Journal Kingdom of Denmark Province: Capital Region of Denmark Regency/City: Copenhagen

Edvard Munch, Whom We Missed

Written by Akbar Yumni

There was nothing too imaginative in a journey on a plane, just like a journey around the world on a ship which had created masterpieces by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) and the much earlier writer, Daniel Defoe (1659-1731). Even maybe our writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), made a metaphor for a ship journey. The travelers always contemplated the sea and the horizon, “… what in front of a human is only a distance. And the horizon is the limit. The moment the distance is taken, the horizon gets farther away. What left behind is that distance too – eternal. Ahead is the same horizon – eternal.” That was what Pram’s word which for us was like a ship journey afterthought because we could see the horizon. Then, what could be contemplated on a plane journey while we were not Karl May, a writer who had almost never traveled, but had a much more accurate geographical vision and description of public than the world tourists. We were not Europeans either and it made this plane trip almost made us tourists who enjoyed the transportation facility on a journey.

The Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Only a small monitor screen in front of us that gave a chance for an imagination of a journey on a plane. At least we could recognize the flight path that went through some cities in Asia, Middle East and Europe. For instance, Phuket, maybe in Thailand. Another name, that quite gave imagination, was Karachi, a city in Pakistan. Through Karachi, on the upper side of the map there was a kind of legend for the mountains. In our imagination, maybe it was Himalaya mountain range which went around India to protect it from Alexander the Great’s invasion, the King of Macedon. Then, the map showed that the plane crossed the Mediterranean Sea. What strange was it was not shown on the map on the monitor when the plane, in our opinion, crossed the Iran territory. Either it was the impact of the state security politic of Iran or something, for us it looked strange.

The imaginations that came from the map only brought us to the memory about the Crusades when on the map monitor we saw Istanbul, Turkey and certainly the history of philosophy when we saw Athens. Certainly, all imaginations on a trip through the flight path on the map on the monitor were not too strong knowledge memories. What was left for us was the luck to get a chance for a trip to Europe in order to attend the Documentary Film Festival in Copenhagen, Denmark. Maybe they should have sent a historian or a poet so this chance could produce something more useful for our society. But at least, behind our luck, there was still a lot of spirits to learn about the movies in a festival and to know about the film festival in Copenhagen well as a gratitude for this luck.

We arrived in Copenhagen in the morning. At that time, the weather was cloudy but the landing was smooth. We landed at the Copenhagen Airport, an airport by the sea. The first thing that crossed our mind was Copenhagen was Denmark, a Scandinavian, a pure race. At least, that was what we thought from the recollection of the book by L. Stoddard, Pasang Surut Kulit Berwarna (The Rising Tide of Color). Here we were, among the people who still inherited the pure race or a corn-haired nation, Bung Karno had said.

Of course, the memory of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the first existentialist philosopher also crossed our mind inevitably, because indeed, we underwent the formal education up to university. The intellectualism was sometimes inevitable and it made us insincere in looking at everything because it had to be based on the experiences of text, book, literature, cinema and so on. It was on behalf of the intellectual experience too that a name like Carl de Dreyer, the famous Danish director, would not be separated from our consciousness when we were in Copenhagen and of course another name based on the intellectualism, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875). But they were all too big in describing Denmark. In the repertory of Wikipedia-based knowledge, they were surely easy to be learned, just like the names such as Michael and Brian Laudrup, Peter Schmeichel and so on for our sports consumers.

Sometimes those big names prevented our view from Copenhagen itself, they even became a map that viewed the consciousness. The intellectualism could be beneficial and harmful because that literacy map might not have guided us to the unique direction. Because there could be something beyond the text or something that had not been made literature, that was found in this Copenhagen and that was really something for us who were still in the process of learning.

Copenhagen was indeed an old city. Just like the Danes inherited the Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless fairy tales in every generation, some city buildings in Copenhagen were the continuation of the previous culture. That was Europe, an old civilization which had never totally destructed its history of the transition of power. Maybe they did not need to know their history from the books or through the teaching system mechanism at school, as if they could know their history through their daily lives; when they went through the city there were still many historical old buildings. It could be said that the awareness of history was not something that had a distance in their consciousness.

The traffic in Copenhagen was one of the fun things about that city. Maybe this was an old story or a strong characteristic for us who were lucky to travel to the cities in Europe. The traffic in Copenhagen was so orderly like a system that had already clung to their frame of mind, became entrenched even. The pedestrians were much respected, same as the other street users, the cars and the bicycles. We could see this from the traffic light that guided the pedestrians too. It meant that in the context of the traffic infrastructure and system the pedestrians were a part of the city traffic system policy too. Even the traffic obedience had already become a public ethics which attached in the society’s morality. Although the road was deserted without any vehicles and we just wanted to cross a small bicycle track, we still had to stop if the traffic light for the pedestrian was red. And of course, we all proud to obey the rules, like all Copenhagen people because obeying the traffic signs indirectly became our prestige too, an elegant thing. It was a kind of ‘aesthetic nobility’ which was shown on the public street.

