David Černý: Prague’s Bad-Boy of the Art World

Shock and Awe: Czech sculptor revels in creating outlandish, highly controversial public art.

Known as the “bad boy of Eastern European art,” David Černý doesn’t mind stirring up controversy through his bold art forms. Skilled in mixed media, he is most known for his larger than life sculptures dotted around the city of Prague, Czech Republic.

His best-known works project his displeasure with communist and post-revolution politics. Some of his sculptures are 3-dimensional commentary on Czech grin-and-bear-it attitudes through hundreds of years of occupation by other countries and Marxist regimes. Others display his interpretation of inept and corrupt politicians directing the course of the nation. In the post-communist era, repressed ideas and suppression are unbridled as the country embraces democracy and free thought. For the non-conformist Černý, the freedom of artistic and political expression has become the perfect storm for boundless inspiration.

His brazen attitude is perhaps best portrayed in his bronze sculpture of two men with swiveling hips urinating into a pond shaped like the Czech Republic. The water stream is actually writing famous Czech quotes. Unabashed, he delights in stirring reaction with his provocative art – a far cry from being mundane and overlooked.

Krokodyl, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

When asked by Praguenet about his anti-communist views and if he was a right-wing artist, Černý’s says, “I wouldn’t want to categorize myself. I’m certainly not a right-winger. I may have more of a more right-wing mentality but, this is because of what we’ve experienced here in this country. If I lived in the U.S., I would probably be left wing. Here, after forty years of communism, the experience is still felt. But in a way, I’m glad I experienced it.”

Audacious Acts of Artistry

Among his other satirical and political shockers is a sculpture of celebrated 10th century King Wenceslas astride an upside-down dead horse hanging in the Lucerna Passage – perhaps a commentary on modern day Czechs seeking identity elsewhere than in their historical past. Then there’s the Brown-nosers sculpture, portraying Czech politicians sharing slop inside a giant anus where the viewer must climb a ladder to peer inside.

Černý’s Entropa sculpture drew controversy for its stereotype representations of European countries such as Bulgaria portrayed as a Turkish squat toilet, and a swastika-like highway tangle representing Germany – all having jaw-dropping impact. The project was to commemorate the presidency of the Council of European Union with 27 artists from the European Union would contribute their artistry to the work. But Černý raised even more eyebrows when he faked the names of European artists and did the entire work himself.

One of his most controversial works portrays Saddam Hussein in a tank of formaldehyde. The display drew harsh criticism by various mayors in fear that it could “shock people, including Muslims” during a time when cartoon depictions of Muhammed escalated tensions in communities. The work was banned in various cities spanning Belgium to Poland to Czech Republic before finally being displayed in a gallery in the town of Cieszyna. The town’s mayor, Bodgan Ficek remarked, “I cannot see any reason a politician should censor art.”

But it was a pink painted Soviet-era tank that first gained him recognition in 1991. The tank was a monument to Soviet Tank Crews and Černý painted it pink, a symbol of a brutal force rendered powerless. He was arrested for civil disobedience and the tank was restored. In protest of his arrest, members of parliament repainted the tank pink again. Shortly thereafter, he was released.

Hynek Moravec, via Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5

 Art with Mass Appeal

Other of his works are somewhat less incendiary such as the London Booster, a massive sculpture of a converted London double-decker bus supported by human-like arms and buttocks. This installation was made in commemoration of the 2012 London Summer Olympics to inspire the Czech Olympic team. The bus actually does pushups with its hydraulic arms and is a big crowd pleaser.

His sculpture depicting literary writer Franz Kafka resides in a shopping district in Prague. The giant 36 ft tall, 39-ton head is made of 42 mirrored stainless-steel layers, 38 of which revolve. The sculpture was created as a parody on the author’s shifting personality.

NoJin, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Another creation called Hanging Man is a seven-foot sculpture of Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand from a beam suspended off a rooftop. Černý created it to question the role intellectualism has in the new millennium. Made in 1996, it was displayed in major cities around the world and is now placed on the busy Husova Street in old-town Prague. On more than one occasion, emergency vehicles were dispatched as the sculpture has been mistaken for a real attempted suicide. Ironically, Freud had died by assisted suicide.

Xosema, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Then there are the barcode-faced babies crawling up and down the Prague TV Tower formerly known as Zizkov TV Tower in Prague. Once a landmark of totalitarianism and called the ugliest building in Prague, it is now an entertainment complex and is the tallest tower with the highest viewing platform in the Czech Republic. Along the 709 ft structure, the 10 crawling babies some describe as “creepy” tower above the city of Prague as a symbolic gesture that people lack individualism and have an inability to grow and flourish under communism.

Cybjorg, via Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5

 Upping the Czech Art Heritage

Born in Prague in 1967, Černý studied at the Kurt Gebauer Studio at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague from 1988 to 1994. He then studied abroad including in Boswil in 1991 when the Swiss government gave him a grant. In 1994 to 1996, he enrolled in the PSI Artists Residence in New York. In 1995 and 1996 he was a participant in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program held in New York.

Černý has been lavished with media coverage, awards, and recognitions, among them the coveted Jindřich Chalupecký Award in 2000 as the country’s most promising young visual artist. He was awarded a prize in 1990 by Biennale Interieur in Kortrijk, Belgium. In 1996 while in the U.S., Černý won a grant from the Pollack Krasner Foundation. His sculptures have been displayed in many exhibitions and shows around the world.

Aside from his public projects, he also runs a studio for emerging artists instructing them in alternative expression. “After spending two years doing art programs in New York, when I returned to Prague, I felt it was missing something like a residency program. So, I started one myself,” he says in a Corinthia interview. He founded the MeetFactory in 2001, a non-profit international center showcasing contemporary art. Housed in an industrial building in the Smichov district, the center’s facade is adorned by two red cars suspended from giant metal spikes.

Černý continues to create sculptures to jar our imagination. We look forward to seeing Prague’s native son’s next works tantalizing us into deeper contemplation, causing us to reflect on our own individualism or sparking controversy on societal issues.