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Lars Vilks © Lars Vilks

The 1st at Moderna: Lars Vilks

Omphalos - Playing the authority game

1.5 2004 – 20.6 2004

Stockholm

Attention, please! This is the Moderna Museet Authority speaking! The museum will now be taking over the case Omphalos by Lars Vilks from the County of Malmö Enforcement Service. But Omphalos, i.e. the navel or the centre of the earth according to Greek mythology, is not just any legal case, or work of art. This sculpture from 1999 is a vital link in a long artistic process that has filled several shelves with petitions, appeals and legal reports, involved thousands of hours of work for the artist, and used up unbelievable quantities of driftwood, rock, concrete and nails.

The artist Lars Vilks has for many years enacted a play in which he sets artistic expression on a collision course with a world characterised by law enforcement and legislation. In the ins and outs of the Kullaberg land art project on the north-west coast of Skåne, aesthetic and ethic norm systems clash, as we can read in Vilks’ latest book, “Myndigheterna som konstnärligt material” (The Authorities as Artistic Material). From that viewpoint, it is completely logical that Vilks and the formal owner, Ernst Billgren, recently approached Moderna Museet with an offer to donate Omphalos to the Swedish national collection of modern and contemporary art. The process is now entering a new phase – Omphalos is being institutionalised. The object is being measured and weighed, photographed and classified, and put into a warehouse until it can be exhibited within the museum.

For ages, museums have focused on art as objects – on quantifiable values and enduring materials – and have created rooms for individual viewing of art, white rooms of worship in the modern temples of the increasingly secularised western world. However, over the 20th century art has expanded and adopted new means of expression constantly. With the appearance of conceptual art, materials were eschewed in favour of ideas – art as idea as idea, to quote the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. But how does one collect art that is neither painting nor sculpture? Can one maintain a collection of ideas in the same way as one would collect objects for posterity? And isn’t that the idea of conceptual art, that it doesn’t fit into the material world with its structure of collecting and owning? In the 1940s, the French writer André Malraux presented his concept of an imaginary museum as the sum of a huge number of images from the deluge of photographs in our information society – Le musée imaginaire. In other words: a modern museum is a museum without walls. A forum for many participants and ideas. And every new acquisition to the museum’s collection slightly alters the image of what art can be.

Lars Vilks’ metamorphosis grates against our habitual conceptions of what is permissible as artistic expression. As early as in 1976, he declared his home town of Höganäs to be a work of art. His art is irritating and entertaining and exposes the values that define the context in which art is allowed to exist. At an early stage, Lars Vilks realised the impact of the media in generating meaning, and saw that art that did not get media coverage had a hard time surviving. His project at Kullaberg, which has been going on for nearly 25 years, could, on the one hand, be described as a form of meta-art, art that is born in the encounter with the media, the press, the legal system and the authorities’ intervention. On the other hand, Lars Vilks’ artistic projects would be unthinkable without their concrete, physical setting – the rolling hills, the beech forests and the stark cliffs of Håle stenar on the north-west coast of Skåne. Vilks always operates on several levels. While it all starts with the artist wanting to assert a primordial impulse when encountering a beautiful scenery – I want to build something here! – his work is also a local manifestation of 1980s post-modernist thoughts on nature versus culture. And as one of the greatest tourist attractions in north-west Skåne, Nimis and Arx at Kullaberg are also a concrete contribution to the debate on the role of art as entertainment.

Obviously, all these processes, relationships and contexts are incorporated in the work of art. But only on closer scrutiny does it emerge that the ownership issue is increasingly the focus of his artistic project. Vilks criticises the system of both legal and aesthetic authorization. He exposes how the legal system defines ownership of both land and art, while pinpointing the last strongholds of the Skåne aristocracy. In order to circumvent the law, Vilks sold Nimis to the German artist Joseph Beuys in 1984 for 1,500 dollars. When Beuys died, Nimis was sold on to the artist couple Jeanne-Claude & Christo (who wrapped a similar stretch of coastland in Australia in fabric in 1969!). By declaring the occupied part of Kullaberg as the nation of Ladonia, Vilks’ project seems to be taking the step from ownership to citizenship, opening up a new, urgent perspective.

Moderna Museet is grateful for the honourable task of henceforth harbouring the “centre of the world” – Omphalos – on Skeppsholmen in Stockholm!

