If You Go Down to the Woods Today...
Greater Copenhagen, Denmark
Words by Alice Fitzsimons-Quail
Photos by Martin Paldan, Carlos Paldan and Philip Høpner
The Forgotten Giants are all about (re-)discovering the joy of exploring and about understanding the value of recycling. Hidden in suburban green spots, the Giants are a well-kept secret, and the perfect destination for a bike ride out of Copenhagen.
Featured in print in Gripster Mag issue 03.
Turning corners swiftly, you follow the trail through the trees. Families with small children gather at the sides of the path, picnic blankets tucked under their arms, sandwiches at the ready. Some wave at you as you pass, pedaling hard but keeping a watchful eye over the other users of the path. Rounding the last corner, you catch a glimpse of a large, wooden foot, draped casually over the forest floor. A foot so big you could easily climb up on it and survey the surrounding nature.
The foot belongs to one of Danish artist Thomas Dambo’s Forgotten Giants. A journey into some of western Copenhagen’s hidden green spaces will reveal many oversize woodland beings seamlessly blending in with the landscape. From the first time, we at GripGrab came across one of Dambo’s Giants, we were intrigued by the air of mystery surrounding them, so we went in search of their creator. What we found was far more than sculptures in a forest; behind them is an individual with a motivation, someone who wants to change the way we interact with the world and the materials around us. With a self-stated commitment to reusing and recycling in the most creative ways, Dambo is making something unique, both in the Copenhagen suburbs and increasingly all over the world.
BIRDHOUSES ALL OVER THE WORLD
Currently located in Copenhagen, Denmark, Dambo’s seven hundred square meter workshop is home to himself, two assistants and three interns, and is filled from floor to ceiling with various recycled materials. He mainly works with wood, plastic, and metal, and runs a small workshop/school where groups come to play and build prototypes with all kinds of recycled stuff.
Among Dambo’s other most famous projects are the 4000+ recycled wooden birdhouses in multiple locations around the world, including at the Arken Museum in Denmark and in Beirut, Lebanon. His giant interactive pixel installations, called Happy Walls, can be found in Rio de Janeiro, Hollywood, and Las Vegas. Apart from the Giants project, some of his other wooden sculptures are located in Gold Coast, Australia, in the German city of Hamburg, Suwannee in Florida and Culebra in Puerto Rico. Dambo says he particularly enjoyed working in Culebra – a small island with beautiful beaches, ‘a fantastic hyggelig town with some really friendly locals’ and an unexpected population of reindeer deposited on the island by Spanish sailors many decades ago.
Dambo’s passion for reusing and recycling materials from the world around him extends to all his artworks. ‘I only work in recycled materials, I have done this since building tree houses as a kid. Back then I didn’t have the money or the opportunity to transport stuff, so to make my creative dreams come true I had to go scavenging with a shopping trolley.’ After doing this for twenty-five years he’s become a real expert in it, and now it has become his work and mission to teach others. There is a set of core beliefs in his philosophy: ‘I believe we need to take better care of our planet and that being better at recycling is a big part of this. For me, it makes no sense to discard things that have value… it’s just plain stupid. That’s why I focus on making big, positive, fun and interactive projects to show people that recycling can be much more than sorting trash!’
A DREAM SUMMER ACTIVITY
True to his commitment to using locally sourced materials, Dambo always begins with the lo-cation: ‘I start just looking for materials nearby and let them inspire me. If I find a lot of dark brown wood, maybe I will make a sculpture with dark brown fur… if I find a big bunch of twigs maybe I will give the sculpture twig hair on its head. I also try to make the sculptures look more alive by making them part of the environment’ – Dambo’s Giants are interacting with the world around them; they grab trees, they lean back on a hill or sit on the ground. ‘If I make a sculpture within driving distance of my workshop, I normally prepare some of the more de-tailed parts beforehand, like the hands, feet and face. Then I drive this to the building site. I always have a group of volunteers that help me take pallets apart or clear old wood boards of nails and screws. It takes me and five to ten helpers around two weeks to make a sculpture.’ Sounds like a dream summer activity!
MYSTERY AND ADVENTURE
The Giants project is laid out like a treasure hunt. For Dambo, this is about reconnecting people with their playful side: ‘I believe a lot of people have forgotten to be curious and explore the places they live. As we grow older we start living our lives in a triangle between our house, our job, and the supermarket. Sadly, many people think they must get on an airplane for eight hours to experience something new, but the fact is almost nobody knows what’s hiding in their own city. I have always been exploring, for locations, for art, for recycled materials or just places to chill out with my friends, and this has given me so many great experiences. By putting sculptures in places people don’t normally go to, I both give them the experience of the sculpture but also the nature they pass through on their way. I believe this gives them a much bigger experience than if the sculpture was in the middle of a city square, where people would just give it a quick glance and move on. It’s like home cooked food – it tastes better because you made it yourself – and the same thing goes for self-found sculptures, it gives you a better experience if you put the effort into finding them.’
