Swedish artist, his Phila. speech on freedom canceled by threat, meets with media

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Lars Vilks and Lars Hedegaard (rear), president of the Danish Free Press Society, are interviewed on a Canadian radio show by telephone from their Philadelphia hotel room. Vilks' local appearance was canceled over security concerns.

Lars Vilks, a conceptual artist from Sweden with a $100,000 bounty on his head, could be found secreted away in a room at the Rittenhouse Hotel Thursday morning, receiving carefully screened visitors from the media.

Vilks is on a weeklong tour of the United States and Canada, speaking about freedom of expression. He had been scheduled to hold forth at the Union League Thursday, but late Wednesday, the event was abruptly called off.

Craig Snider, a Union League member who was hosting the speaker, said that after he realized the visit would require extraordinary security measures to protect Vilks, his associates, and anyone in attendance, "I voluntarily canceled it. I was not prepared to ask the league to take that kind of risk."

Instead, he invited members of the local media to interview Vilks at the Rittenhouse.

The artist's appearance in Ottawa was also called off, but, as of Thursday, stops in Toronto and Boston were still scheduled.

Lanky with tousled hair, wearing a black corduroy sports coat and Levis, Vilks describes himself as a small-town, self-taught artist who became caught up in a maelstrom of international politics. He has a Ph.D. in art history, his work has been exhibited at the Swedish Museum of Modern Art, and he has taught at several major universities in Scandinavia.

He holds up his cell phone. "It's filled with death threats," he says, calling up his saved text messages. "This one is quite poetic. Minimalistic." It reads "Du ska do," Swedish for "thou shalt die."

Four years ago, an Iranian al-Qaeda group issued a fatwa calling for Vilks' assassination and offering a $100,000 reward. "If you kill me with a knife, you get a $50,000 bonus," he says drily.

His capital offense, he explains, was to draw an image of a Muslim prophet on the body of a dog. He submitted the pen-and-ink work to a small gallery to be included in an exhibition themed "the dog in art."

Vilks, 64, was well known in Sweden for his provocative work. In 1980, he began illegally constructing large wooden sculptures along a bay of the North Sea. The construction became a major tourist attraction and is now owned by the concept artist Christo.

The drawing of the dog with a prophet's head was inspired by a popular, spontaneous, grassroots art project in his country. People had been building dog sculptures out of wood or metal or paper and leaving them in the center of traffic circles.

"I was interested in what the limits are of what you can do in art," he says. "You can criticize all other religions without any troubles, but not Islam. I was upset with the art world. Everyone was saying we shouldn't touch this subject."

The gallery hung his drawings, but before the exhibit opened, it took them down, fearing violence. Vilks took them to several other galleries he had worked with, as well as the Gerlesborg School of Fine Art, where he is a frequent lecturer. All of them declined.

When a Swedish newspaper published the roundabout prophet dog drawing to illustrate an editorial about self-censorship and freedom of expression, "Things got out of my hands," he says.

The Swedish flag was burned in Pakistan. The fatwa was issued. Suddenly, every move Vilks made had to be monitored by the Swedish secret police. Last year, Colleen R. Larose, a troubled woman living in Pennsburg, Pa., who called herself Jihad Jane, was arrested for allegedly plotting to assassinate Vilks.

In May, he was delivering a lecture on freedom of speech at Uppsala University in Sweden when he was attacked by a man from the audience. Several days later his house was set on fire.

"It was, of course, very scary," he says. "I've gotten used to it, but this year, it has escalated."

Vilks says he has grown accustomed to being a target and has transformed his house into a "fortress." Determined not to hide, or to censor himself, he says he has embarked on his current trip and will return to Uppsala next week to try once again to deliver his lecture.

"At some point, I plan to turn all this into a musical," he says. He has collected the videos and texts of debates over his art and envisions presenting them in a "Fred Astaire-type of treatment."

His trip to the United States and Canada was sponsored by the Danish Free Press Society and the International Free Press Society Canada. The Philadelphia visit was organized in conjunction with the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative foundation that, according to its website, "combats the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values and disarm this country as it attempts to defend itself in a time of terror."

The visit was timed for Sept. 30, which marks the fifth anniversary of the controversial publication of editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

 


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.