Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia?

Marta Kuzma, Pablo Lafuente

Office for Contemporary Art Norway and Koenig Books, London, 2011

Kritikk Artikkel på Norsk|05.03.12

Aestheticized History of Sexual Politics

Marta Kuzma and Pablo Lafuente (eds.), Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia?, 2011. Photo: OCA / Asle Olsen.

In Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia? the editors Marta Kuzma and Pablo Lafuente ask what was happening with sexuality in Scandinavia in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but the focus centers on the political, intellectual, and artistic discourse surrounding sexuality and sex. The anthology is connected to the exhibition of the same name shown at OCA (Office for Contemporary Art Norway) three years ago. Included were international artists such as Lee Lozano, Barbara T. Smith, Claes Oldenburg, Sanja Ivekovic, Carolee Schneemann, and Stan Brakhage, as well as Norwegian participants like Sidsel Paaske, Leif Gabrielsen, and Gruppe 66. The rationale of the exhibition was somewhat unclear, a limitation extending into the book and intensified there.

Selection from the book Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia? Photo: OCA / Asle Olsen.

In print Whatever Happened to Sex is a visually seductive publication. The book, the size of a telephone catalog, offers an unruly mix of articles, artworks, and historical documentation. The reader steadily encounters new surprises amid the tension between dry nonfiction and full frontal nudity. There is everything from facsimiles of printed diaries and handwritten notations, manifestoes, posters, newspaper articles, reports, comic strips, and film scripts, to photographic documentation of art works and video- and film stills. Front and title pages from a series of periodicals also appear, from Norwegian publications like Tidsskrift for seksualøkonomi (Journal of Sexual Economy) and Mot Dag (Toward Day), to more daring American contributions like Evergreen and Tits & Clits. Although periodicals and books can have a function in an exhibition, they can become problematic in this context where the material is neither interpreted nor contextualized. These front pages say nothing about the sexual-political discourse these journals generated, and ends up as a fetishizing of archival material. Thus OCA joins a larger trend in the field of art which can sometimes have bizarre results. A relevant example is the hundred notebooks published in the front of Documenta 13, in which one of the items is Georg Lukács’ handwritten 1913 notebook in Hungarian—a publication which scarcely has interest for anyone other than pathological Lukács fans and/or handwriting experts.

Selection from the book Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia? Photo: OCA / Asle Olsen.

What then of the theme of the exhibition and the book? The key to what the editors describe as a research project should ideally be found in the text of Kuzma’s introduction. Its point of origin is the 1968 impounding by American customs agents of Vilgot Sjöman’s film I Am Curious – Yellow. However, the opponent of censorship Barney Rosset acquired distribution rights for showing the picture in film clubs, and audiences streamed into theaters even after it became clear that Sjöman’s pseudo-documentary film was more political than erotic. A comprehensive discussion led President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint a commission to investigate the possible harmful effects of pornography. The conclusion was not only that pornography was harmless, but that in some cases it could be useful. As a result Congress rescinded censorship of pornographic material in the USA. When so much space in Kuzma’s introduction is given to the story of I Am Curious – Yellow it is presumably because so many of the historical, ideological, and art-historical lines culminate there. This is where a hundred-year-long struggle for sexual-political freedom goes from being a cause forwarded by smaller specialized groups like sexologists, social scientists, radicals, and feminists to being a larger countercultural force and finally a part of the political mainstream—at least in Scandinavia. But cashing in on the political victories (in Norway, the introduction of free abortion and the removal of the section in the penal code forbidding homosexuality) marks simultaneously the beginning of the end of this struggle in the Nordic countries.

Installation view from the exhibition Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia? at OCA, 2008-2009. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

The goals of the project are not formulated explicitly in Kuzma’s text. One must go to the exhibition’s press release, reproduced in the catalog, to find something resembling formulations of the goals of this “research project”. There one reads that “This project examines the historical roots of sex-reform as a political initiative […], and intends to open up and provoke questions about this history, and related artistic and cultural production.” The project has a wide reach across time and geography, revolving around five main elements: (1) a Norwegian axis running from the painters Christian Krohg and Edvard Munch, through Norwegian champions of women’s rights like Katti Anker Møller and Elise Ottesen-Jensen, to Situationism’s impact in Norway; (2) a Swedish axis starting with Sjöman’s diary notations, Susan Sontag’s A Letter from Sweden, and Øyvind Fahlström; (3) an axis involving American avant-garde films with texts by Stan Brakhage, Barbara Rubin, and Jonas Mekas; (4) a fourth, called Notes from the underground, consisting of reproductions of front pages of publications like Screw, Tits & Clits, and Gateavisa; (5) a fifth involving a series of texts by Marxist theorists such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse.

