking. No pictures snapping. No children playing. Here it is silent. And yet I’m far more impressed with this sculpture and the series of art pieces by Bjørn Nørgaard than I was with the “Top tourist destinations in Copenhagen” Little Mermaid statue.