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'Sweden is not mature enough for satire'

'Sweden is not mature enough for satire'

Published: 11 Jan 2013 15:00 GMT+01:00
Updated: 11 Jan 2013 15:00 GMT+01:00

Photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin heckled the Swedish royal family and now her art is paying the price, with a photo agency pulling the plug on her right to buy its pictures. What does it mean for her, her work, and Swedish satire? The Local's Ann Törnkvist finds out.

Ohlsson Wallin’s move towards satire was inspired by the Muhammad caricatures in Denmark, and its Swedish equivalent, Lars Vilks's Roundabout Dog that portrayed the Muslim prophet as a dog.

"A lot of big names defended the Roundabout Dog on the grounds of free speech, but I always thought that it was kicking someone when they’re down," Ohlsson Wallin says.

"I wanted to see what happens if you kick upwards on the social ladder."

RELATED PHOTO GALLERY: Click here for images by Ohlson Wallin

At the moment, Ohlson Wallin is wrapping up an eight-part collage series of satirical images depicting major news and political issues from 2012.

The image that has kicked up the biggest fuss portrays Sweden's king and queen in dubious surroundings - he's eating pizza off the naked body of singer Camilla Henemark, while his German-born wife is trying to scrub a swastika off the floorboards.

"The people who rushed to defend the Roundabout Dog were not at all the same voices who came to my defence when my picture was published," Ohlsson Wallin notes.

"If this has taught me one thing it's that Sweden is a tiny country where a lot of people depend on the royal family, be that career-wise, financially or socially."

The collage infuriated the Swedish Royal Court.

And on Tuesday, Scanpix, the country's biggest editorial image bureau that has near-exclusive access to the royals, told Ohlsson Wallin she was no longer allowed to buy pictures from them for her montages.

"I don’t want to embark on conspiracy theories, and maybe we'll never know why Scanpix made this decision, but maybe they are dependent on the royal family?" she muses.

The reactions to her work tell her Sweden is not mature enough for satire, which she says isn't meant to be kind.

"We have to learn to heckle and fuss and raise a stink; we have to become more passionate. You know, we drink tonnes and have alcoholism problems yet we never say what we think, we’re too polite, and too afraid of conflict."

She also faced flack from some feminist commentators, not only over the naked Henemark, but also over Sweden's Queen Silvia being portrayed as a cleaning lady.

"They said I shouldn't hold a woman responsible for the sins of her father. But I didn't hang the swastika around her neck, I put it on the floor," she says.

She feels the queen could represent the Swedish people, who have never really dealt with a principle of neutrality in World War II that in practice saw Sweden let German soldiers use the country's railways.

"We haven't dealt with that past yet. Maybe Silvia represents the Swedish people, trying over and over to wash away our Nazi-tainted past."

Courting controversy has given Ohlson Wallin exposure, but she is not completely alone. She says there is some good Swedish satire out there, mostly on the radio and the political cartoons in the newspapers.

But because she works with photography, "which people still think is a slice of reality," she believes her art is especially vulnerable to attack. But, she says, it is more needed than ever.

"Satire is especially important when our political parties are all becoming more centrist, so we have to sort out all these political terms and questions to avoid confusion," she explains.

Apart from the ire of the royals and Scanpix, there have been questions about the artistic merit of Ohlsson Wallin's work. Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) art critic Clemens Poellinger, for example, said the satiric ambition had fallen short because the work was "a chop job in Photoshop".

The soft-spoken Ohlson Wallin, who has just slipped a snus under her lip, looks suddenly depleted of energy when the topic comes up.

"I don’t have any aesthetic ambitions. I can even agree that these collages are not aesthetically pleasing, I mean, no galleries have asked to show them. But art doesn’t have to be beautiful enough to hang on the dining room wall," she says.

"Their artistic quality is another debate. It's fine to have it but it risks dampening the real debate, about what the collages say, about satire in Sweden, about the reaction to them, and about democracy."

She also says that several observers have insisted on the derogatory phrase "photo manipulation" when talking about her work, when collage is a recognized artistic medium.

"Swedes need to learn that it's okay to laugh at the politicians," she says wistfully.

Several of Sweden's top politicians also feature in the collages, and Ohlson Wallin has not been kind to the people who have made it into her artwork.

The prime minister wearing a urine-soaked diaper in a mock-up of an H&M advertisement is just one example. It was inspired by the scandals surrounding suspected cost-cutting by private companies now operating in the state-financed elderly care sector.

"I actually learned that they weigh the old people's diapers for medical reasons, to keep a tally on the severity of their incontinence. But the pee-soaked diaper had such symbolic value in the debate that I decided to use it," she says.

Politicians are far from her only subject, she has also dabbled in photographing celebrities to tell a story. Ohlson Wallin again courted controversy with a picture of Swedish glamour model Carolina Gynning, who in some angles bears a striking resemblance to Pamela Andersson (and not just because she is blonde and big-chested).

It was taken just after Gynning took out her huge silicone breast implants and replaced them with smaller ones.

The stitches shine through the white tape on her surgical scars. Her make-up free face is turned to one side. In her hands, she cups the old implants.

"I smeared them in fake blood," Ohlson Wallin says.

