For my Art History class final paper, I had to choose a modern artist to profile. Earlier in the semester, I did a presentation on Alphonse Mucha, who is considered to be father of the Art Nouveau movement. I have enjoyed Mucha's work for some time. Fortunately, in the middle of the semester I had opportunity to travel to the Czech Republic, and before doing so, my sculptor friend told me about the sculptor David Cerny, who has made quite an impression internationally for his politically-motivated sculptural installations. While Mucha was certainly appealing to me as a figurative artist, Cerny's work touches the irreverent side of my desire for self expression, and so I thought I would share this paper so it can explain the trajectory of where I see my own work heading. Maybe. If you read much of my blog, you know I reserve the right to change directions at any time. Ha!
ART 207 – Art History: 1900-Present
December 7, 2017
Czech Sculptor David Cerny’s Metalmorphosis (2007): A Reflection of His Own Psyche
In front of the Whitehall Corporate Center in Charlotte, North Carolina stands a spectacular 7-meter tall mirrored human head cut in horizontal sections which rotate with respect to each other with a mouth that shoots water into a surrounding pool (Metalmorphosis). The sculpture, entitled Metalmorphosis (2007), was designed by Czech Sculptor David Cerny, and built by engineers and subcontractors out of 14 tons of stainless steel (Velinger). Rotation is controlled through computer-controlled motors with feedback switches that allow for choreographed movements of the head sections, which Cerny is able to control over the internet, as well (“Sculpture Art”).
Cerny’s childhood experiences influence much of his work. Cerny was born in the Czech Republic in 1967 to a 15th-century art restoring mother and a graphic artist and painter father (Feffer). For the first 23 years of his life, Cerny and his family lived under socialism, where most people were employed by the government with the exception of artists and a few other professions. When he was 4, a statue of Lenin was placed in a nearby square, and his father complained that “They would be better off building streetlights” (Bilefsky). Cerny repeated these anti-communist sentiments at school in 1972 and his parents were notified (Feffer). After this, his parents were afraid to speak their minds in front of him, but he refused to censor himself (Bilefsky). He was always upset with his parents for not leaving Czechoslovakia like his uncle who moved to Canada (Feffer). In an interview with the New York Times, Cerny stated that even in 2009, his parents were still warning him to be careful (Bilefsky).
Cerny studied electronics in his 3rd and 4th years of high school, but became bored and decided to pursue a career in art (Radio Free Europe). He attended university at the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague from 1988-94 (“DavidCerny”). During his first year in 1989, he and some classmates went to see a Max Ernst exhibit in Leipzig, East Germany. On the return trip, many East Germans were on the train who were going to Lake Balaton in Hungary, unsure if they would make it through customs in Prague. Upon reaching Prague, Cerny and his friends were present at customs when the East Germans yelled in celebration upon being permitted into Czechoslovakia. Cerny and his friends followed the East Germans to the West German Embassy where he estimated 2000-3000 people had gathered, and been given tea and protected by the very police who beat Czech citizens for demonstrating. One week later, the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie came down and Cerny’s passport was blocked for his participation in the demonstration at the West German Embassy. Another week later on November 19, 1989, he participated in a silent protest on Narodni Street in Prague where the police began to beat demonstrators. He and his friends escaped by entering an apartment building and then jumping from rooftop to rooftop (Feffer). Seeing the liberation of other victims of communism, along with his frustration from being shushed as a child, inspired him to make his first big artistic political statement. Often he would pass a Soviet Tank placed in a public space to commemorate the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, which reminded Czech citizens of tanks entering the city to put down the Prague Spring in 1968. Cerny and his friends decided to paint it pink as an act of civil disobedience (although he would eventually tell the international press that he did it to get the attention of a woman) (Feffer, “Provocative Art”).
