The Czech contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale, which kicks off next weekend, is an offbeat social experiment from the leading Czech conceptual artist Kateřina Šedá. She is attempting to reintroduce normal life to popular destination Český Krumlov so as to generate debate on a major issue in today’s Europe: overtourism.
Kateřina Šedá, who famously brought a whole Czech village to London’s Tate Modern in 2011, says her project for the Venice Architecture Biennale was in part sparked by a visit she herself made to the town.
“I visited last summer on the invitation of the director of the Egon Schiele Art Centre, which is a partner in this project.
“Before I even reached the place a number of things had made me angry in the centre. First my daughter wanted ice cream but when we saw the prices my husband said it was robbery. And my mum said, It’s impossible to live here.
“When I met the director of the centre I had to ask her: Do you really live here?”
Perched on a bend in the Vltava river, Český Krumlov is without doubt one of the country’s most picturesque spots.
But visit its small historical centre today – and not just in the summer months – and you can literally hardly move for tourists. This has caused a slew of problems, says Šedá.
“Since 1990 Český Krumlov has been drawing such massive numbers of tourists that the town can no longer sustain them.
“It has caused the depopulation of the centre, as has happened in Venice and other similarly plagued destinations.
“Also the locals are divided into two groups – they call it a schizophrenic town. Locals live on the outskirts and often don’t even want to enter the centre.”
All of these changes mean that visitors can find something more resembling a thronged open-air museum than an actual town.
“So many tourists visit that the town that you don’t see normal life on the streets.
“Normal life does take place to a small degree – around 300 people live in the historic part. But it probably isn’t the kind of life that tourists might imagine.
“And if locals do take out a book or hang out their duvets then somebody starts taking photos of them. So it’s likely it’s not just the locals who would like more authenticity – it’s the tourists too.”
“It’s actually very strange. It’s kind of a marathon. They try to visit the most possible places in the shortest possible time.
“That means that in their three hours in Český Krumlov they hardly have time to do anything but discard some rubbish.
“They have for instance three days and eight or 10 cities and towns that aren’t even all in the Czech Republic.
“So actually all they have time for is to walk through the place, discard some rubbish and leave again.”
Kateřina Šedá’s work for the Venice Architecture Biennale is entitled UNES-CO, which translates as something like “bear (as in carry) what”, and refers to the fact Český Krumlov is, like central Prague, on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The project stems from her own highly original approach to the world around her – and relates to some of the themes that have informed her always thought-provoking art to date.
“In recent years I’ve focused a lot on socially excluded localities, and Český Krumlov strikes me as being similar to them in some ways.
“This comparison may at first glance seem absurd, given that we’re talking about such a beautiful town.
“But the elements are identical: There are buildings where nobody lives and shops nobody needs – you probably don’t need 37 shops selling jewellery in the centre of a town.
“So I decided to approach it as if it were a ghetto and came up with this experiment.”
In concrete terms, the artist has hired people to live in the historical section of Český Krumlov. Yes, to live there. They have been instructed to behave as they would in any other neighbourhood.
“I am offering residents starter apartments, which are usually provided to young families and the disadvantaged.
“I’m also offering them jobs on the basis of what Český Krumlov most needs – and that is the pursuit of normal life.
“They will do this in the centre during the high tourist season and we’ll pay them for it.”
“I did six months of research and the reactions are naturally very varied.
“It depends on whether you have a business in the centre or live in the centre and the situation suits you, or whether you live on the outskirts.
“But very few people indeed think the current situation is the best possible one.
“Some say they like tourists because they walk slowly and smile more than locals.
“Others really hate tourists and say they only look them in the eye if they’re paying for something.”
Adam Budak is a curator at the National Gallery in Prague and helped select Šedá’s project as the Czech representative at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, whose theme is “freespace”.
Budak describes her project as “subversive” – and says her background gives her a novel perspective.
“Kateřina Šedá is an artist. She is not an architect. So this is already an interesting point – that the jury selected for the Venice Architecture Biennale an artist.
“However, what her practice is about can be called social architecture, and it was no surprise that Kateřina Šedá received last year the prestigious Architect of the Year award.
“She constructs relationships between people. She refers to the sense of community. And she calls herself a director of people.”
Be that as it may, the unconventional artist is keen to point out that her aim in Český Krumlov is not to put on a show.
“I would like to emphasise that this project is not some kind of theatre involving actors for tourists. That doesn’t interest us.
“What does interest us is what somebody from the outskirts of town, or somewhere else entirely, experiences right in the tourist centre – if normal life can take place there and under what circumstances.”
Kateřina Šedá says that once the three-month project ends she would like to create a permanent record of the ideas generated in the form of a book or film.
In the meantime, the many thousands who visit the Czech pavilion at the Architecture Biennale will get a strong flavour of UNES-CO, according to Adam Budak, who says the project in Český Krumlov is already being filmed to be screened in Venice from next weekend on.
“People can observe what’s happening, how the situations are being arranged by Kateřina and how normal families conduct normal life by performing normal activities, such as cleaning carpets or walking and playing with children and other really mundane, banal situations.
“And the space of the Czech pavilion will be turned into a fictive ‘UNES-CO’ office where some programmes will be conducted in reference to what tourism means, how our cities are affected by tourism and what should be done in the future in order to avoid a kind of pathological dimension of tourism.”