Bjorn again

Art - Julian Stallabrassfinds Scandinavia overshadowed by the spectre of modernism

Bjarne Melgaard, a Scandinavian artist whose work deals with gay sexuality, took a trip to Tahiti and masturbated over Gauguin's grave. The spectre of modernism haunts Scandinavia and requires continual exorcism. Two exhibitions currently showing in Denmark, "Vision and Reality: conceptions of the 20th century" and "Organising Freedom: Nordic art of the 1990s", illuminate opposing aspects of art's relationship to the near and distant past.

The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, a collection of understated modern buildings nestled harmoniously in land that slopes sharply down to the sea, is the ideal setting for "Vision and Reality". Everything here seems restrained, polite and tasteful, a benign legacy of the radical utopianism of the avant-garde work on display. The exhibition focuses on those movements that attempted to merge art and life. One way to glimpse this future was through the design of buildings, furniture and domestic objects, and there are examples of all these from artists in the De Stijl, Bauhaus and Constructivist movements. Bauhaus and, to a lesser extent, De Stijl designs are now a part of consumer culture, and many a loft-dweller is equipped with a replica Marcel Breuer chair. Ironically, the works of the Russian Suprematists and Constructivists, who seemed for a short time to have the best opportunity of realising the synthesis of art and life, appear less solid and familiar. Many of their works, after all, were destroyed or lost and are now seen only as reconstructions.

There is a way in which the avant-garde ambition was realised, if in a mundane and commercialised fashion. Modernist forms and designs saturate the environment, although they jostle with competitors. In the Louisiana, modernist and contemporary works are placed together, and sometimes there is real sympathy and a genuine legacy behind these comparisons. This is particularly true of architecture in which Constructivism still has a lively existence - for example, in the work of Bernard Tschumi. Sometimes, however, the formal similarities speak only of hostility or contradiction. Some of Gerhard Richter's paintings of coloured squares resemble Mondrian's work, but there is a chasm between Mondrian's transcendental hopes for painting and Richter's grimly systematic project to rid the medium of all meaning. Similarly, the large-scale photographs of Andreas Gursky depict the modernist forms of hotels, factories and office buildings, but in doing so point to the dull, eternal nightmare of administered life. More generally, when postmodernism first broke the hold of modernist dominance, stern geometric forms were shunned in a cheery romp through every other style imaginable. The use of modernist forms as just another option was an indication less of modernism's revival than of its complete defeat (just as millionaires started buying socialist-realist painting after the Berlin Wall had come down).

A photographic series of modern domestic interiors appears in "Organising Freedom", although there is something disturbingly sterile and cramped about the rooms depicted. Miriam Backstrom's photographs show interiors at the Ikea Corporate Museum. Ikea's mission is a modernist, egalitarian and democratising one, turned upon the individual and domestic space. It is easy to imagine the ideal inhabitants of these interiors: contented, measured, rational characters at home with homogeneity.

Both modernism and social democracy, which became allies as cultural and political utopias were abandoned, have had a rough ride in Scandinavia since the recession of the early 1990s. The eventual collision of those well-protected societies with hard economic forces produced a variety of cultural innovations: contemporary Scandinavian art, along with music and cinema, attracted global attention. The consequences of this neoliberal situation are plainly felt in "Organising Freedom". As the exhibition's curator, David Elliott, states in the catalogue, these artists have serious disputes with (among other things) rational architecture, utopian dreams, idealism and social engineering. Jakob Kolding uses Constructivist forms in his collages, pitching old, radical visions of extreme disorientation against the politely regulated architecture and social planning that were its Scandinavian progeny. The universal man of basic needs has splintered into the shards of competing interests and antagonistic identities. This fall of man leads to an examination of the diminished figure that remains: for example, in Maria Friberg's photographs of businessmen's crotches or of a bald head breaking through the churning of creamy surf, and in Maria Hedlund's strange close-up photographs of checked shirts.

Yet social democracy has left an imprint on this work that goes further than mere repudiation. Unlike a lot of similarly successful British work, these artists show more concern with productive dialogue and the possibilities for improvement than with vulgarity, pointless irony and the voyeuristic spectacle of the unfortunate. They may be disenchanted, but they do not feel entirely powerless. There is a strange contrast between the fragility and small scale of the most utopian work included in "Vision and Reality" and the robust, very large-scale, polished character of the more modest and chastened work in "Organising Freedom". It seems that as art's ambitions have shrunk, its physical presence has grown to compensate.

"Vision and Reality" is an old-fashioned show that is lent plausibility by the circumstances of the present. Modernism had long been laid to rest in those countries that welcomed and fostered neoliberalism, including the United States and Britain, but no sooner are its last northern strongholds stormed than a revival sets in, driven by a resurgence of heroic technological progress and the promise of much more to come. Troubled and excited by these advances, viewers find the old modern forms revivified.

But what of domesticated modernism? Kolding, we are told in the catalogue to "Organising Freedom", was brought up in one of Copenhagen's model suburbs in which everything was safely pedestrianised, where shops, schools, nurseries and clinics were close to hand. This, we are meant to assume, is a terrible fate - and no doubt it must be until you lose these facilities. Visiting Copenhagen, moving around on public transport that works, finding the streets clean and the homeless few, is a strong reminder that there are worse things than social democracy. The artists of "Organising Freedom" are generally professional, entertaining and thought-provoking. They do everything that contemporary artists are meant to do. Yet a question overshadows their work: are they the (minor and unwitting) agents of neoliberalism?

"Vision and Reality: conceptions of the 20th century" is at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, until 14 January 2001. "Organising Freedom: Nordic art of the 1990s" is a touring exhibition organised by the Moderna Museet, Stockholm