PRINT February 1995


Swedish Winter

SHE-DEVILS THE MOVIE (1989) has been strangely underestimated as a seminal political text, not only about fattie empowerment but about the relation between art and life itself. As the fat, cheated-upon homemaker with no marketable skills, the Roseanne character harnesses a pulsating geyser of revolutionary affect and redirects it into breadwinning power, setting up a displaced-homemaker employment agency to commodify unpaid feminine laborers into market-savvy agents of revenge. Years later, in real life, the Stop the Insanity lady would work this script for real, overcoming fat and a nogoodnik husband to achieve thinness, capital, and now apotheosis as talk-show hostess. A total press magnet in ’94, the Stop the Insanity lady mostly fascinates me by the uncanny way she acted out the She-Devils housewife revenge-fantasy in real life. While I can’t say whether she actually saw the film, I have always believed you should be careful about what texts you consume—you may wind up living them.

It came as something of a surprise, nevertheless, to discover myself roped into the plot line of an early Woody Allen short story that gave me a frisson of foreboding years ago. Allen’s “Whore of Mensa” features a nice Jewish doctoral candidate who supplements her stipend by turning tricks on the side: discussing lofty ideas with people who are intellectually frustrated. Since I daylight as a pedagogue, getting into heavy textual discussions with any schmendrick who can get into a seminar, my ethical high road has more than a slight odor of the world’s oldest profession. I greet often clumsy advances responsively, indulge freakish trains of thought with the poker face of a hardened pro, shamelessly encourage the boring, and treat half-baked gibberish as if it were a cogent point, saving the client’s face by making him seem sentient and desirable before the group. While some may claim what I do is sickeningly decadent—coddling the weak in the name of cultural populism—I see it as a day’s work.

The distinction between prostitute and professor is finer than we suspect: both sell things most people expect for free, i.e., sex and encouragement. For the world to be enchanted, my friends, it must be libidinized in fantasy: I understand my school better when I think of it as a pimp with a large vocabulary. As a particularly fetishized version of pseudo-academic work, art writing itself has ossified into a kind of prosthetic genital—something not read but rather measured by the inch, standing up for the career potency or infirmity of the artist. A cover feature in Artforum, for example, is the textual equivalent of really expensive lingerie. So what’s not to like? All I know is one day I’m looking for a nice pair of chunky-heeled boots in Chicago, the next I’m on a plane to Sweden, custom-ordered to service the voracious esthetic needs of a school full of intellectually starved Swedish art students two hours north of Stockholm by plane.

My acquaintance with Scandinavia consisting of a loose assemblage of brand names (lkea, Absolut, Saab, lngmar Bergman), I was grateful to find my host art school, Umea Universitat, a hotbed of Arctic glamour. My host was Stig Sjolund, the Bob Fosse–worshiping head of painting, whose soulful eyes and gentle manner provided an intriguing contrast to his black leather vest and whip. His affable sidekick was Dennis Dahlquist, a critic, gallerist, and international mover and shaker usually sporting designer togs hoarded on furtive shopping trips to NYC and Century 21. Even Swedish TV was fascinating: one game show presented a lineup of average-looking people, the task was to guess who had a tattoo. On another, a woman was challenged to eat a powdered donut without licking her lips; the whole studio audience watched, rapt, as she ate and, alas, licked.

Despite the relatively buzz-free art season in NYC this year, there’s still the vague sensation elsewhere, like a NutraSweet aftertaste of hierarchy in our increasingly decentralized world, that no art gesture is complete without NYC attention. As you would expect, as the walking gaze of Artforum, I was bribed abroad with the usual extravagant offerings of flattery and free coffee. In an “anonymous” interview, “Masked Philosopher” Michel Foucault once discussed this absurd sense of the scarcity of cultural outlets, which sets everyone griping, “waiting in line” for “their turn,” only to get replaced by the next “marginalized” voice the minute their turn is labeled, recognized, and therefore “over.” Rather than a dearth of ideas and practices, Foucault saw a plethora of stuff; the task of the interesting person would be to “multiply the paths of comings and goings, which doesn’t mean—as it is often feared—the homogenization and leveling by the low, but on the contrary, the differentiation and simultaneity of different networks”—the making of weird alliances that don’t pass through “normal” institutionalized channels.

