Left: Art historian Rune Gade. Right: OCA Norway director Marta Kuzma with Pablo Lafuente, OCA associate curator and managing editor of Afterall. (All photos: Vegard Kleven)

“WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SEX IN SCANDINAVIA?” is not nudge-nudge, wink-wink, dirty-old-man innuendo, but rather an ambitious exhibition and series of public events at the newly relocated Office of Contemporary Art (OCA) in Oslo. Having lived in Scandinavia since the 1980s and having witnessed massive changes in sexual culture since I moved here, I eagerly caught a short-hop from Stockholm last Wednesday to attend the two-day symposium marking the show’s conclusion.

The exhibition’s titular question inevitably invokes the famous 1962 film starring Bette Davis. Her character in that film, “Baby” Jane Hudson, has gone from being a spritely ingenue to a grotesque madwoman. A key scene has a gorgonlike Davis staring into a mirror, searching in vain for any remains of her former grace.

That unsettling image is arguably an apt one for what has in fact happened to sex in Scandinavia. From being admired and envied by many as beacons of sexual enlightenment in the 1960s and ’70s, the Scandinavian countries today have some of the most repressive sex laws in the Western world. Sweden is the most draconian. The country that gave the world Anita Ekberg, I Am Curious (Yellow), and the racy phrase “the Swedish sin” has been actively discussing how it might limit or ban pornography for over a decade. Its policies regulating HIV and AIDS seem devised in Pyongyang, not Stockholm: Everyone in Sweden who tests HIV-positive is officially registered, legally obligated to disclose their HIV status to anyone with whom they have any kind of sexual encounter, required to report to a doctor regularly and answer detailed questions about their sex life, and liable to forced, indefinite internment if they refuse to meet with that doctor or if their doctor believes that they are having or may have unprotected sex. Sweden was also the first country in the world, in 1999, to pass a national law criminalizing only the clients of sex workers—so selling sex remains legal (for the moment), but buying it is not. Norway recently followed Sweden’s example, but went even further—it is not only now illegal to purchase sexual services in Norway but also a crime for a Norwegian citizen to purchase sexual services anywhere, even in places like the Netherlands or Germany where prostitution is entirely legal. The message conveyed by a law like that is clear: Your sexuality is the property of the state, and the state will claim its right to regulate and punish that sexuality, wherever you may be.

So whatever, indeed, happened to sex in Scandinavia? The Oslo exhibition, curated by OCA’s dynamic director, Marta Kuzma, emerged from an essay with that title that she published in the journals Afterall and ISMS. The essay, which also forms the basis of the pocket-size catalogue distributed at the entrance, discusses the social, political, and artistic context of the Scandinavian sexual revolution. The groundwork for said revolution had been laid earlier in the century through social-reformist movements, welfare policies, and campaigns promoting sexual education, contraception, and voluntary motherhood. By the ’60s, that earlier history had been supplemented with postwar affluence, an unprecedented growth in access to higher education, a growing dissatisfaction with the conservative basis of many of the earlier sexual reforms (which were heavily influenced by eugenics, traditional gender roles, and the desire to produce a robust, sturdy, “healthy” population), and, importantly, the Vietnam War, which created a vortex around which the baby-boomer generation could organize and stage mass protests.

Left: Art historians Rune Gade and Wencke Mühleisen. Right: Artist Elsebet Rahlff and art historian Knut Ove Arntzen.

The exhibition is sprinkled throughout OCA’s gorgeous new gallery space in a former textile factory and is an eclectic and entertaining collection of paintings, prints, sculpture, newspaper clippings, films, and comic books from the height of the era of “sexual liberation.” Many of the works are Scandinavian, but quite a few are not, thus reflecting Kuzma’s goal both to illuminate what happened in Scandinavia during those years and to contextualize Norway, Sweden, and Denmark within larger international trends. The exhibition is dominated by two works: a section of Barbara T. Smith’s fiberglass-resin sculpture Field Piece, 1968–72, which resembles giant grass or hair and into which visitors are invited to step if they remove their shoes (but not, alas, their clothes, as it seems from the archival material was Smith’s original plan), and Lee Lozano’s 1964 untitled painting of a massive phallus in the shape of an elongated nut and bolt.

