The Warsaw Mermaid

When a land-locked city in central Poland proudly displays the image of a mermaid as its emblem, one cannot help but be intrigued. Up on a pedestal in the market square she holds her sword aloft, ready to defend Warsaw against any invaders. Unfortunately the mermaid is made of bronze so this threat never eventuated to much – just ask the Nazi invaders of WWII or the Soviet forces of the mid 20th century. Nevertheless, she stands for protection and as a symbol for the city is taken most seriously.

So, why a mermaid? There are several legends, all involving a Xena-style character playing the damsel in distress and an ironman swim down the Vistula river. One day a mermaid swam the 260km from the Baltic sea all the way to Warsaw. After taking a well-earned rest she decided to stay: the climate suited her. Unfortunately her presence didn’t suit the local fishermen who were less than impressed with the waves she caused and the fish she freed. They were, however, impressed with her voice. After a subsequent kidnapping by a local merchant one of the fishermen rescued the mermaid who, it turned out, was quite handy with a sword and shield. She revealed her skills, swore her allegiance to the fishermen and from that day forth has been the protector of the city.

Images of the mermaid abound in Warsaw, adorning everything from taxi doors to building company logos and the electrics panel on streetlamps. They all allude to her home, the Vistula river, which runs directly through the city and provides a clear geographical marker. Lone fishermen still litter the banks, casting their rods in all seasons, while the floating Aldona River Hostel allows visitors to fall asleep to her siren song. Swimming, however, is out. After several days of heavy rain rips are rife and every now and then the odd tree floats past. A gentle punting trip on a lake in the nearby Lazienki park is much more enticing for all but the hardiest endurance athletes. After our riverside stroll a leisurely trip around the lake was just what our legs desired. While we were not actually in the water, the edges of the boat were close enough to the waterline for it to qualify as a ‘near-mermaid experience’.

For those looking for more concrete examples of defenders that live up to the sword and shield emblem, the Warsaw Uprising Museum is the place to go. No mermaids in sights, but the displays tell the story of those involved in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, during which thousands of Polish resistance fighters lost their lives to German forces. Photographs and artifacts are used to narrate the history, with sections dedicated to German occupation and communist occupation and the personal stories of those who survived. These defenders of Warsaw are also immortalised in the large Warsaw Monument to Insurgents in the Old Town. Although the 1944 uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, The sentiment of those involved would have done the city mascot and her iron sword proud.

  • The Warsaw Uprising Museum is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday: 8.00-18.00,
Saturday and Sunday: 10.00-18.00,
Thursday: 8.00-20.00. Adults 10 zloty ($NZ4)
  • Punting trips take place daily during the summer in Lazienki Park. 7 zloty per person ($NZ3)
  • Aldona River hostel (The Vistula River, Poniatowskiego Bridge, Warsaw)offers basic accommodation in novel surroundings, floating on the Vistula river. One, two and three bed cabins available 75-130 zloty ($NZ30-50)

Rainbow Panorama

They say there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but I got lost before I could find out if this was true. Wandering through a room of green and blue mist at the ARoS museum in Århus, I was more concerned with finding the exit than discovering a leprechaun’s secrets.

Olafur Eliasson’s rainbow’s exhibition is a whole body experience. Here the spectator takes centre stage, becoming a part of the work and engaging multiple senses. ‘Your Atmospheric Colour Atlas’ is a misty room, lit from above by red, green and blue lights. Upon entering the space one’s eyes are filled with the colour that permeates the mist and cease to be useful navigating tools. Totally immersed in colour, the concepts of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ take on a much more intense character than when viewed in everyday life and visitors must rely on sound and touch to orientate themselves in a world devoid of spatial cues.

