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Czech Artist Is a Dissident for a New Era in Europe

Times Staff Writer

Good King Wenceslas looked out and found his horse dead and hanging upside-down.

Such are the antics of Czech artist David Cerny, who over the years has become prankster and provocateur in a nation quite comfortable with the absurd. His public art -- he has painted a Soviet tank pink and built huge sculptures of baby aliens climbing a radio tower -- can be assaults on politicians and the elite, or whimsical metaphors of society.

Consider the king and his horse. Aside from providing the opening line to a Christmas carol, Wenceslas was a revered 10th century Bohemian leader; he and his steed are memorialized in bronze in the Prague square that bears his name. But Cerny, disgusted by the inability of post-Cold War governments to inspire the nation, in 1999 sculpted a Wenceslas trying to look heroic while riding an expired mount.

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The work, said Cerny, a rumpled man peering through shards of black hair, represents a country in ideological debt because of short-sighted politicians and the resurgence of the Communist Party, which won 20% of the vote in last month’s elections for the European Parliament.

“We should ban the Communists,” he said. “I’m in favor of the new European expansion. My biggest wish is that the Czech nation will dissolve. This country killed the intelligentsia three times. First Germans killed it, then the Communists, and thirdly, anybody left ran away. The few who survived are not able to save the country.”

Surly idealism, leavened with a bit of fun, has turned Cerny into one of the more recognizable public artists in Europe. He is a dissident for a new, softer age. With the Soviet era long over, the consequences of one’s political art are less severe than in the days when playwright and future Czech President Vaclav Havel was jailed for anti-communist views.

Cerny’s long-running attacks on National Gallery Director Milan Knizak -- a video caricature of whom the artist has placed inside a fiberglass rectum -- is not likely to land Cerny in prison. In 2000, Cerny refused to enter the National Gallery to accept a prestigious award because of his opposition to Knizak, whom he considers autocratic and more motivated by politics than art. As would seem fitting, Havel, who was president at the time, walked outside the gallery and handed the artist the prize.

“Cerny has a social-critical attitude toward art,” said Vlasta Cihakova-Noshiro, who runs a Prague art gallery. “He captures the Czech national disposition of black humor and irony. In a way, it’s defeatist philosophy that has been going on for generations.”

Others don’t afford Cerny’s work such gravity. “He’s doing light sensationalist populist versions of art,” said Marek Schovanek, a Czech artist living in Berlin. “He’s good at marketing and getting himself out there. He’s like every Czech, a great opportunist, and he’s become the merry prankster from Prague.”

Supporters and critics agree, however, that Cerny has a gift for distilling a mood. Some of his best work captures the angst of a Central Europe straddling its global aspirations and its communist past.

In 1990, he added legs to an East German Trabant car to signify German reunification and ask, “What’s the future of Germany, and when will the Germans return here?” he said. “It’s about ambivalence.” A sculpture of a man hanging with one hand over a Prague street while the other is in his pocket evokes Cerny’s vision of the precarious state of the European intellectual.

His pessimism about politics’ influence over art is epitomized in a 2003 work titled “Brown-nosers.” It asks the viewer to climb a ladder and peer into a derriere, where puppets depicting Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Knizak feed each other gruel. Knizak was less than amused, telling the Czech media: “David Cerny is a sad man with a chip on his shoulder who’s desperate for publicity. It’s all becoming rather tiresome.”

Cerny’s most recent project is a sculpture of two bronze naked men. They have swivel hips and, facing each other, they urinate into a pool shaped like the Czech map, writing famous Czech sayings in the water. One is by Kafka: “Prague is beautiful but it has claws.”

“There’s a Czech idiom about ‘peeing over somebody,’ which I guess translated into English would be to ‘get one over on somebody.’ That’s what the peeing men mean. It’s the way our country behaves,” he said.

Cerny sat near the sculpture the other day. “Oh, it still works,” he said. “You know there’s a computer underneath and you can send phone text messages and the men will pee them.”

Dressed in blues and blacks, Cerny was groggy and pale with a cold. He wasn’t crazy about deconstructing his work, and grew perplexed over the nuances of vision, inspiration and aesthetics.

“I don’t really know how the nerves connect,” he said. “It happens a lot when I’m lying on my back staring at the ceiling.... I’m not really productive in an art way. I’m lazy and lame. Doing only art is not interesting to me. I’m neurotic. I need to shift to different things.”

He paused. The afternoon sun slipped through broken clouds and glinted off the bronze men. A mystified troupe of tourists, winding between Hradcany Castle and the Vltava River, happened upon the sculpture. They giggled, un-holstered cameras, posed and studied the streams of water. A few wondered whether they should toss in coins. Deciding against it, they meandered toward a bridge of blackened angels and men selling pointy jester hats.

“Sometimes I hate doing my work,” Cerny said, “but I have to do it because I see it. It’s painful. I don’t sleep. And when it’s done, there’s frustration because I know there’s another empty space to be filled.”

Artist Jan Kadlec views Cerny’s portfolio as a placeholder until Czechs become more discriminating about contemporary art. “Decades of communism cleared our heads,” Kadlec said. “We missed a huge gap of contemporary and conceptual art. We’re just rebuilding now. But Czechs today want the big swimming pools and the big refrigerators. After they achieve these material things, they’ll start thinking about and buying serious art.”

He continued: “I understand Cerny’s work. I like some of it. The Wenceslas statue is a clear conceptual piece. But Cerny doesn’t go deeper. There’s not enough attention to detail.... With his art I never get the feeling, ‘Oh, I wish I would have done that.’ But Czech artists are lucky he exists. He’s raising the profile of art in the community.”

Cerny recently returned from Baghdad, where he tried to encourage Iraqi artists to fill public squares once stalked by statues of Saddam Hussein with art.

In a less lofty realm, he has also pondered getting false breasts to study the reactions he’d receive. “I wondered if it would be legal,” he told the Czech media, “to go about bare-chested if I have a large bust but am still a man.”

The other day, Cerny sat with an empty teacup as the bronze men swiveled. “Yeah, I’m a prankster,” he said. “It would be nice at the moment when I’m dying if I could say to myself, ‘You know, someone enjoyed something I did.’ Why not?”

Fleishman was recently on assignment in the Czech Republic.


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