Now that the art market is down, esthetic libido can be released through a new, kinder-gentler, service-oriented kind of neo-early-’70s esthetic, with events and connections that are not about producing commodity objects—offering exciting new ways not to make money! In a recent project led by my host Stig (NOTE: any name mentioned in this text represents a bribe consisting of one (1) kilo of herring and a cute reindeer), students took over the running of a restaurant in Stockholm, bugged the restaurant’s plants, and collected the gossip they recorded on tape—the artwork as gossip collection. Another student, Ingrid, installed a cafe for taxi drivers in a gallery, providing coffee and pastries, but none showed up. Another “real” event in Stockholm, a “noncompetitive” 24-hour environment called “New Reality Mix,” included Rirkrit Tirivanija, the guy who is cooking his way across Europe’s museums; a wheelchair-bound artist offering help; and a floor show featuring Stig. Leading four scantily clad art students (ranging in age from 20 to 45), the Head-of-Painting lip-synched to a number from Victor/Victoria in garters, pumps, and an ambiguous mini with fluffy pom-poms bobbing at crotch and butt. I almost forgave him for not warning me to pack for the school’s Las Vegas night.

Hardened by the American art-school context, I went like a little tank armored with something for everyone: explanations for those who demanded explanations, fun on demand for those who demanded fun. Umea turned out to be this art-incubating idyll with no p.c. police. Knowing what I did of Sweden’s excellent national health-care, I puzzled over what appeared to be tooth rot among the boys. It turned out to be snuff: we were in very butch country, it turned out, up north.

There being only four hours of daylight, a grueling Arctic glamour marathon was scheduled to occupy me. Organized like an outdoor pedestrian mall, the petite university town of Umea, I later learned, was rife with religious fundamentalists and “militant vegetarians.” The ambiance of the karaoke bar was disparagingly described by one of the students as “ Polish nightclub”; the karaoke machine had eerily wholesome-seeming videos featuring ABBA-like people cavorting to mostly Elvis.

I was almost sated with Arctic glamour but the highlight was still ahead—a road trip to Lapland to visit Santa in Mala, home of the lyrical Sames, indigenous people long ago colonized by the Swedes, now keepers of the reindeer, a misty spiritual mountain, and family recreation facilities. The rhythmic, dynamic Same language features hundreds of words for “snow” and no gender distinction. More interesting still, approximately one-fourth of the vocabulary relates to reindeer. It was a long way from New Jersey to Mala, and it was bitter cold, but I could have sworn I saw the same Same quilted picture-frames at a craft cart in the Menlo Park Mall.

While Stig was hoping to find romantic prospects in the vodka belt, the mood at the hotel bar Saturday night was dominated by a ski school of boisterous ten-year-olds enjoying an après-ski supper. Though we dined on stir-fry reindeer, we creative types hadn’t schlepped up to Lapland just to digest cute game: we had cultural work to do. Our photo shoot: the Jewish Princess persecuted by Santa, Santa Lucia, and Star Boy (a Swedish Yuletide figure). On a sled pulled by a rented reindeer and tended by an apparently-not-pissed-off authentic Same person in fur pants, we created a cultural tableau in the bitter cold: another glamorous portrait of the Jew-WASP relation for the archive.

Considering myself an ambassadress of sunshine and love from one art institution to another, I implemented a new channel of pedagogical exchange between my Swedish colleagues and my home institution: Professor Rhonda’s Swedish-American Love Connection, a video dating service connecting quality art students from Chicago to Umea and back. Each customer, I mean student, supplies their name, astrological sign, and interests on video. What I’m offering is a chance for emerging artists to add a branch to their international friendship tree—or find a partner for life. Enlivened by this chance to redirect and multiply the flows of cultural exchange, I want to share the excitement with my dear readers at Artforum—maybe because it’s the February issue, Valentine’s month. Imagine the new outlets for love and sharing, in addition to the usual cultural stimulation, that Artforum’s elegant pages could provide through personal ads. For example:

Post-Marxist ideologue seeks down-to-earth Frida Kahlo fetishist—no fatties! Or:

Postcolonial Whitney Program grant-writing expert seeks professional homosexual for rabble-rousing, conference-cruising, and shmoozing. Or:

Buxom, young-at-heart art dealer seeks quiet long-haired gestural-painter-boy for romantic strolls through ABC Carpet. Or:

Sassy bad-girl with attitude seeks same.


Sorry. I just want to help.

Rhonda Lieberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.