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Czech Artist Is a Dissident for a New Era in Europe

David Cerny, who famously painted a Soviet tank pink, is a post-Cold War provocateur. Some see him as an opportunist.

August 23, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — 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.

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.

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