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David Cerny: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Provocateur

12/08/2013 10:55 am ET | Updated Feb 07, 2014

He started out his career by painting a tank pink. In 1991, David Cerny was an art student in Prague. For years he had walked by the Soviet tank mounted on a pedestal in Kinsky Square and fumed. The tank commemorated the Soviet liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, and indeed the square was once known as the Square of Soviet Tank Crews. But the tank also reminded the citizens of Prague of the Soviet tanks that entered the city in 1968 to put down the Prague Spring.

So, one night in the spring of 1991, Cerny painted the tank pink. "Of course, it was a political statement and at the same time it was an artistic action," Cerny told Radio Praha. "And it was a lot of fun."

Cerny told me a different story in an interview in his favorite pub in Prague back in February. He said that he painted the tank in order to get the attention of a girl in Bratislava that he wanted to attract back to the capital. But it's hard to know when Cerny is pulling your leg. That is, after all, practically his artistic mission.

In any case, back in 1991, the Russian embassy filed a complaint. The Czechoslovak army repainted the tank green. And a group of Czech parliamentarians, in solidarity with Cerny, repainted the tank pink again.

The tank was finally removed. It reportedly is sitting in a military history museum outside Prague -- still pink.

You can see Cerny sculptures all around Prague. He prefers his work to be in public rather than confined in a museum. Outside the Kafka museum, there's a fountain sculpture of two men urinating into a pool. The pool is shaped like the Czech Republic. If you send a text to a particular number, the men will inscribe your message on the map of the country.

"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 told the Los Angeles Times.

He told me that he considered this just a "nice sculpture" that's not controversial at all. But then again, like his figures of the two men, Cerny likes to take the piss, as they say in England.

Inside the Lucerna, the fabulous Art Nouveau building in downtown Prague, a sculpture of Good King Wenceslas hangs from the ceiling. He is riding his horse, just like the famous statue at the top of nearby Wenceslas Square. But his horse is upside down, tongue lolling from its mouth. Cerny's artistic ethos is carnivalesque: the world turned upside down.

Cerny's most famous sculpture is Entropa, commissioned by the Czech Republic to mark its presidency of the Council of the European Union. It was supposed to be a collective effort of 27 artists from each of the member states. Cerny fabricated the whole thing himself, along with several assistants, making up bios for all the "contributing artists." The different sections of the sculpture depict imaginary coats of arms for each of the EU member states.

They are not, to say the least, flattering. Bulgaria is represented by squat toilets. Germany's emblem is the intersection of Autobahn highways that resembles a swastika. For Italy, a number of football players are masturbating on the pitch. The United Kingdom is depicted by a missing piece.

"The Polish part was quite tough," he told me. "But unexpectedly the Polish part was actually exhibited in the main hall of the Warsaw National Museum. The Polish section looked like a bunch of priests raising a gay flag in the middle of a potato field. It looked like the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. They somehow understood it. I expected protests from Britain. I expected it would be too much for the Italians, but nothing happened. Germany did protest. Merkel, if I remember correctly, sent a fax with 'Okay, but why?'"

We talked about his early rebelliousness, his memories of the Velvet Revolution, and his disappointments with Czech politics.

The Interview

At what point did you realize that you did not like the Communist government?

At what point? When I was six or seven. When I was six, I said something really bad about Lenin.

What did you say?

Some bullshit about Lenin. I was six and it was 1972 -- it was the beginning of normalization. The teacher asked my parents to come in, and she said, "You should be quiet in front of him." Ten years later, they would have probably ended up in prison.

So you were basically repeating what you heard from your parents.

Yes, I was only six!

Your parents were not enthusiastic about the regime.

No. They did not emigrate. This was stupid. They should have just run away.

Why didn't they?

Because my mother did art restoration. She was a real restorer. She was in art history, and somehow they were surviving. She never publicly protested even when she was kicked out of the national gallery. She ended up being a freelancer. There were only a few professions where you did not need to have an employer: circus performers, actors, visual artists, singers, musicians. Otherwise you had to have a stamp on your identification card and that was it.

Your father was...

He was a graphic artist, a painter. But he was doing some bullshit semi-commercial work, which he didn't like.

What did you think you were going to do when you grew up?

Emigrate!

When I was seven or eight I decided I was going to be a pilot. I was thinking about that. Pretty fast I abandoned that idea. I knew that I was going to emigrate -- that was the only option. My uncle emigrated to Canada when I was a child. He was younger than my mother -- he was a pilot, he was a good connection. So, I was going to emigrate.

At what point did you want to be an artist?

Because of problems with my behavior in elementary school, I did not get a recommendation for gymnasium. I ended up in an electronics high school. In the second year, I realized that this was not interesting. So, I quit. Well, I didn't quit, but I stopped working on those things and started working on design. That was the only apolitical thing I could think of. I figured I would design vacuum cleaners or something.

The change came in 1989. Did your thoughts of emigration disappear?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.