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The Mermaid War

How a proposed trip to China for Denmark's chief cultural icon divided a nation

Email icon  elisabethginsberg@gmail.com

She has been beheaded twice, had her arm cut off, been doused with paint, and—perhaps most disturbingly—been mercilessly objectified by millions of middle-aged tourists.

Nonetheless, the Little Mermaid patiently remained in her designated spot in Copenhagen harbor for 97 years. The contemplative, somewhat sad-looking mermaid is considered a national heirloom in Denmark, so naturally when the Bjarke Ingels Group, a young Danish architecture firm, proposed letting her take a six-month trip to China, a heated debate ensued.

The architects wanted to make the Little Mermaid the centerpiece of the Danish pavilion in this year’s World Expo in Shanghai, which runs from May to October 2010. They intended to make use of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale to tell a story about a nation wanting to reach out to the rest of the world.

In the story, a mermaid falls in love with a human prince, and makes a Faustian bargain: she agrees to exchange her tongue for legs, becoming a mute so she can walk on earth and meet him.

“The purpose of moving The Little Mermaid is to show that open-mindedness doesn’t necessarily cause you to lose origin or culture,” BIG founder Bjarke Ingels said in a statement at the time. “Typically, national symbols are static – a fortress or a tower, which is unshakable. The perception of a nation with a national symbol so dynamic that it can be moved to China for six months is a great way of showing that Denmark is open-minded and liberal towards the rest of the world.”

Yet this new Danish fairytale ended up telling more than one story about Denmark. While the ideas behind the pavilion show Denmark as progressive, the reaction exposed the nationalist and conservative tendencies that are also a significant part of contemporary Danish culture.

“It’s a grotesque idea to send our national pride and joy to Asia…. No one would come up with the idea of lending out New York’s Lady Liberty,” said Karin Noedgaard, spokeswoman for the right-wing populist (and popular) Danish People’s Party.

Her comments mirror an attitude shared by many Danes, who consider it inappropriate to ship a cultural treasure halfway across the globe as a PR tool.

So in 2008 the conservative Danish People’s Party proposed a new law to prohibit the removal of the Little Mermaid.

In the months leading up to this legislative showdown, the question of whether to allow the (mer)maiden voyage was discussed in various public forums, but most vehemently on the Internet.

“No, no, no, it has to stay in Denmark! What kind of sick idea is it to give it out on a loan?!” wrote one commenter on the website of the public TV station TV2….”If the Chinese want to see it, they can come here!!!”

“To remove her from the city is like amputating an arm from a healthy human being,” wrote another.

The idea also had its defenders: “Of course it is OK to send the original mermaid, even though she belongs to Denmark,” wrote one. “After all, it is only a loan. I mean, if that isn’t OK, then let us empty the Danish museums of objects originating in Egypt and Greece. I think many Danes enjoy these objects, so why shouldn’t it be all right to share a bit of Danish culture? After all, she is a symbol of our world-known H.C. Andersen.”

And another writer expressed the opinion that would ultimately prevail: “Finally a progressive idea showing that Denmark is not buttoned up, but a nation willing to interact with the surrounding world. Finally the Mermaid’s physical smallness becomes an advantage; how many other countries have a removable national symbol?”

Official political debate focused on whether to send the original statue, or a copy.

“The Little Mermaid must remain in Copenhagen, because it is her place, and thousands of tourists will be terribly disappointed not to find her during her six-month long absence,” said Pia Allerslev, Copenhagen’s deputy mayor, summing up one opposition argument.

Others evaluated the effect on tourism differently, emphasizing the unparalleled marketing value of sending the original abroad: “I do believe it is the first time ever that a country has dared to send its most famous tourist attraction away to invite guests to come visit,” Dorte Kiilerich, managing director of VisitDenmark, said in a statement.

Proponents also argued that sending “the real thing” was a gesture of cultural generosity, and an invitation to initiate cultural dialogue between Denmark and China.

“Regarding the copy, it makes me think of Snoopy,” politician Pernille Fram said during a parliamentary discussion. “It is like giving a starving dog a rubber bone. No, we won’t [send a copy], because it is not the same thing.”

Sending the original was part of BIG’s bid to counter the inauthenticity that, according to Ingels, has come to characterize World Expos.

“When we visited the World Expo in Zaragoza [Spain], we were stunned by the artificial content. State propaganda in papier mâché,” Ingels said in a statement. “The Danish Expo pavilion 2010 is the real deal, and not just endless talking.”

After debating for more than a year, Copenhagen’s city council in March 2009 took a final vote. Oddly, the Red-Green Alliance, a radical left-wing party, supported the Danish People’s Party in favoring a ban on the statue’s departure. But the Red-Greens cited a different reason: to spare the Chinese from what they considered a conservative, dated, national icon. Instead, they recommended sending a more modern product of Danish culture: a windmill.

The Red-Greens agreed with the Social Democrats (who favored sending the Mermaid to Shanghai) that the Danish People’s Party had taken the Little Mermaid “hostage” to promote a narrow nationalism. Yet the Red-Greens complimented the Danish People’s Party for this move; with a laconic reference to their controversial immigration policies, the Red-Green Alliance’s spokesman Frank Aaen explained that “in reality the Danish People’s Party has taken hostage something as innocent as a statue instead of doing what they normally do… taking human beings as hostages.”

Despite this unexpected “support” from the left, the Little Mermaid’s visit to Shanghai was approved.

While the Little Mermaid is away—she began her journey in March 2010 and has a return ticket this October—a video installation by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is on display in her usual spot. His piece includes a live broadcast from the pavilion in Shanghai.

With a distilled Copenhagen experience of water, Danish city bikes and the Little Mermaid, the Danish pavilion in Shanghai lets its visitors immerse themselves in a little fairy tale of sustainable living.

Yet the pavilion has also exposed something rarely found at World Expos: a window into the political reality of a nation.

Elisabeth Ginsberg is a Danish Fulbright student in The Draper Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought at New York University.

The Danish Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai. Photo by Leif Orkelbog-Andresen

The Danish Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai. Photo by Leif Orkelbog-Andresen

The Danish Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai. Photo by Hanne Hvattun