David Cerny - Personally, I would rather not do political art

David Cerny

David Cerny is an internationally known Czech visual artist, famous for provocative and highly original work including the giant space-age babies that crawl up the Zizkov TV tower a hundred metres or so above Prague. His latest installation newly opened at Prague's brand-new Futura gallery also promises to evoke a good deal of public reaction - and quite possibly even 'scandal'. One day after the opening I caught up with the artist to discuss politics, as well as his famous tower babies.

But, I began first by asking about his new work, as well as the new gallery space:

"It's an activity by basically one private investor who decided to open a gallery space in Prague. It has about 1,800 square metres. Hopefully it is going to be an interesting space with interesting exhibitions and really welcomed activity. I was asked to make a permanent installation - a commission - and, well, this is what you can see."

Basically there are two enormous pieces... how large are they?

"They are about five-and-a-half metres high."

And I guess you could describe them as the lower halves of two figures and two tall ladders that you climb so that you can look into the figures' behinds! Inside, there's a video installation.

"Uh, the video installation is kind of a metaphor of the Czech art-politic, ah, not even art - it's basically a metaphor for the political situation here, when politicians are sort of 'feeding' each other in a special way..."

Well I should say that the current exhibitions features [figures representing] the current President Vaclav Klaus and the head of the National Gallery Milan Knizak feeding each other some kind of slop it looks like. Are you unhappy to have seen Mr Klaus elected president earlier this year?

"Oh well, yeah, I described it a couple times... I wasn't really shocked because it was in my most horrible dreams."

About the actual video: how was it done, obviously using actors, the image was doctored?

"It's secret! But I did it, so..." {laughs}

You also took part in kind of a protest act against the president now because of his 'apparent' co-operation with the Communist Party...

"This petition is not forced against the president. That's one thing. It's forced against co-operation with the Communist Party. For me they ruined the country not only economically but most problematic thing was that they ruined the country mentally. Leaders in this country, after the election of Vaclav Klaus begin to accept the communists as regular political partners. This is something that Vaclav Havel, the whole time he was at the Castle, refused. He set a definite example 'Hey guys, I don't want to speak with you. You are democratically elected, but for me you are not a democratic party. And I think it was a great statement. He had the power that he could stand it. Which unfortunately Klaus doesn't have."

How do you feel about the Czech Republic still being a place where somebody like Alois Grebenicek, accused of torturing political prisoners in the 50s, still hasn't been brought to trial. It's taken more than five years.

"That's exactly one of the really bad things going on. How to comment it? We are living in a so-called democratic country and... well, okay, that's why I joined the activity against the Communists. It's called "Normal People Don't Speak with Communists".

Did you take part in the recent EU referendum?

"Yes, I supported as much as I could, I was even in some TV commercials saying it was the most important thing for this country to join the EU. For me it is a way that the power of local politics can be reduced."

I read somewhere that you don't do political art per se. Nevertheless, since you broke onto the art scene years ago, your work has been known for being provocative, and especially this last piece has this political aspect... How important is 'provocation' for you, as an artist?

"Provocation is the amplified...uh...amplified reason why the art exists. What's supposed to be called 'art' and not design has to have something behind. Has to have some message, whatever. Of course, it can have a static message. But it has to have a message, it's not a 'chair'. You can have certain chairs, which might become, after years, even art, if they weren't developed solely as functional objects, but, also with something in mind. So, we call it provocation, but it just means 'stronger'. And I do sometimes use stronger messages... Personally, I would rather not do any political art... I prefer to do things 'above', you know, local bullshit. And I was asked 'Will you eventually change the video when the president will be changed?' And I was thinking about it, but this is a piece that was created at this time, and it is in a certain way of course 'commentary'. As any piece of art has something to do with the time it was created."

You could also make the argument that an art-goer who doesn't know the Czech scene won't know the two figures represented [in the latest work]... either Knizak or Klaus, and wouldn't have the same response. But, at the same time this element of one feeding the other this 'slop', the expression and the kind of irony that is embodied in the work gets the message across about 'power' and so on...

"There were a couple international artists here yesterday and I think that they quite enjoyed it. Anyway..."

There's the aspect of looking into the sculpture's 'behinds'. I'm sure that you must have documented pictures already of people climbing up to have a look...

"Sure. A lot." {laughs}

Your work is known all around the world and is in many different collections. But for people who may be exposed to your work for the first time, we should explain the materials you work with and the kind of pieces that you do...

"Materials are only the way for achieving the object or whatever. You don't need to know the materials."

Most of your pieces are large, part of installations on public display, like the babies on Zizkov tower. Do they belong to the city of Prague?

"None of my pieces on display in Prague belong to the city, though the babies were installed with the help of a grant from city hall."

The thing that I personally enjoy about them is that I know that they were displayed at many different sites. When we visit your website (www.davidcerny.cz) we can see one of them in New York...

"Okay, so this concept I created when I was living in New York. The baby was created in the middle of Manhattan at the Clocktower gallery, some 300 metres from the World Trade Centre. It was created as a project for the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago. Unfortunately, the organisers for that show spent all the money on the catalogue, so there was no money left for the actual installation. So the baby wasn't 'cast', it was the first piece which went with this venue around the States. Then, I moved it here and I cast it. So, this is why it was exhibited at different sites."

Whose idea was it, though, to put the babies on the Zizkov TV tower? Which I think until then, was hated by many Czechs as a Communist relic...

"In the year 2000 Prague was one of the cities of culture and at the time I was living in Zizkov at that time. I was asked by one guy from city hall if I would be interested in doing an installation for Zizkov. They said, yeah, it's totally crazy, but we can try it. After one year of going from one clerk to another, with tons of papers, we got permission to do it. The positive reaction was so strong that city hall tried to make them a permanent installation. [They will be on display for the next ten years. - ed. note]