Earlier this year, Jakub Hadrava, a third-year student of sculpture at the University of West Bohemia, made international headlines with an unusual installation at St. George’s church, a dominant but dilapidated site located in Lukova in the picturesque Plzeň countryside. Consisting of more than a dozen life-sized ghostly figures – which the artist seated in the church’s pews. The work became a focal point for tourists from as close by as Germany and far off as Brazil.
“The idea came together in Professor Jiří Beránek’s atelier at the Ladislav Sutnar Department of Design and Fine Arts at the University of West Bohemia. Everyone in the class was to find a suitable but dilapidated church for their own installation, with the aim of also trying to raise funds for the Plzeň Diocese to use for renovation. Basically, it was my Bachelor’s work. Some locations that my colleagues went with had only the foundations or a few walls. We are all studying Landscape art, so my colleagues’ work was more abstract. One work reflected the stations of the cross, another replaced missing windows.”
St. George’s church in Lukova, dating back to the 14th century, was in better shape, with a damaged roof but still functional interior. The church, has what Czechs call a ‘bent history’ through the centuries, suffering fire and sacking, then falling into disrepair and disuse for decades after the 1960s, after part of the ceiling collapsed during a funeral. Petr Koukl is a local resident who helped artist Jakub Hadrava with the project.
“There’s no question the 14th century church has seen a lot: it suffered several fires, it was allegedly damaged by the Husittes, it was rebuilt several times. The last straw, though, was the collapse of part of the ceiling during a funeral service in 1968 which chased the mourners out. After that the church was closed and not reopened again.”
The years which followed were not kind to St. George’s, either; Petr Koukl again:
“Everything was broken or stolen. Paintings and statues were lost, the church bell was stolen, the church organ was damaged, the tower clock and mechanism are gone. Everything went missing. The communist regime certainly had no love for religion so this was hardly the only site allowed to fall into disrepair.”
Koukl, who originally bought property in Lukova for a summer home, became intrigued when he heard there was chance the church might be repaired. He agreed to make sure the church was accessible to visitors in the summer and autumn months, after the sculptures were installed.
“It’s true the church in Lukova attracted an enormous amount of attention: we had visitors from other parts of the Czech Republic but also from abroad: Germany, England, Australia, Brazil, Russia. The installation and church has proven to be very popular with photographers. You could say that this project kickstarted an interest in saving dilapidated churches in the area.”
As for the ghostly figures themselves? Creator Jakub Hadrava told me how they were produced.
“I decided to make figurative sculptures from plaster, which means getting the help of models who you prepare to cast. In my case, the models were fellow students. I did one cast in the church itself but after that I made a copy of the bench or pew and cast the sculptures at school. It means wrapping the model in plastic and a raincoat to protect their skin, then adding the different textiles dipped in plaster to create the overall shape and their hoods. A single statue, with a little luck, took around half-an-hour to complete.”
Once installed, the ghostly figures invited different interpretations: some assumed they referred to the ethnic Germans who were expelled from Czechoslovakia after the war; others took the statues as a broader reminder about the fleeting nature of life itself.
“Everyone experiences artwork differently. For some, the ghosts might be little more than Halloween monsters, for others they represent a greater spirituality. Some have remarked that the installation may refer to the Sudeten Germans. Mr Koukl has done tours for children too so they too have their own interpretations, all different.”
Petr Koukl has no doubts how he sees the work:
“For me, the work represents the souls of people long gone who used to attend church. It refers to time past. I think that they represent those who used to listen to the priest years and years ago.”