A History of Irreverent Art in Prague
The view from my vacation rental apartment in Prague would have been perfect but for an ugly, sterile tower poking up behind lovely old buildings that gleamed golden in the late afternoon sunshine. The more I looked at it, the more I wondered what it was and why it was there.
My map identified it as the Zizkov Television Tower and Google provided the rest of the details. Construction on this unattractive three-pronged mega-tower began in 1985, when Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) was still one of the Soviet Bloc countries. From the beginning, residents resented and were highly suspicious of the true function of the tower. Rumors circulated that it was intended to jam incoming western radio and television transmissions. Official criticism was banned, however privately people referred to it by a variety of offensive nicknames that referenced its rocket-like design.
Following the ousting of the Soviet regime during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Czech artist David Cerny accepted a commission to make the tower more attractive and in 2000 installed the first of his irreverent “Babies” – giant bronze infants that appear to be crawling to the top. I was more than intrigued. From my window the Babies were not visible, so the following day, under threatening gray skies, I hiked up the hill for a closer view. It took me a moment to see the Babies. Zizkov TV Tower is so immense that Cerny’s enormous infants seem like ants marching to the top.
The following week I had an opportunity to see just how large these “Babies” are when I walked through Kampa Park on the shores of the Vitava River. Three of Cerny’s creations guard the entrance to the Kampa Museum, where they draw a constant stream of onlookers who attempt to climb and mount the slick bronze sculptures.
Cerny’s art is unquestionably irreverent and critical but he was not the first in Prague to create art with a social undercurrent. During the Soviet years, rock and roll was officially banned by the Russians and some musicians were even jailed for playing it. Musicians got around the ban by playing only instrumental numbers, but when John Lennon was murdered in 1980 his lyrics, which spoke of peace, freedom, and individual rights, became a rallying point for Czechs. Soon afterward a portrait of Lennon appeared on a wall in Old Town, accompanied by graffiti criticizing the Communist regime. No matter how often officials whitewashed the wall, messages reappeared, even after surveillance cameras were installed and guards were posted. Today the wall survives as a continually evolving art installation honoring Lennon and the ideals for which he stood.
As a child of the 60’s who grew up with the Beatles, seeing the wall was a pilgrimage of sorts for me, but I was totally unprepared for the age of most of the visitors, none of whom had been alive when the Beatles emerged onto the rock scene. I asked several why they had come and was astounded to learn that not only did they embrace Lennon’s ideals, they knew the lyrics to all the Beatles’ songs. The idea that the Beatles, who had been such an important part of my teenage years, could have made such a long-lasting impact on the world, touched me to the core. I stayed for more than an hour, watching in fascination as youngsters added their own special messages with spray paint or magic marker.
The prolific works of David Cerny, which poke fun at the post-Communist regime and are found all over Prague, ensures that irreverent art is alive and well in the Czech Republic. At Futura art gallery, visitors climb a ladder set up between two giant legs of Cerny’s sculpture “Brownnosers” to stare into a fibreglass anus, where a video shows Czech Republic’s ex-president Vaclav Klaus and head of the National Gallery Milan Knizak spoon-feeding each other slop to the sound of Queen’s “We Are The Champions.”
But the most graphic piece of all may be the one entitled “Piss.” Two androgynous bronze male figures hold their penises and rotate back and forth as they pee into a pool shaped like the Czech Republic. Having come from a humorless, severely repressive past, it’s good to know that today Czechs can laugh at themselves and continue to be irreverent.