Does the name Jan Egesborg ring a bell? I didn’t think so; the Danish artist has received precious little coverage in this country. Yet he has just done what every politically-minded artist ardently yearns to do: make a powerful and arrogant world leader look ridiculous. Remarkably, this leader is not named Bush but Ahmadinejad.
In December 2006, a group calling itself “Danes for World Peace” took out a half-page ad in the English-language Tehran Times. Five anti-war declarations, in rather plodding English, were printed under a photograph of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
Support his fight against Bush
We are also tired of Bush
Iran has the right to produce nuclear energy
No U.S. aggression against any country
Evil U.S. military stay home
Not until after the ad appeared did anyone notice that the five initial letters of the five-line statement, when read downward, spell out the word SWINE—a word chosen to be as offensive as possible—directly beneath Ahmadinejad’s photograph.
Egesborg is the founder of Surrend, the artists’ collaborative whose stated goal is “to make fun of the world’s powerful men” by means of posters, stickers, and newspaper advertisements. Such street theater has been a staple of agit-prop art since the 1960’s, in Europe as well as America, but it is simply inconceivable that any group of American artists would single out for abuse the figures recently mocked by Surrend, a roster that includes the Belorussian despot Alexander Lukashenko, the Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic, and dictator of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe.
As political art satire goes, Egesborg’s sophomoric stunt comes in somewhat below Animal Farm. On the other hand, to carry it out required an abundance of personal courage, not necessarily the first quality that comes to mind when thinking of performance artists. Moreover, it actually does what contemporary art so routinely promises and just as routinely fails to deliver: it “challenges our assumptions about art,” in this case, the assumption that for contemporary artists there is no tyrant on the earth so despicable as a Republican president. Egesborg’s merry little prank was easily the most important work of political art of 2006.