Ann Törnkvist

Follow Ann on Twitter here

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Your comments about this article

15:36 January 11, 2013 by voiceofreason
I guess she can show some maturity by satiring her parents :)
17:21 January 11, 2013 by Eric1
Vulgarity isn't satire. Get a dictionary woman.
23:00 January 11, 2013 by thecritic
A very important thing that this Beeeearch doesn't seem to understant is that if this was mohammad or the muslims that she picked on...she would be in hiding now!!!
01:07 January 12, 2013 by Apfelmuss
Satire, throughout history, has always served to mock authority and present the people with a wake-up call. I'll name but a few of a very long list of the old satirist. The ancient Greek: Aesop, in the Middle Ages; Desiderius Erasmus and Voltaire. Nothing new here today.

Satire has been called tasteless, vulgar and a lot worse. Satirists have lost their lives, were burned at the stake, hanged and shot. The statement still holds true as I write today. It shouldn't be, fore the freedom of speech and expression of the arts is well founded in true democratic ruled governments such as the one I'm privileged to live in.

Traditionally satire has always been condemned by the ones that stood to loose. Whether it was, identity, power, belief or whatever else.

In this case, what's so bad about mocking Royalty? The best and worst that can happen is that one is given an opportunity to see, in a different light, who these people are and what they represent. There is nothing wrong with that.

Only the bigot would find the satire inmature and at fault.
05:55 January 12, 2013 by thecritic
Only a stupid would compare the current swedish royal family which has no power, just a symbolic to ancient greece and the french monarchy in the 16th and 17th centuries.
10:23 January 12, 2013 by Reason and Realism
@ #4 Apfelmuss

Well and fine to promote the utility of satire, but like free speech, satire has its limits, particularly where the promotion of hatred is concerned.

As one poster wrote a few months ago on a earlier story about the royal photoshop job, the depiction of the Queen with a Swastika is an unwarranted insult to her and to all Germans.
16:54 January 12, 2013 by Squark
Anyone who defends the right to satirize someone else's sacred cow but cannot tolerate satire about their own should learn the word hypocrisy. Not to mention the Golden Rule or Kant's categorical imperative. Sorry, but accusing a satirist of poor taste and then maintaining that offensive cartoons of Muhammed are protected free speech is hypocritical. With world history full of genocides, many based on religious identity, it should be clear that the much greater risk is to demonize people of another faith. Making fun of royals or military and genocidal activities seem reasonable reminders of the abuses of power that have happened, and in some cases still are going on.
17:50 January 12, 2013 by thecritic
Here is the thing, we don't like the beeeearch's work, and we have the right to criticise it verbally, we didn't try to kill her or force her to go into hiding did we? Oh she has the right to do that again if she likes, we are not going to stop her, and that's the different between us and you! There is nothing more funny than the mus talking about freedom of speech, like they really understand it. If this beeeartch is in the mus country, going to school is hard already, let alone satire any body. That is the problem with the west today, so many stupids but think that they're smart and attacking the very system that protecting them. the beeeeartch forget who she is and where she came from.
23:53 January 12, 2013 by Squark
Now I get it. She has the right to do it, but we are in fact going to stop her. That was the point of the article: retaliation by those in power is censorship! She is not attacking the system that is protecting her, she is expressing her opinion, creating art. More than her critics are doing.
17:52 January 13, 2013 by thecritic
Who stops her? Get a load of this people, mus try to defending liberal arts and free speech, now, that is satire!

How about this, you take her works back to your mus world and show them to your people see how they like them ok?
19:42 January 13, 2013 by Ulvenkai
II have to agree with Ms Wallin--in a first world country you stand as an example to others of the values you hold most dear: equality, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, liberties and all sorts of wonderful values that many take for granted.

The unfortunate truth is that any nation that is prepared to "dish it out" but not prepared to take it is a very immature nation with a very long way to go before it can hold its head high.

You can argue that the piece is distasteful, offensive, etc. But to climb onto your high horses and discriminate against this woman simply for her right to express herself artistically or otherwise, is simply pathetic.

It's a terrifying reminder that many people in first world countries have no interest in protecting their rights and freedoms and tolerating the rights and freedoms of others. How easy it is to forget the ideals that other people fought and died for, that you so easily forget.

I say bravo to Ms Wallin for challenging the status quo and reminding us how far we have yet to go before we, as a society, can stand as a beacon to other nations of how to respect and tolerate each other's differences.
21:34 January 13, 2013 by thecritic
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
17:35 February 22, 2013 by Baroness.Fredericks
Sweden is a State of the EU, not a Sovereign Nation. That is why Islam is allowed to flourish, as apposed to past history. Many Swedes have been brain washed to accept many things that go against being Swedish. It's quickly becoming a memory, or a spec in a history book, if Muslims allow it to be taught at all. It's sovereignty was surrendered when they joined. Whenever someone tries to defend Sweden they are quickly labeled by the most Leftist Liberal mindless followers. There shall come a day when all Scandinavian flags shall go away too, for their crosses are an offense to immigrants. No matter about the Royal Family, whom are collectively a symbol and a tourist attraction. As far as Her Majesty's father. No-one upon earth, past, present or future can pick or choose their parents.
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