37-year-old Czech sculptor David Cernę gained international recognition in 1991 when he painted a Soviet tank on display in Prague pink. The symbolism of this act of artistic vandalism was unmistakable - after forty years of Soviet occupation, the symbol of a brutal foreign occupation was finally rendered powerless.
Cernę shudders at the idea of being called an artist and sees himself as a simple sculptor, whose main motivator is an incessant and all-encompassing sense of anger. His public image is that of a rebel, whose sole intention is to shock. However Cernę's works are important in their own right, aiming for the head as much as the heart. The sculptor's most visible works include surreal model babies crawling up Prague's Communist-era television tower, an upside-down rendering of Prague's sacred statue of King Wenceslas, and a model of a human behind inside of which lies a television screen showing a picture of the Czech President. Cernę is unmistakably a political artist. His uncompromising attitude towards today's Czech communists, and Czech politicians in general, has made him many enemies and, most recently, lost him a prestigious commission to create a WWII war memorial. But Cernę is unapologetic, lashing out at today's hypocrisies both artistically and verbally. .
Prague Compass: Why did you go to New York and what did you do there?
David Cerny: I think my mother or my uncle gave me five hundred dollars and a friend who had a big flat on Canal Street said that I could live there. So I just said to myself that, for the first time, I would just go somewhere and see what happened.
PC: And you got discovered there?
DC: I was originally only there for a month and a half. But then some people saw my work and said they wanted me to put on an exhibition. That was a big shock because I was still studying at the time and suddenly became part of a major exhibition in New York. About a year later, I won a scholarship called PS1 funded by George Soros. It paid for my flat - a studio, and $2,500 dollars a month, which wasn't bad.
PC: Did you have the feeling then that you'd made it?
DC: Well, I told myself that, but bollocks!
PC: Why did you return to the Czech Republic?
DC: I had a few unpleasant experiences
there and I guess I encountered a strange kind of hypocrisy. When I came
into a gallery, everyone was saying 'Wow! He's the new guy. He's the one
from the Czech Republic.' Suddenly everyone knew you and everyone was
super friendly. I started making fun of it at first. I would tell people
'Oh my god, we haven't seen each other for a week, how could we survive?'
and this was someone I'd seen twice in my life. But when I realized it
was the normal form of communication, it started getting on my nerves.
PC: Is there something Americans could learn from Czechs?
DC: Wow! I kind of like the Czech it's not nihilism, its more of an intellectual base, a sense of irony. But then irony has a plus and a minus side to it. Look at it this way, six times some foreign army has invaded us, so if another one comes, we're not going to shit ourselves. Americans might learn not to take themselves so seriously.
PC: Are Czechs easier to shock?
DC: Sometimes they are easier to shock, because they aren't used to new things. On the other hand, they tolerate unbelievable things that might not be so acceptable west of the border. For example the fact that our Premier is an illiterate idiot and a fraud, and on top of it all a complete fool. I think that thirty years ago, when a black person walked along Wenceslas Square, then that was a shock for people here, because most people here had never seen a black person. On the other hand there's the problem that the society here is kind of rigid, I would say..
PC: You're well known for your anti-Communist views. Do you consider yourself a right-wing artist?
DC: I wouldn't want to categorize myself. I'm certainly not a right-winger. I may have more of a more right-wing mentality but, this is because of what we've experienced here in this country. If I lived in the US, I would probably be left wing. Here, after forty years of Communism, the experience is still felt. But in a way, I'm glad I experienced it.
PC: Many Czechs seem to be eager to forget about their history. Do you think the numerous Socialist-realist artworks dotting the country should be destroyed?
DC: Maybe, when something better can be put there. I'm not sure there's much point in holding onto things out of nostalgia. But there may be things which serve as reminders and should not be destroyed. We're not Communists anymore, and much of what was called art back then was just propaganda.
PC: You decided to paint the famous Soviet tank in Prague pink after the revolution. Do you regret that this piece of history was ushered away and is no longer there?
DC: Not really. I definitely wasn't sad back then. It's a funny story really. The whole thing was a lie. The tank that the Russians put there was a brand new SS80. It had never seen war in Europe, I think they fought in China or somewhere. The ones that got rid of the Germans in 1945 were T34s. The first tank that got to Czech was destroyed. So they made a new tank.
