David Cerny art in Prague guide: The artist provocateur

A Czech sculptor pokes at Prague's political hypocrisies.

Halfway across the Kafka Museum's courtyard, I'm distracted by the figures of two naked men urinating across a map of the Czech Republic. As I weave my way through Prague's cobbled backstreets towards the Astronomical Clock in the city's Old Town Square, I pass beneath Sigmund Freud hanging by one arm from a beam jutting out over the narrow road. Not far from Charles Bridge, I'm surrounded by a gang of massive babies frozen in the act of crawling. 

These installations are the work of Czech-born sculptor David Cerny.

Born in 1967, Cerny was a young adult during the peaceful Velvet Revolution of 1989 that ended 41 years of Soviet rule and communist oppression in the former Czechoslovakia. Cerny first gained national attention as an artist in 1991 (two years before the Czech Republic was founded) when he painted a national monument – a Soviet tank memorialising the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945 – pink. And signed it. He was arrested for hooliganism. 

To this day, Cerny remains a prominent public opponent of communism. 

As recently as October 2013, he installed a floating artwork on the river Vltava. It appeared four days before the Czech early general election in which the communist party were positioned to regain power for the first time since 1989. The sculpture was a massive hand with its out-of-proportion middle finger raised towards Prague Castle, the seat of presidency, which Cerny titled Gesture.

His sculptures, generally motivated by a rebellious anger toward political hypocrisies, tend to provoke extreme reactions and debate yet the artist rarely offers explanation beyond suggesting that each artwork speaks for itself. Cerny exhibits in private galleries, public spaces and his work can be found in other Czech and international cities.

After stumbling across some of Cerny's work in Prague, I start to actively seek out more. 

Tower Babies 

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Ten enormous fibreglass babies crawl up the Zizkov television tower. Tower Babies was first installed in New York, then Prague. The babies, which have barcodes where their facial features should be, were removed from the tower in 2001 but reinstalled due to public demand. Cerny has allegedly described the installation as "flies on a penis". Bronze babies can be found in the grounds of Kampa Museum.

Where: Zizkov television tower, Mahlerovy sady 1, Praha 3

Horse 

This polystyrene sculpture, a parody of the city's St Wenceslas equestrian statue, was originally intended to hang in the hall of Prague's main post office in Jindrisska Street. The director of the Czech post office, however, said it "was way too much" without actually specifying in what way. The patron saint, Wenceslas, sits on the belly of his tongue-lollingly dead upside-down horse.

Where: Cellarius Lucerna Passage, Stepanska 61, Prague 1

Hanging Man 

A figure that looks like Sigmund Freud hangs by one hand, with the other hand in a pocket, from a beam that extends out from the roof of a three-storey building. The work has already appeared in cities such as Michigan, Berlin, Stockholm and London, and in Prague's Mala Strana district. Completed in the late 1990s, it's believed to reflect the artist's thoughts, at that time, on the role intellectualism might play in the new millennium. Others think it depicts the human struggle with fear of death. 

Where: intersection of Husova Street and Skorepka Street in Prague's Old Town 

Piss 

Two slightly larger-than-life naked male bronze mannequins, now weathered to blue, face each other and urinate into the water-filled space in which they stand. Their platform is in the shape of the Czech Republic and their streams shape quotes by famous Prague residents. The sculpture also interactively accepts SMS messages at a number written next to the statue and the quotes are interrupted while the two figures spell out received messages in the same manner. 

Where: Herget Brickworks, Mala Strana

Brown-nosing 

This five-metre-high mixed media sculpture is now a permanent installation on an outside wall of Futura Gallery. Visitors interact with the artwork by climbing a ladder and sticking their head into the backside of one of two oversized naked statues to watch videos of two Czech politicians feeding each other to the soundtrack of Queen's We Are the Champions. Like all of Cerny's work, this is wide open to interpretation.

Where: Futura Gallery, Holeckova 49, Prague 5

Other Cerny sculptures in Prague include In Utero, Shark, Embryo, Quo Vadis?, Fast Tuned Skull and Guns

The artist currently resides in Prague and I went  in search of the man himself at MeetFactory, a non-profit International Centre for Contemporary Art created by Cerny as "a place for live art, music, theatre, residency, gallery workshops and more… to bring living art to the public". But the artists in residence tell me Cerny's out of the country for the week. 

Meetfactory has an exterior sidewall used as an exhibition space for other artists' large-scale sculptures, installations and paintings. Red cars on hooks hang, like bloody carcases, down the front wall of the large post-industrial building – a recognisably Cerny sculpture called Meat.

Much of Cerny's work is not for the faint-hearted, but nor is some of Prague's political and social history. If you care to let it, Cerny's work opens you to consider some of the deeper layers of this gorgeous old city of romantic bridges, cobbled streets, town squares and fairytale castles. 

The writer travelled as a guest of Czech Tourism and Rail Europe.

TRIP NOTES 

MORE INFORMATION 

czechtourism.com; davidcerny.cz.

GETTING THERE

Swiss International Air Lines, along with airline partners, offers return economy fares from Sydney and Melbourne. Phone 1300 72 46 66, see swiss.com

For public transport in Prague see myczechrepublic.com. For train travel to other European cities, including information on rail passes, see raileurope.com.au.

STAYING THERE

NH Prague, Mozartova 261/1 in Prague 5, is within walking distance of public transport and offers comfortable standard lodgings. Rooms start from CZK1,590 during low season. See nhprague.com.

SEE + DO

MeetFactory, Ke Sklarne 3213/15 in Prague 5 (tram stop: Lihovar), is open daily from 3pm-8pm. See meetfactory.cz.

DINING THERE

V Zatisi, Betlemske nam / Liliova 1 (Prague 1), offers superb Bohemian cuisine. See vzatisi.cz.

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