Swedish artist Lars Vilks has been excluded from a new gallery in Oslo. Vilks was invited to present his work at the Lautom Contemporary’s exhibition Where a River Runs North Underground, but when the owner of the gallery Randi Thommessen found out that Vilks intended to put three small watercolor paintings depicting the prophet Muhammed as a dog on view, she asked him to withdraw the paintings. Vilks refused and decided not to participate with other works.
Sappho, an internet magazine devoted to the issue of free speech, has published Randi Thommesen’s letter to Vilks. I believe the letter is important because it provides a rare glimpse into the mind of a gallery owner. Here are the key passages:
Yesterday evening I learned that you intend to show small watercolor paintings of Muhammed, and that bothers me.
I think you in important ways have focused public attention on the issue of free speech and art, and we need this kind of existential debates. You have experienced to be at the center of a media storm, threats and other discomfort that you have confronted courageously. I admire you for that!
Nevertheless I do have certain objections.
As you probably know here in Norway we experienced quite some turbulence when the Norwegian Christian newspaper Magazinet reprinted the Danish cartoons. We experienced quite strong reactions form radical Muslims outside Norway, and we had a rather heated and one-sided debate in Norway. Unfortunately, the debate was dominated by radical voices and many important nuances were lost.
In the aftermath we have had a fruitful debate in Norway that has lead to a more inclusive climate and more nuances. But I feel that the debate and principles have been exhausted, and I ask myself: What is the purpose of showing new Muhammed drawings in Norway?
And as a consequence I would like you to present other works.
Lautom is a young gallery, we have been in the busines for less than one year, and we have not received a lot of press, something I in fact have welcomed. I have not been out there to get the attention of the press. I am looking for reviews not press sensation. And I find it problematic to risk getting our first real media attention on a project that it will be difficult for me to defend. I don’t want Lautom to be known for this project.
You are an interesting artist who has been working with pushing boundaries. That’s the part of you I would like to see…
Well, if showing Muhammed drawings isn’t about pushing boundaries…