After his graduation, his mother and uncle gave him $500USD to move to New York City where he was supposed to live for 1.5 months, but he was discovered at an art gallery and won the prestigious PS1 Scholarship from George Soros (Jun). He worked as Artist in Residence at the PS1 Gallery from 1994-1995, and then with the Whitney Independent Study Programme from 1995-1996 (“David Cerny”). During this time in New York, he was frustrated by the missing sense of “self-irony” and felt that New Yorkers took themselves way too seriously (Feffer). This frustration caused him to return home, where, in 2000, he won the Jindrich Chalupecky Award. Ever the idealist, he made news by refusing to go into the museum where the awards ceremony was held because he disliked rightist artist Milan Knizak, who was presenting the award (Fleishman).
His distaste for Milan Knizak was so great that in 2003 he made news again by creating the sculpture Brown-nosers at the Futura Gallery where viewers would climb ladders to look into the recta of two large derrieres to view a video of impersonators of Knizak and Czech President Vaclav Klaus feeding each other slop. In 2016 he was found guilty of defamation (Neuendorf). While Knizak and Klaus were both rightist politicians, Cerny was most vocal and received the most attention for his anti-communist artistic protests. For example, Keith Richards of Rolling Stone was seen wearing a t-shirt on stage in 2003 with Cerny’s red middle finger logo against the Czech Communist Party (“Provocative Art”). In 2009, Cerny made international news when his sculpture Entropa, which was installed at the European Union (EU) Headquarters in Brussels to celebrate the Czech Presidency of the EU. The sculpture was supposed to have been made by 27 individual artists from all over the EU, but Cerny and his closest friends made up the names of 27 fictitious artists and crafted the sculpture themselves. Entropa was a giant “Assembly Kit” structure, with all the countries in the EU represented (except Britain), some unflattering ways. The piece was so controversial that the Czech Prime Minister publicly apologized to Bulgaria for its portrayal with a mosaic of Turkish toilets (“Czechs apologize”). In 2013, a few days before the national election, Cerny again made national news when he strategically placed a 10-meter tall purple plastic middle finger sculpture, titled Gesture, on the Vlatva River near the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, protesting the first Communist influence on the Czech Government since the Velvet Revolution (“Provocative Art”).
While Cerny has certainly expressed his political views through his art, he says that Metalmorphosis is a “reflection of his own psyche” (Acerni, et al.). Indeed, the sculpture, and perhaps Cerny himself, is a reflection of its/his own surroundings. Cerny owns a plane, and has stated in several interviews that if he could do anything at all, he would become a pilot; he likes flying because of “quietness, loneliness, being up in the sky” (Radio Free Europe). The sculpture is a giant mirror to the sky. Perhaps it is also a tribute to his self-processed neuroticism, placed in the United States due to his observation that Americans take themselves too seriously. Maybe it is a reminder to Cerny to not take himself too seriously, and to do what he enjoys. He said in an interview with the LA Times: “Doing only art is not interesting to me. I’m neurotic. I need to shift to different things.” (Fleischman). When moving, the horizontal slices of Metalmorphosis show a shifting self. If the sculpture were placed in Prague, it would perhaps reflect the black humor Cerny finds so prevalent in the Czech Republic (Fleishman). He has stated that “What most inspires [him] is rage” (Jun). His other works certainly contain an inherent black humor or rage, and perhaps a sense of frustration. Regarding sculpting, Cerny stated that “Sometimes I hate doing my work, but I have to do it because I see it. It’s painful. I don’t sleep. And when it’s done, there’s frustration because I know there’s another empty space to be filled.” (Fleishman)
Being formally trained in Art, and growing up in a prominent cultural center of Europe, the son of artists, there are several likely influences on his work, even if he has not mentioned them much in interviews. Cerny has said several times that he wants his work to be in public, rather than shut away in museums (Feffer). Another successful Czech nationalist artist from Prague, whose work regained popularity during the Velvet Revolution due to his strongly anti-socialist stance, Alphonse Mucha, felt that one of his life’s missions was to bring art to the common public. Mucha disseminated his work through placement on common products, and lithography. Cerny does not sell his sculptures to the public but gets permission to place them on private land in public view (Meistere). Metalmorphosis itself, being a reflection of Cerny’s self, is reminiscent of Bruce Nauman’s Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1966), an interpretation of Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaist readymade, Fountain (1917). In fact, Cerny mentions that Duchamp “already said it all” when asked if he felt, as Duchamp did, that his work loses its shock factor when viewed by so many people (Meistere), and he critiques Duchamp in a biographical writing called “The Fucking Years: The True Story” on his artist website (DavidCerny.cz). More obvious influences on Metalmorphosis are sculptor Anton Gormley and minimalist artist Robert Morris, whose Untitled (Mirror Cube) (1965-71) was less about the cubes themselves and more about the art’s surroundings. And most certainly, Metalmorphosis is a reference to Czech writer Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which the difficulties of living in modern society are explored.
