'The Swedish cartoonist' and his eye for the absurd


On Tuesday, gardaí investigating a plot to kill artist Lars Vilks arrested seven people in Waterford and Cork. Days later, defiantly chomping a burger in a Stockholm branch of McDonalds, the target of the alleged plot remains unfazed

FOR A MAN with a $150,000 (€91,500) bounty on his head, artist Lars Vilks has surprisingly few qualms about eating at McDonald’s, where we have arranged to meet.

“I don’t think they come here, those people,” he says, surveying the mostly empty restaurant on Hamngatan, one of Stockholm’s busiest thoroughfares. By “those people”, he is referring to the loose global network of Islamic terrorists, some of them apparently based in Cork and Waterford, who have been threatening his life since 2007.

And so, having skipped lunch for eight hours of media interviews and webchats, Vilks devours a cheeseburger and chases it down with a vanilla milkshake. There is no armed policeman accompanying him and no squad car outside keeping watch. Someone could easily walk in and try to take Vilks’s life, a fact that doesn’t trouble the droll 63-year-old in the slightest.

“They’re not that high-tech,” he says. “One of them might see me here and recognise me, but then they would have to have a weapon. Most people don’t walk around with this.”

When Vilks drew the prophet Muhammad’s head on to a dog’s body for an art exhibition in the small Swedish town of Tällerud in 2007, he had chosen an indirect and inflammatory way to start a discussion about Muslim integration into western society. Once the drawing was published in the Swedish newspaper, Nerikes Allehanda, Vilks found himself at the eye of an international media cyclone that put his own life in danger, while causing his banishment from the Swedish art world.

Most of the world now knows Vilks simply as “the Swedish cartoonist”. Luckily, international publicity has not softened his keen eye for the absurd, especially this week as a bizarre plot against him, stretching from Ireland to Pennsylvania, grabbed global headlines.

“It’s a bit twisted, but the story is so good. Ireland,” he says, his eyes widening. “What an unexpected place to be doing something against an artist in Sweden. And then Jihad Jane, the femme fatale.”

Born in Helsingborgs, near the Danish border, Vilks is an artist and critic with a habit for intrigue and provocation. He had been best known here as the founder of the tiny “republican monarchy” of Ladonia on the Kullaberg peninsula in southern Sweden, which was just big enough to house two of his larger outdoor sculptures, Nimisand Arx, the former built from driftwood, the latter from stone and concrete.

VILKS IS made almost giddy by US media reports that Colleen LaRose – who is accused of using the alias “Jihad Jane” – had visited his sculptures in Sweden and even applied for fictional citizenship in Ladonia.

Yet despite Tuesday’s arrests in Ireland and the allegations about LaRose, Vilks travels about Sweden freely. He is regularly briefed by Säpo, the Swedish secret police, who use a four-tier warning system when updating him. Should the warnings reach the most dangerous level, as has happened only once since 2007, Vilks is spirited away to a safe house. He will soon be briefed again by Säpo, but does not expect any drastic changes.

If anything, this week’s arrests put Vilks squarely back into the public eye, a place where the eccentric artist thrives. On Wednesday morning, Vilks took a train from his home in rural Nyhamnsläge (in southern Sweden) to Stockholm and spent nearly the entire day in interviews and debates with Swedish and international media. This conversation about Islam and the West is the same one he has been having since 2007, but he accepts that there is now a better understanding on both sides.

“You could not really have the debate here then,” he says. “You have one side here and one side there, and in the middle a big hole.”

Vilks, who gave up religion in the 1960s, feels that Islam is no better or worse than Christianity or Judaism. He’d hoped his own provocative drawings might help “normalise the Muslim point of view so they don’t take too seriously”.

It is a trying subject. Sweden now finds itself in the midst of the same perplexing debate about Muslim integration that is taking place all across Europe. One of Europe’s most secular states, Sweden also considers itself one of the world’s fairest.

It has opened its door to thousands of Muslims seeking asylum from the war in Iraq, as well as to many Iranians and Somalis, and is now trying to find a way to accommodate their religious beliefs while upholding the core principles of the secular welfare state.

And while Vilks was heartened that a few Swedish daily newspapers reprinted his drawing of Muhammad this week, support from his own domestic art community has been less forthcoming. Only one national art critic has publicly defended Vilks throughout the controversy, while most others have denounced his work as “Islamophobic” and politically incorrect.

Vilks continues his work as a lecturer, though events like this week’s occasionally derail him. Plans for a musical about the affair have been put on hold, but he is hoping that the discussion he has stirred in Sweden will continue to evolve, and he expects this week’s debate to shape the next chapter of it.

In the meantime, life will go on for him, as it has since 2007, in a state of mild paranoia. He has secured the interior of his house in Nyhamnsläge and keeps an axe handy inside. Colourfully, he describes the best way to break into his house, a method which involved a ladder and CIA technology.