(This story was first published by Esquire in 2015.)
I saw my first David Cerny sculpture on a spring day, a cold Labor Day on the first of May in Prague. I had rented an apartment in Staré Mesto, and every time I’d walk to the Old Town Square, I’d pass by this stainless steel sculpture of a giant woman kneeling on the ground with her legs spread…and people were climbing into her vagina.
Called “In Utero” and installed on Dlouhá St. in 2013, it is one of many installations around Prague by the controversial artist David Cerny. It is also one of his many artworks in which the viewer completes the experience by inserting himself into the piece’s orifice.
Like his “Brown-noser” which, as the name suggests, is a pair of assholes—five-meter-tall sculptures of a person’s ass and legs bending toward a wall. A ladder leads directly into the anus where you stick your head in to watch a video of two Czech politicians feeding each other to the music of Queen’s We Are the Champions.
During my stay in Prague, I met a French expat and I asked him about the sculptures. “You don’t know who David Cerny is?” Gautier asked. I said no.
“But you must have heard of his work. He painted the Soviet Tank pink when he was an art student.”
He’s that guy?
In the early years following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, communism neither went quickly nor quietly into the night for many countries in the Eastern Bloc. It was a long process of stripping away the hold of the Soviet Union, often by reluctant governments and an impatient citizenry.
When, in the dead of the night in April 1991, the young Cerny climbed onto the Soviet tank and painted it pink, the most feminine of colors to insult the Kremlin, he was just starting to discover his own sense of irony as an artist.
“The Pink Tank” (or “Monument to Soviet Tank Crews”) got Cerny briefly arrested for civil disobedience. After the Czech government painted it back green, Prague’s citizens painted it pink again, and a tug-of-war ensued.
It was Cerny’s first subversive art, and by God, it wouldn’t be his last! Today, Prague is culturally richer for it.
In later works, he would embarrass the Czech government, anger the Council of the European Union, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi among other European leaders, make fun of both Saddam Hussein and Damien Hirst in one piece, pull off one of the best hoaxes in the art world by inventing 26 artists for a group installation—and pretty much endear himself to all modern art lovers.
By the time I finished looking at his sculptures online in Gautier’s kitchen, I said, “I would love to meet and interview him!”
“I know him,” he said casually. Gautier is into Prague’s underground culture and clubs; he once took me to a bar that was guarded by Great Danes the size of ponies and, on another trip, he took me to a march to legalize marijuana in the Czech Republic.
But I was leaving Prague in a few days for Austria and Greece. I was on a two-week vacation that started in the UK and would have ended in Amsterdam except I kept cancelling my flights and rerouting my itinerary.
When I returned to Prague in the summer for a road trip to Poland with him, he had arranged for me to meet David Cerny.
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The city of Prague has a very efficient public transport system. Like most European capitals, it has a network of subways, trams and buses, a cheap way to get around the city that relies on passengers’ honesty to buy a ticket, and when you’re caught without one by random checks you’re slapped with a steep fine.
Most tourists get to know all the train lines leading to the historical center in Prague 1—a concentration of beautiful centuries-old buildings, museums, the Jewish Quarter, churches, monuments, Franz Kafka—and Charles Bridge, one that tourists love but locals loathe to cross because of…well, tourists.
David Cerny purposely located his studio away from all this. He wanted to be away “from cops who knock at your door after 10 p.m. and tell you to shut up.” Most importantly, his studio’s location is not only hard find if you’re not into the underground club subculture, but hard to get to as well for tourists.
Walking the distance from the tram stop to his studio called Meet Factory on a sweltering summer day, the weather makes me feel like I had never left Manila.
Meet Factory is a 5,000-square-meter warehouse beside railway tracks, a hybrid space that has a club, several studios for artists-in-residence, a theater, gallery and a music hall.
The provocateur is dressed in his usual black sleeveless shirt and black pants when he comes to meet us.
He’s had this warehouse for seven years, he says. It’s perfect for him. They can hold parties or concerts here “without any idiot neighbors complaining about the noise” because there are no neighbors.
It is a place for subversives, rebels and artists. Here, Cerny courts his muses—deadline, music and film. Here, he hid the artists that he invented in his head for what he considers his most challenging project.
In 2009, the Czech Republic assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union, a rotating position among the EU countries and traditionally marked by an art installation. The year before, France erected a balloon in the French colors for its presidency.
Now, it was time for the Czech Republic to continue this tradition and Cerny was commissioned to head the project.
Called “Entropa,” the project entailed a collaborative work by 27 artists from EU countries including himself. Except Cerny invented the 26 other artists, and with his assistants he wrote biographical notes that they released to media before the unveiling. In short, he created all 27 sculptures by himself to represent EU countries in one massive installation.
Still, that wouldn’t have been so bad, would it? No. But we’re talking about David Cerny here, whose every piece is infused with satire, humor and irony, and always a strong political statement.
The exhibit was formally launched on Jan. 21, 2009, a Wednesday, but it opened to the public the following Monday. To the shock of viewers at the unveiling, what they saw were unflattering stereotypes of each of their country. Italy is depicted as a football pitch with players masturbating; Bulgaria as a series of squat toilets; Romania as a Dracula theme park; Slovakia as a Hungarian sausage; Sweden as an Ikea furniture box; France is draped with a banner marked “Gréve” (strike); the UK, which has been criticized for distancing itself from the EU, is represented as a missing piece on the map; and the Czech Republic is a LED display flashing controversial quotes by then President Vaclav Klaus.
