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.
Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was in the first grade in university. It was the end of September or October 1989, and we went to see the Max Ernst show in Leipzig. It was me and four school colleagues. We took the train to Leipzig for the day.
On the way back, the train was completely full of people with pillows and Teddy Bears and bullshit like that. All of them were saying that, “We are going to Lake Balaton. We’re not going to the Czech Republic.
And we said, “Yeah, of course, we understand. When we cross the border, we will show you where the West German embassy is.”
“Oh, no,” they said, “we will switch trains and continue to Lake Balaton.”
At that time, there were already demonstrations in East Germany. We didn’t see them directly, but we’d seen photos of the demonstrations on the square in Leipzig. But this whole train of East Germans, as we got closer to the border, they were still saying that they were going to Balaton in Hungary. “Oh, I’ve never been to Prague, I’d like to see the city,” they were saying.
Of course. Yeah.
We crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. That was the moment when we Czechs were going back into the cages of our zoo. But as soon as we passed through the customs, the East Germans all went, “Yeh, we made it, YEEAAAH!”
When we made it to the train station in Prague, they all said, the whole train said, “Now, where’s the West German embassy?”
It was a Sunday morning and we slept on an empty train when we got to the station. Then we were like, “Where should we go? Well, let’s go to the embassy and see what happens.” When we got to the embassy, we saw one of the first busses leaving for West Germany. Everyone was helping the Germans, giving them tea. It was just an unbelievable atmosphere. And all these Czech police, who were actually the police that were beating us, were guarding the East Germans until they left.
There were 2-3,000 people who were accommodated in the embassy garden. I think it was a week later when they broke through the border at Checkpoint Charlie.
You guys were returning to the zoo to be locked up again. You thought that the Germans were doing things and nothing was going to happen here in Czechoslovakia?
It’s hard to say. I remember all the demonstrations that we had. But it seemed like this regime was much tighter than the East German regime. Even at that time they had a huge photo exhibition of the demonstrations publicly exhibited in the square in Leipzig. Nothing like that existed here. Here it was like, “We don’t like those elements that are trying to break up our quiet workers’ government.” The Bolsheviks were constantly repeating that bullshit. At the time, it looked like something would happen here, but it might have taken another year, who knows.
At that time I was prosecuted for being part of some demonstration. My passport was stopped. I got a paper that I should come and give up my passport a week after I returned from East Germany. I knew that it was going to happen, that I would eventually get into some kind of trouble.
Then a week after the Wall fell, the student demonstration took place here in Prague.
I really forget the date of the Wall falling.
Late at night on November 9. And then the demonstration happened here on November 17th.
I think we were in Leipzig at the beginning of October. We were very cold.
Did you participate in the November 17 demonstration here in Prague?
I was on Narodni street. I was in the second row near the front of the protest. I was carrying a poster that said, Za Svobodu (For Freedom). When we were trying to figure out what to put on a poster, I was thinking, “If I am caught again, I will definitely end up in jail.” So we just put Za Svobodu on the poster. If I was caught I would just say that I meant that I was for President Svoboda!
I was lucky that I was not beaten. We were near Mikulandska street when the police began attacking from both sides. Narodni was closed at both ends, and there was a police cordon, and there was no street on the other side. So we went up Mikulandska. A school colleague lived on Mikulandska. His parents were living in the first house around the corner from that corridor on Narodni where they were beating people. We knew that the first door was open and we just ran into that house. And then we ran up to the roof. With these two other guys we were jumping from roof to roof, and we ended up on the other side of the block. At that time, most houses were not locked. So we got into this other house and down the main stairway. Somehow we managed to get behind the police. And we just ran away.
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?
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?
Yes, except when I was in New York, I seriously moved there with all my stuff. I had nothing here. I gave up everything. I was there about three years and then I changed my mind, probably because of…a girlfriend. Going back and forth for a while, I ended up being like a sailor. An apartment in New York with one girlfriend and another apartment here with…
A sailor and different ports.
Yes. Then suddenly the one from New York came to visit me and then she found out that she was…not alone. At that moment, it was difficult to return to New York. She was living in my apartment at that time. Ah, it was a fantastic apartment. It was on the Lower East Side, on Suffolk Street, fourth floor: $300! For two rooms with a bathroom and a kitchen. I sublet it. But then I lost the sublet seven years ago.
So, the tank was…
Was that a spur of the moment decision? Had it been pissing you off for a long time?
Yes, for a long time. But doing it was like [snaps his fingers].
Someone told me that Havel was sitting in a car watching you paint the tank pink. Is that true?
No, no. The truth is that I was dating a girl in Bratislava and she did not want to, well, she was a virgin. Somehow I needed to get her back to Prague. I’m not kidding.
This was the launch of your public career. You painted a tank pink in order to lure this girl to Prague.
If you would see her, you would understand. I am not kidding. She ended up as an actress. So, yes, that was the point. Unfortunately, we split a couple months later.
Okay, the truth about Havel is that, through this one guy, he knew that it was going to happen. But he did not know when I was going to do it. He went there with the mayor of Prague, at that time Jaroslav Koran. It was after a party, so they were there at midnight or 12:30 a.m. But we did it early in the morning at 5:30 a.m. So, they actually went there to see it, they didn’t see anything, and they decided to go — to another party.
The reaction you got was the one you hoped for — in addition to the woman in Bratislava?
I would say that the goal was achieved.
And the removal of the tank?
Yes, it was eventually removed for different reasons.
What did you think at that moment about the changes taking place in this country?
It was a nice party. It was a fantastic, enormously beautiful party for two, three, four years. But I expected that the changes would be permanent, and the change would also happen in the thoughts of the people. But looking at the results of the recent presidential election, this did not happen.
