The commotion in recent weeks over David Černý’s Entropa exhibit in Brussels has made the sculpture one of the hallmarks of the Czech EU presidency. While its opponents deem its stereotypical depiction of the 27 member states a thing of antagonism, something between mockery and insult, its proponents have defended the work as a defining example of Czech humour and have asked what European representation means at all, if national humour is censurable. This week in Arts we’ll be taking a look at the wider context of Černý’s work, what could be called a “principle of mystification” that is traditional in Czech art and perhaps in the Czech psyche.
The sound of elevator music that accompanied the flash and mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion on a morning weather report. Things like that happen from time to time in the bizarre and mystifying world of the Czech Republic. It is a place where the little green man on the traffic crossing has a gun to his head, the main television tower is infested with giant black babies and you might find crowds of people racing towards a non-existent supermarket.
This is the 5th dimension of Czech life, a custom of subterfuge embraced by Czech art; the examples I cited just now being "works of art" that have appeared in recent years. I spoke to Zdeněk Dostál of the art collective Ztohoven to find out if there’s actually a name for this school of mayhem.
“I think in the world many terms exist that describe what we’re doing, like ‘Artivism’ or ‘Culture Jamming’ or ‘Reality Hacking’, but what we really like to call our art – because we still think we are doing art – is a very nice Czech word which is mystifikace – “mystification”. We are using mystification to open the eyes of other people to show them they don’t have to live in lies; that they can be open, that they can live a free life if they use their critical [judgement], and that’s what we’re doing. And we’re using mystification as a type of expression.”
My question is, is it all a big joke disguised as art, or art masquerading as a joke? To further my polemic on these questions, I’m paying a visit to the Academy of Arts in Prague, and I have to say, I find a certain answer just in the atmosphere itself. Here in Prague’s Letná quarter of a warmish winter evening, the streets are hushed and most of the muted sounds come from the dim student lounges lining them. The facades are decrepit, grandiose and beautiful. It is, in a word, mystifying. In a corner pub with a locked door and no sign I meet art professor and artist Veronika Bromová and her students, who I ask if “mystification” can be considered a school of Czech art.
“Mystification definitely has a place in Czech art. Why not?”
“An important place! Because it’s always good when people need to think about something in a general way, and mystification and shock in art is definitely a strong weapon to help people change some of the stereotypes in what they think and do.”
But is it art?
“I think the art is in the disruption of the ordinary situation, and in the thinking and the spectrum of possibilities that people know, it’s kind of an intervention into the ordinary rules. It’s something new.”
In May of 2003, Czech film students Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda launched a massive 9-million-crown advertising campaign for a new supermarket that promised the lowest prices and everything else the avid Czech shopper could dream of. The “Czech Dream” project drew more than 3000 would-be customers to a Potemkin storefront in an empty meadow with nothing more than scaffolding and a forest behind it. I find Filip Remunda in a cosy Holešovice studio, musing over action and reaction:
“In 1989 we all thought that this is the time when we and the nation will be really free and there will be no oppression and mystification, which is not true because when you go to the Czech media and worldwide media there you can always find some kind of mystification, so one should not be surprised when there is some artistic reflection of it.”
And does goading thousands of people count as art or social agitation?
“There is an expression that comes from the Czech Dream project, something that was very important for the project, and that is “friendly cheating”. Which means that although we cheated the people with mystification, with a fictitious supermarket, it was meant as an act of friendship. We would say that friendship in this sense is in the intention – why you do it. Because as opposed to the owners of the real supermarkets – when they are opening something and cheating people with incredibly low prices and in the end [people] cannot find the products at these prices – in our superstore we meant it as the experience of touching a hot pot, and you can experience that you shouldn’t do it next time.”
Art imitating life. The more absurd and blatant the art, the more concealed and infinitely more absurd the perceived reality behind it. The brilliance of Czech mystification and its kindred movements abroad is often in its playing by the rules so drastically and with such drastic innocence that their impropriety is laid bare by the excess. One of Prof. Bromová’s students told me of a project along just those lines:
“I tried to live in IKEA supermarket with my girlfriend because they had an advertisement that said “come to try to live here, try our beds, try our living rooms!” and so on. So we came and lived like at home, and it was a really nice feeling because the customers felt like people who came to your home for real. When they came to the bedroom they said “oh sorry, you live here! We are sorry! It’s nice that you live here!” Finally we were there for about 6 hours.... cooking and sleeping...”
Sociologist and security guard alike may find themselves asking the same question: How does a young Czech get it into his head to spend a clandestine evening replacing 700 ad windows in the Prague Metro with question marks? Its answer I can only defer to the culprit himself. Zdeněk Dostál again:
“We don’t like systems, political systems. It comes from history because for a long time we were under the system of the Austrian monarchy, then under the Russian occupation. So in the present day it’s still [topical]. So maybe it’s because of that. But I think we, as Czech people, we like to play, we want to have fun, and we are able to watch ourselves from [a detached point of view], and that’s why this sort of sarcasm or mystification is part of us. And I think it’s good because you don’t take yourself as seriously. Yeah, it is a joke, but if you look deeply it’s a joke with a deep topic. It has always been the case that a king needs a clown by his side to see the truth.”
Instead of feeling antagonised, aggrieved Europeans might better
appreciate David Černý’s Entropa as a continuation of an ingrained
spirit of farcical resistance that goes back to the Good Soldier Švejk
himself. And expect more of the same in the future.
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