Magazine article Artforum International

Carnal Knowledge

Magazine article Artforum International

Carnal Knowledge

Article excerpt

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.

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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. …

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