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'Sweden is not mature enough for satire'

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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.

Story continues below…

"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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