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David Černý - Building Bizarre

Words:

Edd Norval
June 19, 2018

If you've been to Prague, his work is inescapable. You'll most certainly have passed it at some point and rook in its bizarre presence - the subject, scale and placement, makes the city a living canvas for the artist. If you've never been, then this is your call.

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Around the streets of Prague - essentially his stage, Černý's work is treated with the same reverence as Michelangelo in Rome. If Kafka is the literate face of Czech art, Černý is the physical one. His works are considered shocking, having been banned in many countries. Despite their reputation, his installations and sculptures are built with positive intention - they're a demanding way to pique our interests to alternative ideas.


He's one of those loveable rogues. His work courts controversy, but it's never out-and-out offensive. His mindset is simple, "I just enjoy pissing people off." Don't be fooled by his happy-go-lucky attitude though. His satirical work is immersive and engaging, it straddles the line between art created for art-lovers and for the public. The message is clear, but the artistic value is never entirely diminished. It's fitting then that his life in the public began with a prank of sorts.


His initial pieces had both been headline-grabbing. Firstly, he had created a replica Trabant - a popular car used during East Germany's totalitarian rule and was common for people to use to escape the country in the hope of a better life in Prague. His car had been given legs - it was his way of saying that more than being a machine, these vehicles offered people mobility and the ability to reach a freer life. This piece was first spotted in public in 1990 - at around the same time he gave us 'The Day of Killing' which was essentially The Purge two decades before it came to our cinemas.


He used large scale replica guns and provocative posters at an art fair in London to recommend killing someone that day to help control the population. These pieces, whilst entertaining, didn't resonate beyond the realm of art. For this he had to touch the public where it would hurt - their modern history.

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The Soviet Tank Monument in Prague sat there, intended to commemorate the Soviet liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945 but instead was interpreted as an unfriendly reminder of the country's own Soviet occupation that ended in the Prague Spring. After the country's 1989 Velvet Revolution whereby Czech Communist power was peacefully absolved, the tank's connotations were obscured and unclear. Černý, playing on this popular sentiment, painted the tank pink with a group of friends - in doing so, he completely removed the cultural significance and context of the tank. He was quickly arrested for his part, but just as quickly released. The pink tank has now become its very own symbol of the peaceful Czech resistance that preceded its creation by only four years.


Having quickly found his niche as the public's middle-finger, Černý created a more obscure, yet powerful piece in 1999 with Saint Wenceslas. It's a statue hanging from the roof of the Lucerna Palace in downtown Prague, depicting their historic saint riding an upside-down dead horse seemingly obliviously and triumphantly. Its residence was originally at one end of Saint Wenceslas square. At the other end was a statue of the man riding a horse reared-up on its hind legs - powerful and glorious. His has been read as a parody of Czech legend and mythology, either that or an admonishment of the public's lack of respect and knowledge of the country's past. Either way, it's eye-catching and as the artist has remained tight-lipped - it's mysterious bordering on the absurd - something which would come to define his later style.

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In a shift from the outwardly political, Černý began playing about with disturbing and odd symbolism, drawing his vision yet closer to Kafka's. The pieces that he's most famous for in Prague are the giant crawling babies. On the Czech Republic's tallest tower, the Zizkov television tower, Cerncy was tasked with creating an installation to coincide with the city's inclusion as one of Europe's 2000 Cities of Culture.


His vision was somehow nightmarish, but thanks in great part to his proclivity to provoke a response, the idea for the crawling babies - the seemingly already preordained little people becoming alert slaves to the television mast's beckoning call, fit oddly into the cityscape. The brief for his part in this architectural interpretation was to make a relatively ugly structure seem more appealing. There's no doubt that his response at least offered the public an alternative perspective on it.


Although his work is integral to the way we look at Prague and Czech contemporary art, he has also created a significant impact outside of his home country. Again, with Kafka in mind, he created 'Metamorphosis' in North Carolina. The large metal heads are constructed in layers, creating a look of metallic rigidity whilst also being in a state of flux. It's both stifled and free, a claustrophobic feeling that runs through a lot of Kafka's work.


The plates move as part of a pre-written code. Although it's well-known that the artist himself often takes control of their movements. To pass without knowing what they are, it'd look like a higgledy-piggledy conglomeration of metal and water. When they all align and the face becomes clear - it's a sight to behold.

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A critic of consumerism, Černý has become an interesting figure within contemporary arts, especially as a cultural figure in the Czech Republic. On the one hand he is the rebellious figure that does what he wants, but on the other hand, everyone expects the provocation.


How then, do we reconcile the idea that he has himself become a figure of consumerism, at least in the sense that he is a figure of high social and monetary value? What he had going for him, essentially tricks up his sleeve, are things that defy expectation and bring him closer to the Czech people. They love him. He's the abrasive figure necessary to round of the country's sharper edges. However, he's still the firecracker underneath the bosses chair.

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