Thu, Oct 11, 2007 - Page 15 News List

'Against decadence and for a healthier culture'

Vandals made public a video of their attack on a controversial exhibition in Sweden earlier this week

By Carol Vogel  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

A screen shot from a video of art gallery vandalism was posted on YouTube. The grainy video of four masked vandals running through an art gallery in Sweden, smashing sexually explicit photographs with axes, was posted on YouTube Friday night.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A grainy video of four masked vandals running through an art gallery in Sweden, smashing sexually explicit photographs with crowbars and axes to the strain of thundering death-metal music, was posted on YouTube Friday night.

This was no joke or acting stunt. It was what actually happened on a quiet Friday afternoon in Lund, a small university town in southern Sweden where The History of Sex, an exhibition of photographs by the New York artist Andres Serrano, had opened two weeks earlier.

Around 3:30pm, half an hour before closing, four vandals wearing black masks stormed into a space known as the Kulturen Gallery while shouting in Swedish, "We don't support this," plus an expletive. They pushed visitors aside, entered a darkened room where some of the photographs were displayed and began smashing the glass protecting the photographs and then hacking away at the prints.

The bumpy video, evidently shot with a hand-held camera by someone who ran into the gallery with the attackers, intersperses images of the Serrano photographs with lettered commentary in Swedish like "This is art?" before showing the vandals at work.

No guards were on duty in the gallery, said Viveca Ohlsson, the show's curator, although security videos captured much of the incident.

"There was one woman who works at the gallery who tried to stop them until she saw the axes and crowbars," Ohlsson said. "These men are dangerous."

By the time the masked men had finished, half the show - seven 130cm-by-150cm photographs, worth some US$200,000 overall - had been destroyed. The men left behind leaflets reading, "Against decadence and for a healthier culture." The fliers listed no name or organization.

"I was shocked and horrified," Serrano said in a telephone interview Monday from New York. "I never expected something like this, especially in this magical town, which is so sweet I joked about it being like something out of Harry Potter."

Serrano said he had flown to Sweden for the opening and was met with great enthusiasm by gallery visitors. "The reaction was so positive," he said. "I could never imagine anything like this happening."

Officials at the local police station said Monday that the vandals had not been caught but that they were believed to be part of a neo-Nazi group.

Ohlsson said the attack was clearly well planned. "We think that they had been at the gallery a few days before," she said. "They knew where to go."

The show consists of photographs, made in 1995 and 1996, of various sex acts, including a depiction of a naked woman fondling a stallion. It was divided into two rooms. One had white walls, the other black. The vandals went to the black room, where, Ohlsson said, the photographs were a bit racier.

This is not the first time Serrano's work has been attacked, physically or in words. In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts came under fire from conservative politicians and religious groups for helping to finance a US$15,000 grant to Serrano related to past work that included a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine. A print of that work was attacked and destroyed in 1997 when it was on view at the National Gallery of Art in Melbourne, Australia.

It is not the first time the Kulturen Gallery has seen violence, either. About 10 years ago vandals raced into the gallery and put paint on images by a Swedish photographer.

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