“It was fun doing it but there was pressure every single day. It was one year of hell,” says Cerny. “There was no money in it and the moment of unveiling was really tough.”
Between Wednesday and Monday, angry EU leaders such as Sarkozy and Berlusconi demanded an apology, and EU leaders were hunting down the 26 other artists.
“The Bulgarians were freaking out because their country is depicted as a toilet. When it was formally launched, that’s when we told people that the artists did not exist.”
Cerny likes to spring surprises like this in his own dramatic fashion.
In 2013, four days before the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections, Prague woke up to a 10-meter purple hand floating on the Vltava River near Charles Bridge with the middle finger pointed at Prague Castle, home to President Milos Zeman.
Having been anti-communism all his life, it was Cerny’s way of saying “fuck you” to the president for supporting the Social Democratic party. You can imagine the flurry of phone calls to take down the sculpture.
“When I exhibited ‘Fuck Him,’ the President asked the city of Prague to remove it but he was told they could not do anything because the barge was privately owned. All the sculptures you see around Prague are mine except for the Peeing Guys in front of the Kafka Museum, which were installed before the museum. The sculptures are not owned by the city. I choose the spaces and most are installed on private properties.”
Cerny’s artworks are either beautiful, bizarre, offensive or all—but whatever the viewer thinks of them, they can never be ignored. They have put Prague, a city that he both loves and hates, on the map of modern art. “It would be nice if my art really did that, but no one cares.”
Not many people these days probably tell Cerny he’s wrong. But he’s wrong to think that no one cares. Every single person who has been to Prague with a little bit of interest in art and contemporary Czech culture cares—they walk away from his work with a smile or an understanding or, better yet, very disturbed.
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Born in Prague to a mother who was an art restorer and a father who was a painter, Cerny failed art school twice before being accepted on his third try as an industrial design student, a course he abandoned after a year to concentrate on art.
His childhood was “nothing exceptional,” and in fact he was very bad at drawing. “I had the lowest grade in drawing in elementary school. If the grading was one to five, and five meant you couldn’t continue, I got a four. ”
He had a lot of problems at school, he says. One of them was for criticizing Lenin when he was six years old and for which his mother was called in. But by his own account, he says it was an ordinary childhood of discovery (he lost his virginity at 15 to his girlfriend, who is now his dentist) and insists he didn’t have groupies even after he became famous.
Various accounts of his painting the Soviet Tank pink when he was 24 put his motivations as wanting to impress a Slovakian girl and a deep resentment towards communism and the Soviet tanks that rolled into the capital to quash the Prague Spring in 1968.
“It was both, of course,” he says now. And in the time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution, it was one big party. “I don’t think I’ve always been politicized. It’s just the nature of things, of me saying things from time to time that might be unpleasant for somebody else.”
Like Franz Kafka, Cerny is influenced by a city that he can’t leave and yet thinks of as a place that’s been left behind.
“I have that sense of irony that is part of the city. Prague is very provincial, it’s Old Europe. If you look at the trajectory of Berlin, you’d think too that Prague has unfortunately been left behind. It’s unrecognized and nobody cares about this city at all except for tourists. But we have to live with it. To be honest, I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and are just pleasant, but sometimes I do things that are political commentary. You cannot avoid that. I am unable to see things the way other people do. If I had a choice, I would do beautiful stuff rather than react to things. But, what can I say, I’m a figurative sculptor.”
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When he was on a yacht the year before, Cerny and his friends decided to rip the doors apart and use them for water skiing. He took a bottle of champagne in one hand and clung to the cables attached to the boat with the other.
A steady figure gliding on unsteady water. I watched this video many times before I met him and wondered how he didn’t get flung in the water or get into an accident. “Oh, it was just for fun and we were so fucking drunk,” he says.
What else does he do for fun? “You mean besides sex? Yachting, flying, diving, sometimes skiing and snow boarding, listening to music, reading, watching movies.”
But it’s sailing and flying that are his two his biggest passions outside of art. He got his ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot License) in four months of intensive studying (which normally takes two years in a technical school) and for which he refrained from drinking his favorite Czech beer Matuska.
What was the appeal of flying for him? “Maybe it could be a new job,” he says, laughing. “Maybe I will get tired of art. Flying is a pleasure for me.”
But there is a more serious side to his flying. He is in a relationship with a doctor and he thinks he can be very useful as a medical pilot, to fly doctors where they are needed. “There are organizations that have flying doctors and they have a Cesna which they fly as an ambulance, so that’s one idea.”
In the summer of 2014, the one thing that Cerny loves and the thing he hates the most collided. Malaysian Airline’s Flight17 was shot down over Ukraine by the Russians, killing 283 passengers and 15 crew members.
He saw the news at 2 in the morning when he turned on his laptop and he seethed with fury. “That Russian asshole Putin should be executed,” he tells me.
It’s a tragic incident that no artwork could alter.
But you can bet David Cerny’s not going to shut up about Putin or the world we live in. After all, this is the artist that painted the Soviet tank pink and flipped his own government purple.
And really, no one—not even the Czech government or any president—can do anything about it.