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One day, after watching movie in Dox: Club I Teater Grob, on a traffic light intersection near Plebinge Lake (Pleblinge Sø), we stopped at the traffic sign. When the light turned green and we had to walk, a car, maybe forgot to slow down, almost blocked us up. A cyclist was blocked up and he seemed to be emotional and spat on the windshield. That incident gave an image about public ethics in the traffic. Whoever the street user was, indiscriminately, if they violated the rules the public would give the bad image. As a matter of fact, maybe the pedestrians and the cyclists were the highly respected subjects.

We visited all the screening venues by foot unfortunately. The distance between each venue was about 2-5 km. Besides there was no short-distance public transportation like in Jakarta, Copenhagen people were mostly pedestrians or the majority of them were cyclists. Bicycle parking lots were everywhere, almost every building or public spaces provided them. What barely there in Copenhagen were motorbikes, it was totally different from Jakarta. Maybe this was what caused the environmental awareness spirit of Copenhagen people, so the city atmosphere was rarely polluted.

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Denmark, a society that looked down to earth. They seemed to strongly believe in their country. There were shopping centers that did not open every day and when they opened, we could not visit them on office hours. We thought for a while, “When can we shop?” This was indeed a little strange for us who used to see the shops opened every day and on office hours. In Copenhagen, it seemed that we were forced to not become consumptive, but cultured, as if seeing the opening hours of the theater and cinema was longer than the shops.

Once, we also had to walk when we wanted to visit Christiania Park or Freetown Christiania (Fristaden Christiania). This was a unique place and it had a long history. If we looked at Wikipedia, Christiania was also known as fistraden (free town). This was a neighborhood with parks, apartments, houses, cafes, bars and so on. When you walked into Christiania, there would be a gate with “Welcome to Christiania” written on it. This was common, but if you looked at the back of the gate, there would be a writing there that said “You are now entering the EU”. The writing on that gate seemed to indicate that Christiania was something that was separate from Europe.

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Christiania was a place with civil authorities. On Saturday and Sunday, there was no law applied in that area. Although we only walked through that park in the afternoon, so that the ‘sordid’ view, like we had imagined before, was not too visible, this place was still a park of freedom. Certainly people drank, did sordid thing and so on in this place. Some people, who were drinking alone, were in Hippies style. What interesting was, there was an old woman who lived in a little house and a lovely garden in this place. In our imagination, maybe this woman had been the first generation of Hippies or a Hippies ideologue woman who did not need to look eccentric anymore, but had a quiet life with the environment and the plants.

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There were three rules in this place. First, have fun. Second, don’t run in a panic. Third, don’t do the drug trade. Of all those three rules, there was another additional rule which might be ethical, no photography allowed. The first rule was certainly interesting, ‘fun’ became a duty. The second rule was also unique. Maybe because this park was a free town, running in a panic was considered as a taboo and instead describing a negative impact of the meaning of freedom. I imagined that surely there was no murder and robbery in this place. The residents of Christiania maybe were the followers of the moral ethics of Immanuel Kant, who had said that a person should follow the morality not based on the law but because the morality was good for himself (the categorical imperative), so that behind the freedom in this place there would be no freedom that harmed others. That was why the ‘don’t run in panic’ rule became a prohibition. If a drunken man disturbed you, he did not mean to disturb for sure, but our conscious perception might feel disturbed by that drunken man.

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That place had been a source of controversy. It had been closed in 2011 but was now open again. What interesting was, that park was located only 200 m from Church of Our Saviour. The area of Christiania consisted of the former military barracks. In 1971, those places had been abandoned and then the homeless started to live in them. According to Wikipedia, the purpose of Christiania was to create an autonomous society where every person held the responsibility of public welfare. The Christiania spirit indeed could not be separated from or was identical to the hippies’ spirit or the anarchist’s awareness as an autonomous spirit of the people there. And also from Wikipedia, in 1976 they had had a kind of national anthem, Ikke Sla Os Ihjel (You Cannot Kill Us) which had been written by Tom Lunden, the leader and keyboardist of the flower power rock band Bitfrost. The song also became their kind of protest song to the authorities.

