”Quick! Get out, Lars. Quick!” The order comes from a bodyguard. It’s saturday afternoon in Copenhagen. There is a debate on in a local culture centre called Krudtønden (Powderkeg), and I, as chairman, have just introduced the first speaker at the Lars Vilks Committee’s public meeting. There are not many of us, about 40 in the hall. But it’s a special day.
Special for us in the Committee, for Lars himself, for the audience in the hall and also special for the right to freedom of expression. February14th is the anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and this is the third year running we commemorate it. It’s a very special day, and how ”special” it will be we do not know yet.
The French ambassador to Denmark Francois Zimeray, a little distinguished looking man has just spoken about Charlie Hebdo and freedom of expression, and his declaration of support was loud and clear. On my left sits the Swedish Muhammed cartoonist Lars Vilks, casually dressed and with thick-lensed spectacles.
He has been under permanent police protection since the winter of 2010 when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Stockholm, although his attempt to take as many people with him as possible fortunately failed.
In his farewell note he wrote that he did it because Lars Vilks had drawn Muhammed as a dog in a round-about.
A dog. A round-about dog. And because of that nobody knows that Lars Vilks is an art historian who in addition to Sweden has also taught in Oslo and Bergen in Norway. In those days the now 69-year old artist was better known for the 150 meter long and 150 meter wide driftwood sculpture Nimis at the north end of Kullen, a nature resort in the south of Sweden. This gigantic installation (which today is owned by the world famous artist Christo) caused an outcry because it was built in a government protected nature environment. Today it’s become a tourist attraction.
Vilks made the drawing of the dog in a round-about out of solidarity with the Danish Muhammed cartoonists, afterwhich a since deceased preacher and Al Qaeda soldier offered a gigantic reward to anyone who killed him. The round-about dog was also the reason why two Albanian brothers tried to burn down Vilk’s house in the little Swedish town where he used to live. It was the reason for attacks and threats. The reason why Jihad Jane is now behind bars. The reason for cancelled exhibitions and lectures. The reason why I and the perfomance artist Uwe Max Jensen founded a committee that arranges public meetings with Vilks. We met him in Copenhagen where we were to celebrate the Committee’s inauguration with champagne. Bernt Johan Collet, former conservative minister of defence immediately said yes to joining. He drove from his estate in a snow storm and chatted with the grey-haired artist for the first time.
I think they liked each other. Vilks drank a glass of wine. He seemed happy. ”We mustn’t let Vilks stand alone”, Uwe Max and I wrote in article announcing the Committee’s start. We can’t let him become an outcast in a politically correct Sweden where none but a few artists dare express their support for a Muhammed cartoonist.
Since then he’s drawn even more round-about dogs. Before the meeting starts on this fateful saturday afternoon in February 2015 Vilks has put a carefully arranged little group of round-about dogs in different coloured clay on one of the coffee tables placed in the hall. I think Vilks likes making them, just like he enjoys paraphrasing famous artists and including a little round-about dog in his pictures which you sometimes have to look quite hard to find.
”Did you find the dog?” he asked me gleefully at the packed opening of the exhibition in Malmö in 2014. All the pictures were sold. The same winter the gallery owner Henrik Rönnqvist rented another gallery in the trendy Södermalm area in Stockholm. It was decided not to exhibit the original dog, But because Vilks is Vilks he doesn’t get heated up but just makes three more dogs with the inscription – as far as I remember – ”This picture can not be shown due to violence and threats”.
This fateful Saturday a glaring blue dog was sold straight away, and the new owner bears his prize away with obvious satisfaction. I tell that to Vilks, who is chatting with a few friends at a table in Krudttønden’s combined lobby and café.
There are two bartenders, a woman and a tall man with a long beard who turned out to be something of a hero. I later learnt that when the terrorist Omar el-Hussein shortly after the start of meeting arrived in front of Krudttønden and fired through the glass front door with his automatic rifle, the bartender threw himself on to his companion and shielded her with his body thereby probably saving not only his own life but also hers.
”Oh, has the blue dog gone? I put it with the red and the white to symbolize the French flag. Can we put it back?”, asks Vilks.
No we can’t, but Vilks takes that in his stride. He just nods. And smiles. Vilks takes everything in his stride. Threats and whatever is said at our meetings. I’ve written to him since september 2012 and suggested themes for debate. ”Ja, det lyder bra (yes, that sounds good)”, he always mails back. Like the time we had a feature on ”women and freedom” and a now former committee member, the big-bosomed, curly-haired sociologist Javeh Tavakoli bluntly stated from the podium that ”I watch porn, my husband does too. I don’t want to put him on the spot, but he’s sitting down there”.
The panel member sitting next to Tavakoli was one of Denmarks most wellknown business men Asger Aamund. He chuckled. Vilks, who had put on a t-shirt with kind of womens’ lib symbol on it, stressed how important it was to support Muslim womens’ freedom aspirations. But he shook his head a little at the Swedish feminists and the idea that people should be so monomaniacal about the differences between the sexes. ”Can’t we just be human beings?”.
There are also feminists in the panel today, the day of the shooting. On my right sits Inna Shevchenko, the almost transparently blond leader of the the topless activists FEMEN.
