Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A portrait of the artist as an ardent man

My portrait of Artist Lars Vilks has been published in the spring issue of South of Sweden Magazine. Read the full article below or visit to download the pdf version of the spring 2007 issue.

A portrait of the artist as an ardent man

Lars Vilks is the provocative artist who builds magnificent driftwood structures without permits, outsmarts the Swedish authorities with confusion tactics and sheer obstinacy and who has set out to rewrite the history of art. Laurel Williams sits down to dinner with the man behind the Kullabygden district’s most popular attraction.

In 1980, wholly uninspired by the bland lecture halls of his university, the young Lars Vilks hefted a hammer and nails to a remote cove on the Kullaberg nature reserve and began building a new kind of place for people and ideas to meet. Vilks hammered away unmolested for two whole years. He gave the emerging driftwood structure a name – Nimis. Then in 1982 some local fisherman discovered it and extraordinary things began to happen.

Twenty-seven years later the Nimis project is still developing and Vilks and I sit down to dinner at NIKLAS HELSINGBORG to discuss art and life. The evening begins merrily as Vilks has an anecdote, which clarifies at least one aspect of the purpose of art. A nameless shameless woman has written about how she once used the sturdy edifice of Nimis to support herself and a lover in an outdoor coital adventure.

“So, there you have one thing that art is good for,” he pronounces and positively twinkles at this previously unconsidered functionality of his work.

Vilks devours any material that can help him define art. It is his most important aim and one that has occupied him daily since his university days when he successfully convinced his advisor to let him write his dissertation on the subject. The conclusion of his dissertation was a somewhat disconcerting one for his academic examiners and was, briefly, this: art is a new phenomena and the concept of art is barely 200 years old.

“It is all [Immanuel] Kant’s fault,” Vilks clarifies, “with his absurd theories of aesthetics and beauty.”

Kant is a haunting figure in the mind of Vilks as he attempts to rewrite art history or at least to help the art world to see that such a rewrite is in order. When Vilks describes how he talks out loud to himself whenever and wherever he is struck with an idea that he must discuss, I cannot help but picture an apparition of Kant hovering over his shoulder as a speaking partner of sorts.

The slow starter wins the long race
Vilks calls himself a slow starter, his strength lying in his ability to complete lengthy large-scale projects, and his beginnings on earth were therefore suitably unassuming. Born in 1946, Vilks grew up right and proper in the working class town of Höganäs on Skåne’s northwest coast. Vilks’ mother raised her son to be an upstanding young man who gazed at the night sky over Sweden through his telescope and planned become an astronomer.

At 14 he discovered a knack for the game of chess and started playing competitively. He played so often and so well that it proved to be detrimental to his studies. To become an astronomer he had to work to get his grades up and by the time he succeeded in doing so, astronomy was abandoned in favor of history, literature and finally, art history.

“I also became a yoga man for awhile in the 60’s,” he adds and tries to recall the name of a move he can still do which involves contorting the abdomen into an implausible shape, “I had a very old-fashioned, detailed book about yoga that I tried to follow to the letter. One of the recommendations was to only drink milk fresh from the cow. I went to a local farmer and drank some milk that was so fresh it was still warm. I only tried the fresh milk that one time but I was a vegetarian for quite a while and I still do some yoga now.”

Vilks also had a father, as he himself phrases it. Vilks’ father fled Estonia towards the end of WWII and arrived in Sweden where he made at least one definite contribution. “I only met him once. It was when I was in my late teens,” Vilks says and nods reticently.

“They were very straightforward moral people,” he recalls of his family, “I became the black sheep when I started with my art projects. That is, at least until I became a famous artist. Then all was forgiven.”

A creature of habit
As our courses come out of the gourmet kitchen in succession Vilks remarks about how different this is from his usual fare. “I boil all of my food,” he informs me matter-of-factly, “I put meat and vegetables in a pot and let it boil up while I have my shower. I never get tired of it.”

Up a 7 a.m. every day, Vilks is a man who likes his routine. He begins the day with his coffee and perhaps some painting. It is not clear exactly when he has his first creamy gräddbulle snack but it is certain that he consumes up to six of these chocolate dipped marshmallow-like treats every day. “I am an expert on the different kinds and qualities of gräddbullar,” he says with a charming grin, “I love all sweet things.”

Vilks seems to have boundless reserves of energy and makes almost daily treks down to Nimis. Over these 27 years he has been there well over 6000 times. He also finds the time to read copious amounts of text, make lengthy posts to his site every day and is sleeping sweetly by midnight. Energy is seldom wasted on banal chores such as dusting and in fact, the complete lack of dust in the home of his live-apart girlfriend seems to concern him slightly.

The smoked shellfish in mussel foam arrives at the table. A little gasp of delight escapes my lips and Vilks muses sagely about why women in general seem to like seafood more the men. Our good-natured waiter pauses to listen while Vilks postulates, “I believe it is because women are more controlled by the tides and the sea than we men are.”

I wonder about his authority on women. “I was married once, for a year,” he had told me earlier, “but it was the wrong form for me.”

The fate of Nimis
Once the Swedish authorities learned about Nimis in 1982 and ordered Vilks to remove it, a legal circus in a hundred acts was set in motion, which Vilks sees as an important part of the artwork. Vilks sold the work to the influential German artist Joseph Bueys, creating difficulties for the Swedish authorities, and after Bueys’ death it was sold again to the famous land artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

“I called Christo to make a proposition and he gave the phone directly to Jeanne-Claude. She is the decision maker,” Vilks recounts.

Jeanne-Claude gave the definitive answer, “Christo says yes.”

Further down the rocky beach from Nimis is Arx, a concrete “book” about philosophers that has been “published” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. It even has a proper ISBN number and is protected by freedom of speech rights.

The only piece that the authorities have managed to budge is a modest stone sculpture called Omphalos but this also turned into a triumph for Vilks since the Swedish Museum of Modern art in Stockholm has taken Omphalos in.

Over the years Vilks has been fined for huge sums, arsonists have attempted to burn Nimis to the ground but it still stands and Vilks seems as buoyant as ever which is true to his own motto, “Everything is an advantage.” The local government has also been forced to accept the fact, however begrudgingly, that Nimis attracts approximately 30,000 welcome tourists to the region each year.

In 1996 Vilks declared the one square kilometer around his works to be its own country, Ladonia, which is the fastest growing micronation in the world. Over 13,000 people from all corners of the globe have been granted Ladonian citizenship and Vilks himself is the Secretary of State. “Running a small country entails its fair amount of administration work,” he concedes. Especially when three thousand Pakistanis requested visas over the Internet without realizing that Ladonia was a mostly virtual country.

The diligent Vilks has simultaneously been prolific, publishing several books (in Swedish) including such intriguing titles as, “The Theory of Everything”, “The Authorities as Artistic Material”, and “How To Become A Contemporary Artist In Three Days” with colleague Martin Schibli.

Now that he has momentum, the slow starter just keeps progressing. Vilks managed to give 80 lectures last year (he lectures entirely from memory) and he continues to develop his art theories, and projects like Ladonia and Nimis. “Nimis is not finished yet,” he puzzles, “I am not really sure how to finish it.” While Nimis is likely what most people think of when they hear his name, Vilks is most proud of having raised the level of discourse in the realm of art.

Vilks is a man of great wit and a most agreeable dinner companion. He is visibly elated when, after a rich chocolate dessert, an unexpected platter of decorative sweets materializes with our coffee. He is even happier when I cannot finish mine and comes gallantly to the rescue. The artist is content.

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