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Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia?

Office for Contemporary Art, Oslo, Norway

Leif Gabrielsen, Honningsvåg, 1968, Black and white photographs, 26.1 x 35.6 cm each. Courtesy of the artist.

Leif Gabrielsen, Honningsvåg, 1968, Black and white photographs, 26.1 x 35.6 cm each. Courtesy of the artist.

In 1960 the then US president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, described Scandinavia as a hotbed of ‘sin, suicide, socialism and smorgasbord’. Inspired less by prudishness than by rivalry-fuelled anxieties over the region’s prosperous leftist model of participatory democracy, the characterization stuck (and probably boosted tourism). It is precisely the intertwining of sex, politics and the Nordic countries’ relationship to the wider world that’s at the heart of ‘Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia?’, an ambitiously widescreen, century-spanning endeavour that resists the simple designation ‘exhibition’, despite the 200 art works and artefacts displayed in OCA’s handsome new galleries: from Edvard Munch’s saturnine lithograph of a literal femme fatale, Vampyr II (1895), to Harun Farocki’s fantasy-foiling, deconstructive film of a Playboy centrefold shoot, Ein Bild (An Image, 1983). But, spilling over into ancillary screenings, lectures, a mooted book and an exhibition guide that’s a heavily researched historical essay in itself, this is essentially a labour-of-love research project with a visual component.

So, what you may have missed: 19th-century Scandinavia pioneered sex reform, hitching it to individual rights and endorsing sex education and contraception for the working classes (at OCA, magazine illustrations from c. 1930 by Käthe Kollwitz feature children dragging their emaciated mother down). There’s a copy of Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Revolution here, because Reich spent much of the 1930s’ in Scandinavia while fleeing the Nazis, and there are books by his intellectual heir Herbert Marcuse, whose vouchsafing of play and free love as an escape from repressive societies shaped the hippie movement. And it’s here that the show really catches fire, because its curator, Marta Kuzma, is interested in repositioning the art of the 1960s and ’70s – both in and out of Scandinavia – through novel optics. The show isn’t arranged chronologically, and almost everywhere you look there’s visual argument for the trickle-down of sexual liberation into art and the counterculture: Lee Lozano’s Marcuse-influenced 1960s’ paintings transforming instruments of labour into sexual organs – phallic screw threads etc; Thomas Bayrle’s hot-coloured screen prints, from 1970, in which neat little repeated iterations of miniature breasts and penises are mechanically built into fellatio scenarios and spread-legged women; Dan Graham’s Detumescence (1966), an outsourced text describing what happens to the male physiology after orgasm. This, in other words, is not the traditional model of cerebral Conceptualism. It’s hot and sticky – and that, so the argument goes, is indirectly due to Scandinavia, which produced films such as Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967), which was the subject of a landmark legal case that transformed American censorship laws.

Sex in the ’60s and ’70s was a smokescreen for radical thought: look at these copies of the Evergreen Review: breasts on the outside, ‘new story by Beckett’ (those were the days) on the inside. Sex was politics, as in Marie-Louise Ekman’s droll feminist painting Striptease (1973), in which, panel by panel, a woman regresses to an ape, then to an evolved man. Sex was a battleground, as the show’s screening of Obscene (2007), a documentary about Grove Press’ founder, Barney Rosset – who went to court in order to publish D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) – reminds us. Often, though, sexuality here is interchangeable with unconstrained libidinal energy: Yayoi Kusama’s film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1967), with its wild fooling about putting dots on things in a wood (and its brilliantly woozy psychedelic soundtrack) has some nudity in it, but it doesn’t feel connected to sex. Nor, really, does Stan Brakhage’s 16 mm Prelude: Dog Man Star (1962), although that doesn’t stop this hypnotic, organic surge of diverse superimposed imagery from suggesting a lost world of mystic admiration for nature in all its forms.

Kuzma seems to have a sense of humour about the idea of sexualizing everything: this would explain why Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Gun Rifle (1960) is here, poking phallically from a corner. There are sheepskin rugs beside the stacks of monitors playing Jonas Mekas films, including his documentation of John and Yoko’s bed-in for peace. In the ’60s and ’70s, it’s jokily implied, slipping between the sheets was all anyone thought about. But the show’s undertone is markedly serious: Scandinavia and sex still go together in some minds, but there’s a chasm between the cliché of blonde nymphomaniacs consorting in saunas and the long-gestating arc towards emancipation that this show cogently delineates. Then again, and regarding the titular question: if this show doesn’t answer it, a Jägermeister-fuelled skiing holiday in Kvitfjell might.

Martin Herbert is a critic based in Berlin, Germany.

Issue 121

First published in Issue 121

March 2009
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