PRINT March 2009


“Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia?”

IN ONE OF THE MANY VITRINES of books and ephemera installed at Oslo’s Office for Contemporary Art Norway during the recent exhibition “Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia?” was a magazine open to Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation.” The text—which famously closes with the argument that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”—had been selected as sample reading from a 1964 copy of the Evergreen Review, the American journal famous not only for its illustrious contributors (from Jorge Luis Borges to Malcolm X), but also for its confrontational frankness regarding matters sexual and political. Given the context—an exhibition and research project devoted precisely to the politics of sex in Scandinavian modernity and its resonances in a wider international context—this might seem like a curious choice. For, despite the word erotics, here meant to be read in the broadest possible sense, Sontag’s text could hardly be said to deal with sexual/political issues as one would ordinarily understand them. It takes more than one mental leap to figure out what her high-minded defense of artistic form, her call to abandon realist concerns with “content” in order to pay attention to the very surfaces or appearances of artistic expression, could possibly have to do with the famous history of sexual liberation in Scandinavia.

And yet, if you manage to sidestep the popular post-1960s fantasy of Scandinavian culture as a sex-crazed free-for-all whose “socialism” denoted, above all, the indiscriminate exchange of bodily fluids (a myth perpetuated via the sweaty-Swedes-in-saucy-sauna porn genre), there is something exactly right about “Against Interpretation” in this context. One of the merits of “Whatever Happened . . . ,” which was curated by Marta Kuzma and also included film screenings, publications, and a two-day conference, was its ability to grasp what I, for lack of better words, would call the peculiar aura of neutrality or innocence that surrounded the liberatory discourse of Scandinavian sexuality—its optimistic call to trash the ancient narratives of sin and shame and to replace them with a functionalist redescription of the human body and its various potentialities. For once, sex-in-Scandinavia is read not through the lens of its international reception (sinful Sweden!), but in terms of its own commitment to an essentially modernist project of cultural reformation. It was a project in which the much-celebrated “irrational” forces of desire went through a distinct, if ambivalent, process of domestication, and where an attention to the surfaces and states of the natural body was understood to contribute to an entirely new sense of order, beauty, and the common good.

It is a paradox, perhaps, that in order to present this very particular sensibility within the format of an art exhibition, one must resort to non-Scandinavian artistic sources. One registers, of course, the significance of works like Edvard Munch’s 1895 Vampyr II, whose shockingly frank depictions of the sexually active and powerful woman may have triggered the process of refiguring desire. But in 1895 female sexuality was still forced to function as a symbol of alien forces rather than as a realm of experience in its own right. To my mind, the work that best captures the Scandinavian attitude toward sex in its mature form is actually Yvonne Rainer’s 1968 Trio Film, a short black-and-white production in which dancers Steve Paxton and Becky Arnold move about in the nude among white modernist sofas, serenely passing a huge white inflatable ball to each other. It is not as if, during my Norwegian childhood, I would routinely see my parents and their friends jumping about naked in our living room—but something about the whole attitude of this film places it firmly within the realm of the familiar, the everyday visible. The key point is of course the antispectacular matter-of-factness of Rainer’s constantly mobile performers: Eschewing both dramatic buildup and balletic poses, their bodies are the products of a kind of flat, even-keeled visibility that is above all a refusal of the complex of cultural and psychological factors that interconnect narrative, seduction, and the gaze. In fact, the Cagean openness to “the world” that informs both Rainer’s dance aesthetics and Sontag’s “erotics” is here a concrete figure for a new kind of egalitarianism. These naked surfaces of skin, muscles, and hair—always in motion, exchangeable and exchanging—partake of an idyllic deflation of the drama of sexual difference or, more precisely, a displacement of that difference to another plane altogether: Once the body itself was no longer the stage for such drama, one could finally focus on the politics of difference as it played out in everyday life and work. Refusing both the spectacular and speculation, Rainer’s bodies speak to me of the no-nonsense tone in which sexual education was administered, the unflagging belief in the healthy body, and the deep suspicion of anything having to do with seduction, masquerade, or any of the familiar ruses of boudoir culture. It was an attitude that went back a few generations: I remember my own impeccably dressed grandmother, a lady who went pale at the thought of even minor breaches of social etiquette, briskly throwing off her clothes and jumping naked into the sea in any kind of weather. The lesson, linked to a distinct aesthetic mode that encompassed everything from music and clothing to garden design (lots of uncut grass!), was that the good naked body was a body of sensations at one with the forces of nature, not a body for display.