The treasure hunt is there to create mystery and adventure, and Dambo has added to this with poetic clues by each sculpture, pointing to the location of the next. Here is the poem from the rock next to Sleeping Louis (one of the giants), translated into English:
I have been sleeping for a year, I wake up when I feel like it. Crawl into my belly and join me – but not if you snore. I’m from a big group of siblings, and we are hidden to humans. They call us the forgotten giants, you can find my sister little Tilde in Advedøre (name of an area) at the grassland, behind the hill filled with cows and sheep.’
Traversing little known semi-urban green spaces is a huge source of inspiration for Dambo, but biking also holds a special magic for him. His father is a bike mechanic with his own store in Odense, so he’s always been a keen cyclist for the joy of it and not just because it’s a sustainable way to get around. He avidly watches the Tour de France and other races, in between his international projects.
Hilltop Trine has the perfect hidden spots for camping: A cluster of shelters lie just behind the hill.
There are six giants to cycle between – but does he have a favorite? ‘It’d have to be Teddy Friendly! I’m really happy with that location, it’s a little piece of wild and completely forgotten nature in western Copenhagen called Hakkemosen. I had never seen this place before, with beautiful lakes and a little forest, and was really amazed that it existed. I made the sculpture next to a stream and made one arm reach to the other side of the stream, so it creates a bridge for small humans to cross. I think it’s a nice little story that the giant helps out visitors. I name all my sculptures after one of the volunteers who helped build them, and Teddy was named after a super nice guy who helped me for a week building and pulling nails out of all the old pallets we used.’
Finding the locations is also a part of the artistic process, and what better way to scout than by bike, of course! ‘I cycled around for a full week. I spoke to a lot of people and got help from my Facebook followers, asking for green spots, and then went and checked them out. It was a really nice thing to do, sometimes my girlfriend and I would look at some green spot on a map, and then cycle there to check it out and have a little picnic!’
GRIPSTER MAG’s Editor Martin Paldan has been visiting the Giants now and again on his bike rides around Copenhagen. ‘During my last visit this summer I kept running into tourists (from Scotland, USA, Australia, Germany) that somehow had heard about the Giants, mostly just by coincidence. They struggle a bit with finding them, but that is part of the reward when they finally get there. This project has evolved to be bigger than ´just for Copenhageners´- It is becoming a popular day trip for visitors too. The people who make it out there feel so cool about heading off the beaten track away from the classic Copenhagen tourist spots and experiencing something ´local´ and genuine.
There are so many elements to the ‘Forgotten Giants’ trail, but what does Dambo hope it will come to mean to his fellow Copenhageners? ‘I hope it will remind them that it is fun to go exploring and also that their trash might have value for someone else before they send it off to be burned or buried, somewhere someone could have had a picnic, sat on a recycled bench and looked at a recycled sculpture. I think everybody knows the term ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’, but sadly almost nobody understands the full meaning of it: it is not only about what treasures you might find amongst other peoples’ trash – what is more important is what you put in your rubbish bin. What I mean is: take responsibility for your own trash, recycle it or give it to someone who wants it.’
Dambo has been away from Copenhagen for some time now, working on a number of exciting new projects. He just finished his ‘Future Forest’ installation in Mexico City, an explosion of color featuring a river of plastic tubes and giant plastic bottle dandelion heads, in April 2018. He then moved on to ‘Troll Hunt’, six colossal trolls amongst the trees in Morton Arboretum in Chicago, finished in May 2018. For now, we are off on the trail of the Forgotten Giants, and we are very much hoping to see some of our readers there too.
WHERE TO LOOK FOR THE GIANTS
The Giants are spread out across western Copenhagen, with a maximum of 17 km between them and a minimum of only a few km. You can ride there using a city bike, gravel bike or mountain bike. Some sections are on gravel, so using a road bike is doable, but not ideal. These maps will guide you closer to the Giants but will not reveal their exact location – that part is up to you. Happy exploring!
For pictures of Thomas Dambo’s works and a world map of all his installations, visit thomasdambo.com.
Join Gripster Mag editor Martin Paldan and his son Carlos for a micro-adventure to Hilltop Trine – one of the Forgotten Giants.
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