Omphalos – a contribution to the moral championships

Text: Martin Schibli

Nimis and Arx

In 1980, Lars Vilks started working on his Nimis, followed by Arx, in the Kullaberg nature reserve in north-west Skåne, Sweden. Since the area is hard to get to, Nimis was not discovered until 1982, when the County Council decided that the art work should be removed. This was the start of a remarkable chain of court proceedings and unpredictable developments that are still going on and seem to be without end.

Feudal wars

Omphalos was created in 1999, a stone and concrete sculpture weighing a ton and measuring 1.61 metres in height. The name refers to a small sculpture in the Greek Delphi temple, which marked the centre of the earth in ancient times. The Gyllenstiernska Krapperup Foundation reported Vilks to the police for building Omphalos. In August 1999, the district court ruled that the sculpture must be removed. The court ruling was nevertheless a victory for Vilks. The Foundation, formed to promote art and culture, had demanded that Nimis and Arx also be removed, but was overruled. The Foundation turned to the court of appeal, which concurred with the district court’s ruling, and then went on to the Supreme Court, which turned down their appeal.

Senior Judge Svensäter makes art history

The police investigation was unable to determine who was the actual perpetrator behind Omphalos. Nevertheless, Svensäter, Senior Judge of the District Court, identified Vilks as the artist. In this way, Svensäter challenges the art world’s prerogative to declare something to be art.

Homage to Alfred Nobel

The Krapperup Foundation contacted the enforcement service to have Omphalos removed. Vilks was told to find an acceptable solution as to how this should be done. He applied to the County Council for permission to blow up the work on the Nobel Day, 10 December, 2001, which was also the 100th Anniversary of the Nobel Prize, in homage to Alfred Nobel. The County Council made its decision on 7 December 2001, but kept it secret until the 10th.

A craneboat arrives

The authorities were keen to effect at least one of the decisions they had made since 1982. The artist Ernst Billgren, who had bought Omphalos from Vilks, had told the enforcement service that “Omphalos must not be damaged.” Despite this request that the work be handled with care, the DYKMA company’s craneboat was sent to the site at dawn on 9 December. The staff caused serious damage to Omphalos with their careless handling. This led to the enforcement service being pronounced performance artist of the year 2002. The bill for the removal, SEK 92,500, was sent to Vilks.

8 centimetres

The Ladonians were deeply upset that the centre of the world had been moved. Vilks applied to the County Council for permission to place a memorial where Omphalos had once stood. The County Council granted permission to raise a monument that did not exceed 8 centimetres in height. The monument was inaugurated on 27 February, 2002. Thus, the permitted height of public sculptures in Sweden for which no special permission is required had been officially confirmed.

Two interacting bodies

The incorporation of Omphalos in the Moderna Museet collection is the result of a unique collaboration between two government bodies, the enforcement service and Moderna Museet. One could say that the official actions of one body expelled what the other integrated.

300,000 kronor

Vilks has sued the government for the damages Omphalos sustained when it was removed from its site. He has, after all, been proclaimed its artist, and must, therefore, defend it as its creator. So the story of Omphalos continues.

See also: Lars Vilks, Myndigheterna som konstnärligt material (The Authorities as Artistic Material), Nya Doxa, 2003.

Ladonia

The Nation of Ladonia was proclaimed on 2 June, 1996, on the site where Nimis and Arx are standing, as a consequence of the blatant inability of Swedish authorities to implement their decisions and their lack of control over their territory. Since Ladonia is constantly manifesting its existence and getting broad publicity, it has grown increasingly real to many people.

Ladonia, in turn, has given rise to numerous events and incidents. Ladonia embodies many of the factors that characterise and maintain a nation, not least the continuous regeneration of the relationship between the legal system and the nation as a historical construct.

The continuity and activities of Ladonia, with its 11,000 inhabitants from all over the world, are maintained via the internet. Thanks to the internet, Ladonia gained even more international media attention in 2002, when thousands of Pakistanis applied for Ladonian citizenship in the quest for a better life.

Ladonia’s official standpoint with regard to Omphalos is that they are dismayed and alarmed by the removal of the centre of the world, and that this is an act of war by the Swedes.

Curator: Cecilia Widenheim