That’s many years later.
Many years later, 55 percent of the voters supported the candidate who is a liar: a liar, a cheater, pro-Moscow, pro-Russian. He says he is pro-EU. But his word is worth nothing. He’s probably only a little better than Fischer.
Aren’t you happy to see the end of Klaus?
Who would be not happy? Most people look at the president and adore him just because he’s the president. He is adorable not because of what he does but because of his position. A lot of people adored Husak! Look at what people said about Husak, “He is the president, even if he’s a mass killer.” And there were always places, like the sports stadium, where Klaus was greeted by clapping and adoring fans. But last weekend it was headline news that Klaus was booed by the audience. He’s lost an enormous amount of appeal. His popularity has dropped. Right now he is quite hated.
The people I interviewed in Bratislava said that the country was split by Klaus and Meciar and they are now both hated in their countries.
During those three or four years of party time, it was also a good time to be doing art here too, yes? There was some support from the arts coming from Havel, for instance.
There was, I suppose. Me personally, I had no experience of any kind of support. And it’s hard to say that there was support from Havel. Yes, there was the removal of the Stalin monument. It was basically a chaotic period. At the same time they were forming the mafias. The culture scene was more visible than the mafia scene, but the mafias formed themselves quite successfully.
You spent two years in New York.
For two years I had the stipend and I was going back and forth.
Did you carry the Czech Republic with you to New York in the way you did art or looked at art?
I probably did. What I missed in New York was the sense of irony, self-irony.
In New York, the capital of self-irony?
Yes, even there. At a certain moment, people were taking themselves too seriously.
I supposed the New York art scene takes itself very seriously.
I missed the self-irony. I remember going back and forth. I’d come back here, return to this enormous party for one week and not sleep at all and then go back to New York and start working again.
Do you feel any affinity to artists working in this part of the world? I went to an exhibit of Prague artists and you were on the bottom floor with the rock star assembly kit. Everything seemed quite tame and then yours jumped out. It wasn’t like anything else there.
I am probably part of the Czech art scene. But within the Prague art scene, well, I’m not the right person to ask, but somehow I’m not part of the art scene here. Seriously. The Prague art scene exists. But we are separated.
Was it a friendly divorce?
It was a divorce because of different sexual preferences. Their sexual preference is doing it to itself. And I enjoy variety.
Did Entropa get the kind of reaction that you had hoped for?
I’ve been asked that question maybe 1,000 times. No and yes. We expected something else. We expected that Poland would probably declare war.
The Polish part was quite tough. 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?”
With the passage of years, do your works still have the same shock value? Not just Entropa but for instance, the two guys urinating on the Czech Republic?
The two guys urinating on the Czech Republic: it’s a nice sculpture. It’s not controversial at all.
Do any of the pieces generate the kind of controversy now as they did when you created them?
Saddam Hussein in a tank of formaldehyde is a bit problematic. And this is why I end up on the list of al-Qaeda, which is not very pleasant.
I’m surprised that al-Qaeda would find it objectionable. Al-Qaeda was no fan of Saddam Hussein.
Somehow it happened, I don’t know.
That was one of your pieces that actually got censored.
One time in Poland, one time in Belgium.
Where is it now?
Here in Prague.
Until December, but now the place is closed. I don’t like the piece that much. I did it for one exhibition, and it was one of the few pieces that refer to another art piece. I hate to work that way, actually.
You have no more plans to do other referential art?
What do you think of the nature of political art these days?
There are a few people who are still working in that field. Not that much. I was trying to make things that are considered political art, but these art pieces could exist without the political context. There are some Polish artists who are doing pieces that are more like actions than visual art, like the one that involved sending fake SMS messages to an MP.
We’ve seen some moves backwards in the region toward greater authoritarianism and nationalism, as in Hungary, with FIDESZ. Do you think we’re seeing a general rollback?
It’s not so bad here as in Hungary. But yes, you’re right, these things are happening.
Why do you think this is happening?
People are losing their memories. We have that expression: if you can’t learn from your mistakes, you will be doomed to repeat them.
Why this failure of memory?
It must be a genetic problem.
But if you look at Germany, they’ve done a pretty good job of dealing with the past and ensuring that Nazism doesn’t return.
Yes. We unfortunately never went through that catharsis. I don’t know why. With the presidential elections here, it looked like there was some hope. Actually, the hope was enormous. Here in this bar, we have seven people who worked on the campaign. But it did not happen.
The last question is the same question I ask everyone –
When am I going to commit suicide?
I wasn’t thinking of asking that. Have you had any major second thoughts about your philosophy from 23 years ago? Or do you think the same way as you did back then.
Two weeks ago, I felt fucking disappointed. I felt depressed, and I was seriously thinking about the possibility of moving. During the last weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out what happened, trying to get rid of the personal feelings and look at it realistically. To be honest, two days before the first round, I was sitting here and I said, “It will never happen. Karel Schwarzenberg will not get to the second round. Sorry, Karel, it won’t happen.” In those two weeks, as he went into the second round, I fell in love with the idea that it could happen. Now, it’s just a matter of trying to get out of the hangover.
There’s another election. This is just the presidential election.
The next election will be a disaster. The left wing will 100 percent win. And the socialists will definitely depend on the real Communist Party. They’ll say, “We’ll give you something that is not so popular like the ministry of education or the ministry of culture.”
The Communist Party has never been in the government since 1989.
No, Havel wouldn’t even talk with them.
So, what’s next?
Where can I go? There are only two choices.
In the last two years, I had two offers to go to the States, which I unfortunately refused. If I get another one, maybe I would consider it a bit more deeply.
Prague, February 19, 2013