The sensibility evoked in Trio Film is in fact the product of not just one but a series of sexual revolutions that registered in the social and political fields in Scandinavia, but whose radicalism was not necessarily contemporaneous with expressions in the realm of visual art—or at least not on a very large scale. The problem with display itself—a problem peculiar to painting—was, for instance, never really systematically articulated in Nordic art until quite late: in fact, not until the generalization of avant-garde and neo-avant-garde strategies from the late ’80s on. Beyond the famous initial blows to bourgeois morality dealt by Munch and by the realist or naturalist painters, such as Christian Krohg, who were his teachers, what can be culled from the Nordic corpus for an exhibition like this are, by and large, the exceptional cases: Leif Gabrielsen’s late-’60s photo-diary of a day in the life of a tiny commune in the Norwegian city of Tromsø; Poul Gernes’s 1969 project Public Bath, which, documented here, dis- played his usual synthesis of abstraction and social engineering (in this case in the form of a functioning sauna installed atop a library); Marie-Louise Ekman’s burlesque, assertive body art; or the Happening-oriented work of Gruppe 66 or the Kanonklubben collective. The larger picture was necessarily filled in with the works of non-Nordic artists like Thomas Bayrle, Valie Export, Yayoi Kusama, Lee Lozano, Carolee Schneemann, Paul Sharits, and Barbara T. Smith, whose enchanted forest of luminous phallic translucent-resin shapes (Field Piece, 1968–72) served as the exhibition’s centerpiece. The sex-in-Scandinavia story was, then, not simply presented as the history of one time, place, and context, but was read in terms of its distributed effects. One was invited to trace numerous parallels between modern Nordic body culture and the radical refiguring of both art objects and subject bodies that was enacted in the performative and participatory art of the ’60s. This story starts in the 1880s, as the “bohemian” subcultures of the Scandinavian capitals started their fight for free love and for the exposure of prostitution as a class-based form of exploitation: Their first major triumphs were the introduction of suffrage for women in Finland (1906) and Norway (1913). With the Norwegian Women’s Federation of the workers’ movement, the struggle for suffrage was accompanied by a fight for sex education and for a redefinition of motherhood as a personal choice rather than as a sacred duty. Later, the overall concern with the health and well-being of the population took a turn through the revisionist psychoanalysis of Wilhelm Reich, whose antifascist politics of desire informed Scandinavian debates thanks to the public controversies generated by his five-year stay in Norway in the ’30s (during which he published The Sexual Revolution [1936]). The moment desire could be seen as immediately operative within the social field without the mediating function of sublimation, the political value of a nonrepressive relation to sexuality took on a whole new meaning. It was an idea that returned in the feminist movements of the ’60s, reinforced by similar themes in Herbert Marcuse’s writings—a few golden years when the question of sexuality still served to trace a horizon at once critical and utopian.

Then Nordic feminism discovered the horrors of pornography and everything seemed to change. The concept of the good naked body paled beside the specter of the exploited body and the accompanying notion of sexuality itself as the problem of feminism. Rapidly, “sex” came to denote not liberation but abuse—a development that has only gained momentum with the last decade’s focus on pedophilia. “Whatever Happened . . . ” ends with the utopian/critical moment of four decades ago. It is hard not to measure the distance between that moment and the new abuse discourse, or to avoid reflecting on the way in which the imagery of über-femininity and other spectacular forms of visual display were at once foregrounded and “undermined” in both art and fashion from the late ’70s onward. And it is particularly difficult not to wonder about the revisionist impulse at work in the Scandinavian obsession with “abject art” in the early ’90s. Apart from such work’s connection to an international art trend, the question of the ambivalent childhood entry into lawful sociality, with its restricted economy of desire, here seemed to function as a highly vocal reaction against the very order of Nordic biopolitics and its emphasis on healthy, de-dramatized sexuality. For some years, art galleries in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, and Oslo were littered with the soiled or otherwise desublimated signifiers of modern Scandinavian living (the modest checked fabrics decorating so many Nordic homes come to mind). Today, however, it seems more urgent to try to understand the peculiar productivism of Finnish composer Erkki Kurenniemi’s 1972 “sexophone”—an instrument, officially known as the DIMI-S synthesizer, that generates sound through skin contact, directly transmitting the affective states of the body. (Alas, the sexophone itself was not in the exhibition, but a 1964 film by Kurenniemi eloquently suggested the association between bodies of sensation and the generation of signals.) Through such strategies, Kurenniemi not only inverted music’s conventional chain of emotional causation, by placing affect at the level of production rather than at the level of response, he also formulated a challenge to representation in art, whose deeper implications we are still only beginning to unfold. Channeling Sontag’s “erotics” through all those display-resistant bodies, this is in fact the key question opened up by revisiting those days of “Scandinavian sex.”

Ina Blom is an associate professor of art history at the University of Oslo.