Space is also important in ‘The Inverted Panorama House’, a circular screen with a dynamic combination of coloured lights, reflections and shadows projected onto the walls. The interior of the screen is like a kaleidoscope, with refractions and reflections spinning past each other. From the outside the silhouettes of those inside become past of the installation, with every nod of the head and wave of the hand projected as a diorama for the audience to scrutinise. This interaction between viewer and work is typical for the Icelandic artist, whose art is often fluid and focuses on perception. Here he explores J. W. von Goethe’s ideas about the phenomenological qualities of colour, with both the colour physically present and the after image this colour leaves on the eye being important parts of the artwork.

With the installation ‘Beauty’ Eliasson brings a natural phenomenon from the realm of science into the gallery yet retains many of the scientific concepts relating to refraction. Lamps illuminate a misty wall of rain in a darkened room, sending rainbows shimmering across the surface. They shift and disappear depending on the viewer’s vantage point, recreating the fleeting nature of a rainbow during a storm.

Less fleeting is ARoS’s famous Perspex rooftop installation, ‘Your Rainbow Panorama’. Visitors stroll through the circular structure, viewing the city through tinted panes and becoming part of the installation themselves as those below observe their silhouettes. Opened in May 2011, the rainbow structure is a striking addition to Århus’s skyline. It is also one of the few places in the world where one can orientate oneself according to colour. Instead of describing an apartment as lying in the west of the city, ‘the yellow direction’ also serves as a geographical descriptor.

I’m not sure about the gold, but they do say a picture is worth a thousand words. With five floors of galleries and an impressive collection of works by Danish and international artists, ARoS gallery is well worth a visit.

Entry to the gallery costs $NZ25 and, as I eventually discovered, the exit to ‘Your Atmospheric Colour Atlas’ is located in the red zone.

Bevar Christiania

A dragon, a fairy and a mythical tree guard the entrance to this land of pause. Bordered by water, a lone mallard keeps watch, paddling up and down the waterway with an upturned beak. The city may not pass. Beyond these walls of green the city drones, dives, flashes, moves, but here the hyperventilating of the metropolis seems a long way off. It is as if the earth is holding its breath while striking a yoga pose. Nestled against the canals of Copenhagen, this is the border of Christiania.

Lone poets litter the lakeside logs, some contemplating the ripples, others smoking under the thick canopy. Some sleep, bags clutched to their chests, beards matted, curled into the knot of a fallen trunk or a nest of long grass. They dream in saturated hues of the markets and vegetarian fare that characterise the commune just over the hill, dream of dragons and fairies and bicycles and snails. A giant floating frog-like sculpture observes all from his mid-moat mooring, taking everything in with his spotted hexagonal eyes. Following the meandering moat-side path, time slows down. It is not hard to find a spot and make a nest of your own. The frog takes note, then drifts and turns away.

Breathe. Let evening come. View the world from a snail’s perspective. This place smells of earth, of soil that has not been packed and shifted but left to ripen. It smells of growth and summer. A gentle anarchy prevails. It smells like home.

Planks of wood that have assembled themselves into small lakeside dwellings sprout technicolor vegetable gardens and bike sheds. Windows jostle for attention with mosaic entranceways and hanging gardens. Some call these illegal structures, some call them art. Others call them Home. They rise like phoenixes from the rushes, casting purple shadows. Gilded orange by the evening sun they look as if they may sprout wings and erupt at any second. This is prime real estate and eviction is always a possibility.

Build on military ramparts, each of these five triangular bays is a reminder of a hostile past. The topography is designed for conflict and sculpted for protection. Land torn from land, preserved as an excellent example of 17th century defence. Small fish agitate the surface as they dart after their evening feed. A slight breeze murmers to the rushes before replying to the trees. This green belt creates an insulation more effective than barbed wire or police blockades. The water acts as a coat check and worries must wait at the gate. There have been no raids, no shootings this month: the dragon and the mallard have been doing their jobs.

Folk music drifts through the trees and out over the lake, an invitation to return to the frazzled rainbow maze beyond. A bicycle workshop, markets, electric lighting and dinner at the old commune kitchen all beckon. The reeds let out a sigh. Dusk breathes shadows into the water, erasing the mallard’s silhouette. Waking snails. Leaving poets to dream.