My daughter and I were in Prague, Czech Republic, making our way to the Kafka Museum when we came upon a fascinating sculpture. Proudy, by internationally famed sculptor David Cerny, greets anyone who enters the museum’s plaza from the twists and turns of alleyways along the left bank of the Vltava River. Proudy is comprised of two smiling, patina’d bronze men peeing into a pool shaped like the Czech Republic. Created by stacking slices of carved bronze, their life-size bodies stand on opposite ends of the country, facing each other. What caught our attention, and distinguishes this sculpture from others, were the animatronics that moved their hips from right to left. Each statue holds his bronze manhood, moving it up and down, as they urinate in the pool. It had to be a political message, I thought. I couldn’t imagine any other reason to piss on your own country.
But what kind of political message would Cerny be sending? Prague has a rich history, we had gotten a glimpse of it when we visited Prague Castle at the top of the hill (built in 870 AD), but did that have anything to do with Proudy? Or was it more recent politics that spurred him to create such a unique sculpture?
“They look so arrogant. ‘Self-importance of Man’ is what it should be called,” my daughter said. I nodded, intrigued by her interpretation. To the side of the sculpture was a plaque that told us they were writing Czech literary quotes, like boys might write their names in the snow, and we too could have something spelled out. If we sent a text message to the number provided, the statues would stop mid-stream and write our words. Even though we loved the idea of a bronze penis spelling out our names or favorite quotes (who wouldn’t?), we decided not to interrupt their handiwork. They were doing a fantastic job urinating more important literature.
David Cerny gained notoriety in 1991 when he painted a Soviet war tank pink (and added a specific-looking finger at the top). It was one of the tanks that had come into his town during the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945. It was his moment, and his means, to protest the Soviets and their destruction. The tank was a national cultural monument when he painted it, and his act of civil disobedience was considered “hooliganism.” He was arrested and briefly detained over the incident. And although he says that he doesn’t enjoy doing political art – he’s a private sort of man – he enjoys “being provocative” and eventually that leads to politics. Cerny says in a radio interview, "Provocation is the amplified reason why the art exists."
And he does like to provoke the politicians. In 2003 he installed a large interactive display called Brown-nosing behind the Futura Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague. The sculpture(s) are pushed up against an outside wall and appear to be two bodies bent at the waist. There are ladders that lead up to a hole in the rear-end of each figure. You can climb up to the hole and stick your head in (brown-nosing). Within the ass-end, Aimee Thompson from Raising World Citizens says, is a “video of former Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus and Czech performance artist and AKTUAL founder Milan Knizak spoon feeding each other as the rock anthem ‘We Are The Champions’ plays in the background.” They appear to be feeding each other something, well, brown.
Proudy, too, has a universal message of political discontent. Cerny told Jeffrey Fleishman of The Los Angeles Times, “There’s a Czech idiom about ‘peeing over somebody,’ which I guess translated into English would be to ‘get one over on somebody.’ That’s what the peeing men mean. It’s the way our country behaves [toward its citizens].” The most recent Cerny political art piece, though, isn’t as subtle as the peeing men. It was placed in the Vltava River in 2013. Dan Bilefsky from The New York Times writes:
Mr. Cerny, 45, took his political satire to new heights – or depths, depending on your perspective – when, on the eve of Czech general elections this weekend, he installed on the Vltava River a 30-foot-high plastic purple hand with a raised middle finger. It is a symbol, he said, that points directly at the Prague Castle, the seat of the current Czech president, Milos Zeman.
His message speaks against communism. Cerny says, “After 23 years, I am horrified at the prospect of the Communists returning to power and of Mr. Zeman helping them to do so.” While Cerny continues to use his art to express his frustrations, his messages convey what others may feel but can’t articulate. People worldwide relate to him through his message and travel miles to see his pieces that speak so loudly.
As my daughter and I stood, mesmerized by the movement of the statues before us, we were aware of all the people in the plaza. They laughed. They touched the streams as the water shot into the pool. They read the plaque. Children played in the water and everyone was enjoying the warm day within that corner of Prague. It was hard to imagine the city returning to harsh communist rule. “Let’s go check out the Kafka Museum now,” my daughter said, and I agreed.
As we walked away from Proudy, the sound of water splashing and voices laughing hung in the air behind us. My daughter and I both looked back at the sculpture and smiled at each other. “Only in Prague,” she said. After exploring the history of the city, Cerny’s modern political art piece made us laugh and remained at the front of our minds. As long as artists like Cerny have the freedom to create massive political satire sculptures, serious subjects like communism can be confronted in a memorable way. (Now, if only we could borrow that purple finger and place it in Washington DC, perhaps we could send our own political message).
Amy Webber is a homegrown Oregonian and lover of travel. She has her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania and is working on her first real novel, Calm Chaos. When she isn’t working, riding her bike, or walking her dog, she’s writing in her little studio behind her home in Vancouver, WA.