She has just started speaking. Suddenly there’s a loud cracking sound. And then more. But I don’t realize that it’s the sound of gunshot until Lars Vilk’s bodyguard – the dark, handsome bodyguard that all women under eighty ogle at Lars Vilk’s meetings – shouts to us to get out. Somebody is trying to shoot his way into the hall where we are discussing whether it’s worth risking your life for art. Now we are.
”Quick! Come on! Get out of the hall!” The bodyguard shouts it again. I finally realize that we’re being attacked. The cracking sounds are shots. A few seconds later another bodyguard shouts ”get down, get down!” The bodyguard pushes me and Lars towards the back door. I start to run and almost fall over. Vilks and I are told to hide in a little room on the far side of the stage. It’s cold. It’s a storage room full of bottles and boxes and a pile of other things, and there’s a little window that opens on to the street next door. I catch a glimpse of a man running past with a woollen cap on his head. And a kind of thick jacket. Is that the attacker? Is there more than one?
Somebody locks the door. Vilks and I are pushed under a table against the wall near the window, while the bodyguard stands up with his revolver in his hand. Vilks and I lie there for a bit. I reach out for his hand and he grips mine and I grip back. Vilks seems completely at ease. I like him very much. I think of Charlie Hebdo.
In January I rang Vilks and asked him how he was. I’d read a newspaper interview with him where it said that security measures around him had increased after the massacre on Charlie Hebdo. Vilks and the Committee generally never reveal anything about security, the police ask us not to. But Vilks says whatever he pleases if he finds it necessary.
In October 2014 Vilks and the other committee members gave our Art and Freedom of Speech award to Charlie Hebdo, the magazine that supported Denmark and the Muhammmed cartoonists when nobody else would. Gérard Biard, the editor, who survived the attack on Charlie Hebdo, was in Copenhagen. The little ceremony took place in the Danish Authors’ Society. We had dinner together afterwards in the old, picturesque harbour called Nyhavn.
WWe both agreed that that I should come and visit them in Paris. Gerard Biard said ”come on a Wednesday, that’s the only day the whole editing team is there together””. Vilks sounded a little shaken on the telephone for once. Shaken and sad.
We’re still under the table. After a short silence he says: ”Helle Merete, they say life is over when you’re 60, and there’s nothing more to do or see. I don’t think that’s quite true.”
We laugh. Quietly. We don’t loosen our grip on each other’s hand for quite a time. We chat a bit. Tell silly jokes. And then we’re quiet again. For quite a long time. There are no more shots. The bodyguard talks to somebody on a telephone or a radio. Vilks reaches up and takes a beer bottle from a crate. He looks at it. ”If we’re here for a long time, we can at least have something to drink.”
It must be over now, we decide and we crawl out. But the bodyguard won’t stand any messing. ”Keep down, keep down, till I say you can come out”.
Somebody knocks on the door. ”Who’s there?” bawls the bodyguard. It’s a policeman. There’s blood on the leg of his trousers. He doesn’t know if he’s wounded or if the blood is from somebody he brushed against. Vilks and I start asking him questions. Is anybody dead? No, says the policeman, But one of the wounded ”doesn’t look too good”. It’s not a policeman. Two bodyguards are also wounded. The policeman limps out again. It later turns out the man who was shot was Finn Nørgaard, a film director. He died later that evening.
Vilks is worried. He wants to know why it takes so long for the ambulance to come and get the wounded man. But an ambulance isn’t allowed to drive into a ”war zone” I was told a few days later by one of my relatives. Now there are voices outside. Still no more shots. Somebody knocks on the door. ”Who’s there?” shouts the bodyguard. It’s another policeman. Their telephones are buzzing and we’re told we can come out. They say something about a need for cars ”because the cars have been shot up”. And Vilks has to be evacuated. Soon he’s led out of the hall’s backdoor and spirited away. The police ask me to go back into the hall where we were sitting before the shooting started.
A few days later I ask myself if things really happened in the order I’ve set down here. And in that way? One thing I’ll probably never forget is the sound of the gun salvoes, the 20-40 shots that that rang out in…was it 20 seconds? At the commemoration ceremony a few days later I have to leave, when they start clapping. Many of them must have stiff mittens on. Funny. It sounds like gun shots.
And how will this nice old art professor – whom a friend of mine once called a Swedish Woody Allen, with his thick glasses and nurdy art theories – live in the future? Will he add more to the gigantic driftwood sculpture in Kullen that he started in the nineteen eighties? Or will it be too dangerous? How many bodyguards will he need in addition to those he has now? In the little village where he lives, I hear on BBC’s Newsweek, the villagers are already taking things into their own hands. Not by demonstrating for him. No. They want to talk to the police and the council authorities. They’re afraid. They want Vilks to move. They want to get rid of the pariah. So we’ll have to defend him. Even more.
This eye witness account is an edited version of the eye witness account published in the Danish weekly magazine Weekendavisen on February 20th. Lars Vilks has since the terror attack in Copenhagen been moved from safe house to safe house. He will not be able to get back to his old house in the little village Höganäs as the landlord has given him notice to quit. .
Translation: Geoffrey Cain