Cerny stated in his 2004 interview with the LA Times his frustration with Czech history – that the intelligentsia was killed three times in the Czech Republic – once by the Germans, then by Communism, and finally by intelligent people fleeing the country (Fleishman). Perhaps he placed Metalmorphosis, his most self-reflective and neurotic work to date, in the environment he felt it would be most appreciated, and most safe from the threat of communism and censorship – the Deep South of the United States of America. Throughout history the United States has been a refuge for the intelligent once persecuted by totalitarian rule. Will Metalmorphosis be safe here?
Acerni, et al. “Secrets of the City.” Charlotte Magazine. 27 Oct 2014. http://www.charlottemagazine.com/Charlotte-Magazine/November-2014/Secrets-of-the-City/
“Artist David Cerny: ‘I Painted Tank Pink to Get a Girl.’” Radio Free Europe RadioLiberty. 11 Apr 2010. https://www.rferl.org/a/Provocateur_Artist_David_Cerny_I_Painted_Tank_Pink_To_Get_A_Girl/2008892.html
Bilefsky, Dan. “With Sharp Satire, Enfant Terrible Challenges Czech Identity.” NYTimes.com, 4 Sep 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/05/world/europe/05cerny.html
“Czechs apologize for hoax EU art.” BBC News, 15 Jan 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7830498.stm
“David Cerny.” TRAN, 2009. http://www.transnational.org.uk/people/101-david-ern
Feffer, John. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Provocateur. 18 Oct 2013. John Feffer.com. http://www.johnfeffer.com/portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-provocateur/
Fleishman, Jeffrey. “Czech Artist is a Dissident for a New Era in Europe.” LATimes.com, 23 Aug 2004. http://articles.latimes.com/2004/aug/23/world/fg-prankster23
Jun, Dominik. “David Cerny: The Shape of Rebellion.” The Compass Prague, 2014. http://www.praguenet.com/compass/number_8/feature.html
Meistere, Una. “The Bad Boy of Czech Art: An interview with David Cerny.” Arterritory. 4 Aug 2013. http://www.arterritory.com/en/texts/interviews/2176-the_bad_boy_of_czech_art/
Metalmorphosis: One of the Seven Wonders of Charlotte, NC. http://www.metalmorphosis.tv/
Neuendorf, Henri. “Controversial Czech Artist David Cerny found Guilty of Defamation, Again.” Artnet News. 25 Feb 2016. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/david-cerny-defamation-433628
“Provocative Art: Rebel sculptor gives Czech president the finger ahead of polls.” RT.com, 22 Oct 2013, https://www.rt.com/news/czech-floating-finger-elections-548/
“Sculpture Art: ‘Metalmorphosis’ by David Cerny.” D’SIGN magazine, 15 Nov 2011. https://dsign-magazine.com/sculpture-art-metalmorphosis-by-david-cerny/
Verlinger, Jan. “New David Cerny Sculpture, Metalmorphosis, Unveiled in Charlotte.” Radio Praha, 25 Sep 2007. http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/new-david-cerny-sculpture-metalmorphosis-unveiled-in-charlotte