Question: Which country's most famous artist depicted faceless babies climbing a TV tower and pranked the European Union?
Answer: The Czech Republic
What's a creative art student got to do to get a little attention? If you're David Cerny in communist-era Czechoslovakia, you paint a Soviet tank hot pink and sign your name, thus angering the ruling party, which in turn gets you arrested, and then makes you a cause célèbre among both political activists and the art community. Since that 1991 stunt, Cerny has been the Czech Republic's enfant terrible and its best-known contemporary artist.
All around the city, his sculptural works catch the eye and confound the mind, as they defy easy interpretation. He doesn’t always explain his pieces, preferring to let the viewers come to their own conclusions. That backfired when the Czech Republic commissioned him to create a huge sculpture to mark its term hosting the presidency of the Council of the European Union. When Cerny unveiled the 2009 piece, supposedly a collage of artworks representing the 27 member states at the time, it was clearly satirical, with nations portrayed by stereotypes: Belgium is honored with a box of half-eaten chocolates, France is represented by the word for "strike," and Britain is missing entirely—for reasons that have become all the more obvious post-Brexit.
Beyond the lack of seriousness in the piece, some nations were directly outraged. Chief among these was Bulgaria, depicted as a row of squat toilets. Cerny explained that all the pieces reflected the ignorance of stereotyped perceptions among member states, but that answer did little to quell the outcry, and Bulgaria's portion of the sculpture has been swathed in black ever since. Nonetheless, most of his best work isn't hidden at all, as you'll see when you visit Prague.
7 Unusual Sculptures by the Bad Boy of Czech Art
- Gleaming with intensity, ten blank-faced fiberglass babies ascend the Zizkov TV Tower above Kampa Park. The city dragged its heels at first and delayed the paperwork for a year, in appropriately Kafkaesque fashion, before granting approval. Creepy or not, it became a huge hit with the public.
- In the courtyard of Artbanka Museum of Young Art (on Karlova Street opposite the Charles Bridge), Cerny created a cross composed of four giant metal handguns. To reference domestic violence, the guns emit sounds of doors slamming and toilets flushing.
- Inside the same museum, you’ll find one of Cerny's most controversial pieces: a tank in which the bound body of former dictator Saddam Hussein is suspended in formaldehyde. It seemingly mocks the triviality of a similar piece created by British artist Damian Hirst, which features a floating shark.
- Look up on Husova Street near Skorepka Street and you'll see what appears to be a man dangling by a single hand. Titled "Hanging Out," it depicts Sigmund Freud pondering existential questions while overlooking the city.
- Inside Lucerna Palace, suspended from the central dome, good old St. Vitus can be seen riding his horse—which is upside down. A spoof of the formal statue outside the palace, the artist used this sculpture to mock the current government.
- Outside the Futura Gallery, giant figures titled "Brown Nosers" are depicted bending over. Viewers climb two statues and stick their heads inside to see videos of the Czech President spoon-feeding the head of the National Gallery. Mirroring Peter Brueghel's "The Flatterers," this has been interpreted as a commentary on the coziness of the bureaucracy.
- A big pink sack adorns the corner of Divadlo na Zabradli, halfway down the building. Meant to depict an embryo squeezing through a drainpipe, this installation seems to symbolize the pain of birth, though whether this is about the creation of art or of social change is not clear.
Seek out these works—and much more—when you explore Prague with Grand Circle Cruise Line on Old World Prague & the Blue Danube. In this short film, some lesser-known local artists show you their favorite spots in Prague: