Spring 2009

Slettemark / Nixon

I’m not a crook, I’m an artist

Mats Bigert

In early 1974, the Swedish-Norwegian artist Kjartan Slettemark applied for a new passport. But the photograph he submitted had been manipulated to replace his own face with Richard Nixon’s. Framed by Slettemark’s scraggly beard, the US president’s face went undetected by the issuing authorities. When picking up his new passport at the Stockholm police department, however, Slettemark had to sign it in front of an official, who was surprised to see that the signature had a capital A in the middle of the artist’s first name, rendering it “KjArtan.” Asked why the spelling was different from the one on the original application, Slettemark replied, “I always sign my artworks this way.”

The passport was approved and Slettemark used it soon after to enter the US. On his return to Sweden, he managed to sell his story as an “exclusive” to all six major Swedish dailies, and in July 1974, they each published a picture of the passport on their front pages. When asked about his action, Slettemark replied that he wanted to offer Nixon, his identity now transformed into art, a means of escape. On 9 August 1974, Nixon signed his letter of resignation.

Kjartan Slettemark underwent his final transformation on 13 December 2008. One obituary ended with a typical Slettemark quote: “Konsten kommer, konsten går, lycklig den som konsten,” which could be rendered as “Art comes, art goes, happy the one who art.”

Mats Bigert is an editor-at-large at Cabinet and one half of the Swedish artist duo Bigert & Bergström. Life Extended, their new film on the utopian quest for immortality, recently had its worldwide premiere at the “Documentary Fortnight” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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