We felt that we came from a different culture when we were in this Christiania. We, who came from the simple country across the ocean really did not have any intention to taste the freedom presented in Christiania, not because of the intellectualism or the eastern culture and so on, but maybe because of our innocence. Basically, Copenhagen was a friendly city with its friendly people although people said that the cost of living there was more expensive than the other European cities. The people in this city were quite civilized and we always received their friendliness. Maybe the Kierkegaard’s lesson of existentialism on individual ethics or the warmth of Christian Andersen’s fairy tales had really attached to them in such a way that the existence of Christiania was not only describing the liberal society of Copenhagen but, on the contrary, the presence of this ‘freedom park’ indicated the presence of high morality degree which was realized by its society.

During our visit to Copenhagen, we took the time to come to the National Museum, Statens Museum for Kunst. Hopefully, our visual vocabulary would be increased, especially in the fine arts. Our expectation pretty came true when we saw some original paintings of the impressionist Henri Matisse and a quite famous painting of Modigliani, “Alice”. The painting was a picture of a big-eyed woman. Some sources said that the painting of a face with eyes was the unique characteristic of Modigliani’s work because almost of all his paintings were pictures of black eyes. If I was not mistaken, in a movie that had described him there was a statement from Modigliani, “If I knew you I would paint your eyes.” That was why the “Alice” painting with colored eyes might be one of that Italian painter’s biggest works.

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There were certainly many Danish famous painters in that Copenhagen National Museum and when we were in the museum we did not know anything about those Danish painters. However, there was a painting that quite drew our attention. It was Christ in the Realm of the Dead by Danish painter, Joakim Skovgaard. Maybe that painting was a little dramatic. It depicted Jesus Christ among His followers with the light that shone on His body. At a later time, a friend said that we should have looked for the works of Danish famous painter, Edvard Munch when we were in that museum. After realizing about that information, we regretted that we had missed his work. Like what we just found out later, when we saw Michel Haneke’s work, “Amor”, it also contained a metaphor through the work of Danish painter, Vilhelm Hammershoi. Really, traveling without luggage of knowledge was our loss. What was the difference between us and the tourists?

But we had another strong motivation to know more about the culture in Copenhagen. “Little Mermaid” surely was a strong memory that we had to visit too when we were in Copenhagen. Little Mermaid or Siren was a story made by Hans Christian Andersen. This story always eternally surrounded the city of Copenhagen. The Little Mermaid statue was located in the Copenhagen harbor.  It was on the edge of a small strait with the sea and the factory with chimney on the land as a background. The brown statue sat on a rock, her eyes stared sadly, her fate was sad too. The Little Mermaid story was a story about the human’s struggle when a fish had a desire to become a human because she had a true love for a human. She had a desire to be a human until she had to sacrifice herself.

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A tale was eternal because it told us about the human’s struggle. Maybe because of it that Little Mermaid was also eternal and was immortalized in a shape of a statue by the sea. Her gloomy face inspired the solitude. Surely that statue would not be ‘alive’, but it would live in the people’s imagination. As long as the imagination of human’s struggle was there, the Little Mermaid statue would always be eternal, like watching great artworks, it was one of the human’s struggles. Copenhagen itself was really a lesson and knowledge. Hopefully this journey was a human’s struggle too, a struggle of a child of the nation from a country across the ocean who just started to learn how to spell the alphabet of the vocabulary of the world culture.

On the trip home, we did not imagine about the map monitor on the back of the seat anymore, nor enjoying the journey through the plane facility. All of our imaginations on the way home were the strength of the impression of the Little Mermaid’s struggle to become a human, how touching the relation between human and ‘Others’ was in the Marina Abromovich’s documentary, “Artist is Present”, how moving the documentary approach of Joshua Oppenheimer was, the greatness of Modigliani’s painting, “Alice”, the civility of Copenhagen people and how small we were who started to learn to know about the alphabet of European culture and had a desire to spell. The journey to Jakarta was full of the reverie about them, so that I did not have the time to read the book I brought to kill the boredom on the plane. Of course, we would go home and maybe would not come back, or why we would come back, we would be tired of fascination and feel so small. Of course, we all would go home to Jakarta, facing the traffic and its backwardness of the letters in the big paragraph of European culture. Of course, we would go home because Jakarta was our home that we had to build with ‘action’. Like what Bung Hatta had said, “Only one country is my country, it grows with action and that action is mine.” Yes, of course, we had to act. We certainly had to learn more so we did not fall into ‘tourism’ on every trip, after we were amazed and sorry for missing the Edvard Munch’s work.

About the author


Akbar Yumni

Akbar Yumni (Jakarta, 1975) is a film critic and curator, and a member of Forum Lenteng, as well as Editor in Chief of Jurnal Footage ( He studies Philosophy at Sekolah Tinggi Filsafat Driyarkara, Jakarta. He is also a freelance researcher at Jakarta Arts Council. He is currently working on a performance project and archives of the lost films in the authoritarian era.

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