The symposium occupied much of the OCA’s project room. It brought together artists, academics, students, and interested laypersons and focused on the avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s. The topics discussed ranged from the processes and provocations that led to censorship laws finally being abolished in the late ’60s to a historical account of how Situationist action art came to express itself in Scandinavia. Those more academic discussions were complemented by panel discussions with and presentations by artists like Elsebet Rahlff, Kirsten Justesen, and Morten Krohg, who were active in influential movements like Bergen’s Gruppe 66, Copenhagen’s Kanonklubben, and Oslo’s Gras Group. The discussions with artists were framed mostly as reminiscences, not analyses, but they nevertheless provided some poignant insights into the gender dynamics of the time. That feminism had not yet been articulated in the early years of the avant-garde was evident in Rahlff’s remarks on how she felt about being the only female member of Gruppe 66. Sounding more like Simone de Beauvoir or Margaret Mead than Gloria Steinem or Andrea Dworkin, Rahlff told the audience she was very happy and proud that none of the male members of Gruppe 66 had ever treated her like a woman.

Several films were screened during the symposium. Gunvor Nelson’s remarkable deconstruction of a striptease, Take Off (1972), showed just how avant-garde the best avant-garde work of the time really was. But the film that best captured the era’s zeitgeist was Öyvind Fahlström’s Du Gamla, Du Fria (1971)—the opening lines of the Swedish national anthem (a sort of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”). Du Gamla, Du Fria is an overlong I Am Curious–like documentary of the activist antics of a group of young artists who want to overthrow the state. The forms of protest they devise seem embarrassingly puerile today—for example, repeatedly shouting “Mao Tse-tung” in front of the Swedish royal family’s castle or smearing their clothing and a few ten-kronor banknotes with human feces and standing outside a bank to call attention to the “shittiness” of capitalism.

Left: Art historian Gertrud Sandqvist. Right: Artists Dan Graham, Barbara T. Smith, and Thomas Bayrle in the audience at the symposium.

That film, and the discussions during the symposium that detailed the political sympathies of many of the artists of the time, ended up being important clues to understanding whatever happened to sex in Scandinavia. What emerged—more between the lines than explicitly during the two days of talks—was that the political movements to which many of the artists were committed were ultimately not particularly interested in sex. In fact, those movements—most of which were Maoist or Marxist-Leninist of the most dogmatic sort—could never be termed sex-positive by even the most sympathetic apologist. Although the artists who produced lithographs of Mao as the rising sun and who supported the Baader-Meinhof Group enjoyed the provocation that the depiction of naked bodies and sexual activities allowed them, they were clearly more committed to ending capitalism than to furthering a sexual revolution. (A scene in Du Gamla, Du Fria in which a female group member is bullied into going along with the shit-smearing demonstration is a painful reminder of just how intolerant of difference those movements were.)

Historians have shown that the real force behind the sexual-liberation movement in Scandinavia was not the Maoists or the Marxist-Leninists but the political liberals, who protested the government’s involvement in what they saw as private areas of life, like how one sought erotic pleasure. Those liberals were largely young, middle-class men who rejected the radical politics of the artistic avant-garde. These men ultimately succeeded in their efforts to abolish censorship and even in liberalizing abortion laws. (Scandinavian women’s rights’ groups were at first largely opposed to the liberals’ call for abortion on demand because they argued that if it were too easy for women to have an abortion, they would be more vulnerable to male demands for sex.) But as soon as second-wave feminism arrived in the late ’60s, those men and their defense of pornography and sexual liberation were the objects of a backlash.

The most influential feminist groups in Scandinavia arose out of leftist political organizations. They rejected the liberal perspective as being irreparably patriarchal, and they emphasized the danger, rather than the pleasure, of sex. During the late ’70s and ’80s, as both those feminists and many of the male activist/artists represented in the Oslo exhibition moved into positions of political and cultural power in what by then had become the mainstream culture, their disinterest in or even hostility to sexual liberalism came to be the new norm. And so we end up with a renewed reassertion of state investment in its citizens’ sexual behavior and with the concomitant efforts to ban cable channels that broadcast pornography; laws that empower the internment, without a criminal trial, of people with HIV who have unprotected sex and that criminalize consensual sexual activity between two adults if one of them receives remuneration. In this light, the art exhibited in the OCA exhibition, and the discussions held during the two-day symposium, formed a kind of mirror into which one could peer to catch a glimpse of a dynamic past, but in which it was also hard to avoid seeing the reflection of a much grimmer and altogether less attractive present.

Don Kulick