ART FEMINISM—STRATEGIES AND CONSEQUENCES IN SWEDEN FROM THE 1970S TO THE PRESENT
HELSINGBORG + STOCKHOLM + HUDIKSVALL + GÖTEBORG
In Stockholm, the travelling exhibition Konstfeminism—Strategier och effekter i Sverige från 1970-talet till idag [Art Feminism—Strategies and Consequences in Sweden from the 1970s to the Present] [Dunkers Kulturhus, Helsingborg; October 14, 2005—January 22, 2006; Liljevalchs Konsthall, Stockholm; June
17—September 3, 2006; Hälsinglands Museum, Hudiksvall; September 17— December 31, 2006; Göteborgs Konstmuseum, Göteborg; 13 January—April 15, 2007] featured work by over a hundred artists, mostly female and all closely connected to Sweden. It occupied over a thousand square meters, and was
accompanied by a heavy, three-hundred-page catalogue—a compendium of essays written primarily from an art historical viewpoint, and with a Swedish focus. Meanwhile, in the exhibition, the works shirked chronology to be presented in thematic clusters such as “queerness,” “the body,” and “activism.” The exhibition also clearly seeks to tackle a number of other issues. It revisits the work of certain forgotten artists. It anchors the writing of a history of Swedish feminist art and artists in documentation. It seeks to provide a historical perspective on the work of today’s feminist artists. It attempts to demonstrate that, for a significant number of artists, art and feminism are integrated endeavors rather than separate projects. Another of the exhibition’s point of departure is the belief that today’s feminist artists have more in common 1970s feminists than they do with 1980s and 1990s artists, whose work was deeply influenced by psychoanalysis. The fundamental assumption, here, is that younger feminists, having “freed” themselves from theory, have once again returned to some foundation feminist truth.
Linda Nochlin’s canonical text “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” readily comes to mind. In her introduction, she warningly predicted the initial effect of her titular question: many were indeed to “swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker, […] to dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated
women artists throughout history.” The attempt to validate earlier, unappreciated artists within a feminist context is in itself an unappreciated Sisyphean task—especially if, for instance, one intends to write into art history a small group of feminist textile artists from the Swedish west coast town of Gothenburg who were
active in the 1970s—a group highlighted in the exhibition, to which the catalogue dedicates a long essay.
A good many Swedish female artists gained enviable visibility in the 1980s, and especially in 1990s, and are included in the exhibition. Some, such as Annika von Hausswolff, Elin Wikström and Ann-Sofi Sidén, have enjoyed international careers. Work by many younger female artists is also included in Art
Feminism, and well represented in collections or sought after in other ways. While the work of some of these artists doesn’t necessarily advance a feministic agenda, it is inserted in the narrative of Swedish feminism, which the exhibition edits together. Pretty much any work can, of course, always be read in many ways by a certain kind of beholder—including she who seeks a feminist bent.
Many works show a great sense of humor and much irony. Still, the exhibition is very traditional, and unfortunately also very boring. Undoubtedly, this is a byproduct of the election a politically correct label—in this case, feminism—as the show’s core concept. Much of the blame can, of course, be placed here. In addition, the work’s very traditional installation does very little to help. So does the antiquated, modernist reverence of every artwork as a self-contained “holy icons” of the past, loaded with transcendent meaning.
As a result, the conservatism of the display instantly tames much of the work, even when neither it nor its feminist strategies are outdated. No doubt, museum- type presentations can substantially cool down even the hottest issues. Yet, a problem resides in some of the work. Much of the production of 1970s and 1980s proved to be didactic and literal, oversimplifying important issues—a danger that often lurks close to political and activist art.
Benefiting from a broader perspective, recent works speaks to the current situation in a more nuanced, refined way. When they are successful, these works can indeed tackle burning issues. Some of this recent work deserves a special mention as it manages to navigate the heavy context of history and feminism without becoming marginalized and swallowed up. Annika Larsson’s forty-four- minute DVD, Perfect Game, 1999, shows a number of men who, dressed in black suits, sit on the floor of a white room, playing a game of spillikins with very large sticks. Monotonous music and the players’ concentration create a hypnotic impression. The piece addresses power structures, invisible hierarchies, and the cliché that is masculine men in suits by putting our own prejudices to the test. Larsson intelligently and inexplicitly plays with our gaze, leaving interpretation open to complexity. By contrast, Gisela Schink’s photographic series Oh, It’s a Beaver, 1997, is very direct and explicit. These images of lubricated female crotches manage to portray female sexuality and lust in a very direct and straightforward way. Ironically enough, this makes many spectators avert their gaze, regardless of their gender. These images come dangerously close to tipping over into mere rhetorical posing. Yet, they manage to stay on the not-so-safe side because, among other things, of their environment’s familiarity and its air of domesticity. Other work hasn’t managed to survive even the 1990s as elegantly. It readily crossed the line and has unfortunately become a mere stereotype of a past decade’s rhetoric.
Exhibitions can indeed both represent and generate cross-fertilization between work of different generations or historical periods. Thematic exhibitions can also provide new frames of reference or contexts for thinking about works; they can allow us to see unforeseen aspects of works. In Art Feminism, however, the feminist theme proved too burdensome, the national scope too limiting. A lethal combination indeed is the marriage of nationalism and feminism.