Selection from the book Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia? Photo: OCA / Asle Olsen.

In these many axes lie something of the project’s strength and limitation. The strength is in the great multitude of phenomena brought into view. The limitation is partly that the lines connecting them remain unclear. This becomes clearest when it comes to art. The paintings, sculptures, and performance-documentaries from the exhibition are scarcely mentioned. As a result one never receives any knowledge about how these works are related to the historical landscape that’s sketched out. Nevertheless the book’s greatest weakness is that so little of the material is new. Apart from Kuzma’s introduction we find only two newly written contributions. The first is historian Håvard Friis Nilsen’s meticulous article on Wilhelm Reich’s sexual-political ideas, his time in Norway, and his relationship to Communism and Trotsky. Nilsen maps Reich’s political development from the point in 1933 when he writes The Mass Psychology of Fascism, in which he asserts that NSDAP succeeded in channeling the repressed sexuality of voters from the lower middle class into a political force. His underlying idea was that the traditional patriarchal family structure produced neuroses on a large scale. To abolish traditional family structures was thus one of the revolution’s most important tasks. Reich thought the Soviet Union worked toward this goal in the first years after 1917 but quickly turned back to the traditional family as an ideal, and that the Soviet state additionally anointed itself a cult of leader-worship reminiscent of the German under Hitler. Nilsen documents that Reich and Trotsky met secretly in Norwegian exile in 1934, and that Reich’s ideas found their way into Trotsky’s writings. Precisely this conjunction of Freudian thought and Marxism acquired no great meaning at that time, but via Adorno, Horkheimer, Deleuze, and Guttari, Reich ended up as a countercultural darling of the 1960s. The volume’s other newly written contribution is theater expert Knut Ove Arntzen’s article about Situationism’s impact in Denmark and Norway in the 1960s and 1970s. Arntzen brings out how the idea of art as lived life and social action in Norway resulted among other things in Gruppe 66 creating The partnership exhibition—a didactic show that focused on abortion, the body, contraception, and partnership.

Selection from the book Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia? Photo: OCA / Asle Olsen.


Selection from the book Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia? Photo: OCA / Asle Olsen.

With so few new texts, much rides and falls with Kuzma’s introduction. Here one expects the logic underlying the gathering of texts to be explained, and some of the materials to be interpreted. This is not done. Kuzma’s historical method is problematic. Historical events and contributions to the history of ideas are consistently interpreted in the light of Marcuse’s texts, in that they either “point forward to” or “confirm” Marcuse’s theories. Such a harmonizing of history with existing theory undercuts the stated ambition of creating a new vision of the past. That Marxism is presented as the only ideological force in the struggle for sexual freedom in the 1900s is also surprising in light of the fact that most of the gender- and sexual-political reforms in the West have been pressed forward by liberals, democrats, and social democrats. Nor are other important causes of the sexual revolution, like birth-control pills and secularization, mentioned. That the text contains misleading and inaccurate information doesn’t improve the situation. I’ll keep to just one example. The ten-line section on Kai Fjell says that the painter participated in projects that departed from the conventional exhibition model. Here as often elsewhere no source is given, but the assertion is nonetheless inaccurate. Fjell took part in a series of exhibitions in the 1930s, none of which departed from conventional exhibition modes of that time. It is also pointed out that Fjell was politically active, but Kuzma does not mention that Fjell’s political life was an unpredictable affair that included membership in both the Socialist Cultural Front and the Norwegian National Socialist Party. That pictures like The Glove Seamstress and Wise Women are read as “empowering images of women” is also surprising since Fjell’s presentations of women are some of the most objectifying and misogynistic in Norwegian art. Another limitation is the lack of critical distance. This is clearest in the rendering of Scandinavia in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, which is marked by a distanced, almost exoticizing vision. The perspective here lies strangely close to the stereotype of the region as a utopia where social equality and sexual freedom flourish. It makes odd reading when one thinks of the many repressive sides of this society, such as forced sterilization, abandoning of illegitimate children, and laws against sodomy. To paraphrase Marcuse, Kuzma’s introduction resembles “a one-dimensional narrative” a historiography in which harmonization has been more important than trying to show the past as a complex phenomenon full of opposed tendencies and forces. All of this means that the book doesn’t become the contribution to research it has ambitions to be. But if OCA’s exhibition and book project don’t contribute to revising history, they succeed nevertheless in bringing the past into the light in an interesting and attractive way. The project also reminds us also that the attempt to achieve sexual-political freedom isn’t finished. You understand that as soon as you turn your gaze toward the world outside Western Europe, or toward marginalized groups in our own society like transgendered people and muslim homosexuals.

Translation from the Norwegian by Richard Simpson.

Selection from the book Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia? Photo: OCA / Asle Olsen.

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