PC: Are there any modern artists you know that you suspect of having no talent?
DC: You mean famous ones? [laughter]. I have problems understanding the word 'talent'. Perhaps there are some people, who are categorized as being modern artists, or contemporary artists, whom I think aren't saying anything with their work, and who are kind of artificially constructed. I've definitely encountered what I would call frauds. That's basically a person who has nothing to say and who uses formal means in order to get their work seen. But in music too, there're people who only play covers of other people's work and act as if they are creating real avant-garde stuff. But eventually they get found out. Sometimes it takes two hundred years, sometimes we contemporaries can't tell. There are modern artists now but in two hundred years there may not be. It's also possible that in two hundred years time I'll be seen as no one too.
PC: How did you go about putting the babies on the television tower? Was it a specific commission?
DC: In 2000, Prague was the cultural city of Europe. Because I lived in Prague 3 at the time, where the tower is, the local authorities asked me if I would do something for them. I had two ideas, one of which was the TV tower. In the end they went for the tower idea. But it still took about a year and a half of negotiating before the mayor of Prague 3 approved the project. It was very complicated.
PC: You've said that you like using computers these days to design with. Did the babies go through this process?
DC: Yeah, I constructed the tower in 3D, actually that was the first time I started to use 3D properly. I couldn't imagine shouting 'Three meters to the right!' at the mountain climbers. Those babies are not just arbitrarily placed. I spent a lot of time positioning them before I was happy. Then they just put it together according to my plans. But they still ended up putting one of the babies in the wrong place..
PC: A famous American comedian once said that an artist, who takes part in advertising for somebody else, invalidates his or her art for all time. Do you agree?
DC: I have had to deal with the question of advertising a lot of times. If I think that I'm saying something with my stuff and don't just consider it as consumer product, then it's obviously a problem if I discredit it by doing another piece of work which says 'Hey, Coca-Cola is the best!
PC: And if they offered you something?
DC: I've been offered loads of times! They wanted me to be the head of the campaign for Oskar [cellular phone network], they wanted me to act in a commercial for a vacuum cleaner and another company wanted me to loan my [TV tower] babies for a commercial. They literally offered me a half a million Crowns, 'Tell us your bank account number. We'll borrow the babies for four days. You don't have to do anything. You won't even know it's happened.'
PC: And you said 'no'.
DC: Yeah, because I don't want to discredit my work. I'm not crazy.
PC: Do interviewers who ask you about what a piece of art means annoy you?
DC: I think that the question of whether a work makes sense or not, or whether it needs explaining or not, is answered over time. If it emerges that it makes no sense and isn't even aesthetically interesting then it might as well be thrown into the trash. I may have certain opinions, which I use to create a certain sculpture. And I'm not obliged to explain those opinions or that statue. What I am obliged to do is explain it to myself. Secondly, I think that it's important not to explain certain things and instead leave it to whomever is looking at it to try to figure out and to say 'What the fuck is this?'. Besides, the whole explaining of art thing employs enough people anyway.
PC: The upside-down horse in the historic 'Lucerna' shopping-complex in Prague. I noticed it was made of foam. Would you rather have made it out of some sort of metal?
DC: Not at all. At the moment I'm making things out of bronze all the time. I think that in the last ten years, out of all the modern sculptors, I've poured more bronze than any of them.
PC: If money and resources were unlimited, would your sculptures be different?
DC: Well, lately I've being doing stuff that took more time and that means that it needs more resources. But as for unlimited scope- I don't make things as big as is financially possible. I make things as I see them. I certainly don't have any dreams of making some giant sculpture.
PC: It could be said that an artist becomes bland when they stop struggling. Is too much success a bad thing?
DC: I can't say, because that's not me! OK, so during the last year, I have had enough to eat and even bought a car. It was second hand, but it was mine. I would say that rather than being poor, what inspires me most is rage.
PC: Does the body of your work mean something as a whole? Is it supposed to mean something for others, or is it mainly just for you?
DC: Well I tell myself that I'm doing it for my friends. Otherwise, I just enjoy pissing people off.
PC: So in a hundred years, you won't mind being known as the person who pissed people off?
DC: No, that will be fine.