With kind regards from Švejk

Czech artists manage to do a lot with a little and keep it fun with irony and typical black humour. By Mimi Fronczak Rogers

With kind regards from Švejk Czech artists manage to do a lot with a little and keep it fun with irony and typical black humour. By Mimi Fronczak Rogers As the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 revolution rolls around, it’s dispiriting that two decades of Czech art still suffer from an entrenched provincialism — and it’s no longer possible to blame this isolation solely on forty years of Communism. The rivalries and squabbles inherent in a cultural scene where everyone knows everyone prevent a broader outlook from taking root. And then there’s the burden of the grand cultural heritage of the Czechs: »Czech artists have to live with the burden of their grand cultural heritage, which makes them less free« says the Slovak artist Boris Ondreička. 

Yet it was only a century ago that Czech culture readily embraced new ideas from abroad. In the first decade of the 20th century, the S.V.U. or Mánes Spolek výtvarných umělců (Mánes Association of Fine Artists) staged a series of important shows — Auguste Rodin, the Nabis, French Impressionists — that put Prague on the European art map. There was a lively exchange between Prague and other art centres, especially Paris, which kept fresh impulses flowing to the Bohemian metropolis. Czech art historian and collector Vincenc Kramář was one of the first anywhere to recognize Picasso’s genius and bring his works to Prague, where his Analytical Cubism not only received a warm welcome but was quickly adopted by Czech artists and spawned the uniquely Czech phenomenon of Cubist architecture and design. 

Now, Prague can once again claim multiple big shows and fairs of international contemporary art — the Prague Biennial, the art fair Art Prague and the annual event Tina B (an acronym for »this is not another biennial«), which grew out of a frustration with the unprofessional bickering between the organizers of the other events. Tina B aims to challenge the public’s conception of major art events through actions like placing billboards with texts by artists in public spaces throughout the city. While these shows haven’t turned Prague into a must-go art city, there is a glut of biennials, they have managed to exposed local audiences to loads of contemporary art from abroad.

Of course, chronically meagre funding and state support stalls progress. Even before the worldwide economic crisis, art institutions were struggling to stage major exhibitions of international art, usually »package shows« picked up from other institutions. The insurance alone is prohibitive. It means that anyone wanting to see important international shows has to head to Vienna or Berlin. And perhaps this is the biggest change since 1989, people can now freely cross borders for art’s sake.

But Czech culture has a talent for doing a lot with a little. A significant number of Czech artists are developing subversive strategies to address the country’s socio-political realities, recalling the best of the pre-revolution underground art scene. Artists like Kateřina Šedá are making art that takes a conceptual approach to the social space. Her Chalupecký Prize–winning project It Doesn’t Matter was a social action that was realized in the intimate sphere of her own family’s daily life. It was prompted by her grandmother’s circumstances; after she retired from her job as the head of a stockroom she retreated into a life of absolute idleness. Her response to nearly every question was »to je jedno« (it doesn’t matter) a common Czech phrase which, taken to this extreme, became a declaration of her utter indifference to life. Šedá literally drew her grandmother out of her torpor, putting her »back to work« making drawings of all the items from the stockroom. The intangible yet transformative project resulted in nothing less than the reawakening of her grandmother’s connection to society. Groups like Guma Guar, Rafani and Ztohoven are also making strong and direct artistic statements. Ztohoven’s high jinx of hacking into an earlymorning weather report and superimposing footage of a mushroom cloud rising from the north Bohemian mountains won the art collective a prestigious national art award even as the group was facing trial for scaremongering. 

Another positive aspect of Czech culture is its ability to laugh at itself. The Czech art world was stirred up by David Černý’s sculpture Entropa, unveiled in Brussels to mark the Czech takeover of the revolving EU presidency in 2009. Černý was commissioned by the Czech government to create a sculpture collaboratively with one artist from every EU member state. Instead, he and two friends created the piece themselves, a fact that was revealed only when the work was already in place. The hoax included the creation of fake artists names, CVs, even websites. It was conceptual art as dreamed up by Švejk. 

Entropa, with its »grotesque exaggeration and mystification,« which Černý cites as typical characteristics of Czech art, sends up popular Czech misconceptions and stereotypes about the rest of Europe. Černý was showing uncharacteristic optimism that Europe could laugh along with him. This art prankster’s sculpture — probably the only remarkable EU-funded artwork to date — has held a mirror up to the Czech Republic and all of Europe and sparked heated debate, as good art has always done.

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