Prague: Of Bad Boys and Martyrs

The writer is a young lawyer who is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. Her pastimes include writing, travel, photography and collecting postcardsThis piece was published in the June 13, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

 

Prague is undoubtedly lovely. But it also compels one to look into its past through its expressions of dark humor and sacrifice.  Its streets alternately hint at and openly display its eventful history. I had not known it until a recent trip there, but the city is more than just its fairytale castles, cobblestone streets, and iconic Charles Bridge. Beyond the enduring architecture (and the delicious beer) are personal stories that inspire and provoke. Two such stories from different generations offer a closer look into Czech bravery, creativity and the human response to oppression: those of Jan Palach and David Cerný.

David the Dissident

My guidebook says that if the endless throng of snap-happy tourists in Prague are wearing you out, you can seek refuge in leafy Kampa or hang out with the locals in hip Žižkov.  Kampa Island and Žižkov Tower are just two of the places where the David Cerný inimitable touch is evident. The park and TV tower serve as the unlikely home to his giant and futuristic crawling babies.

Cerný, touted as the bad boy of European art, is famous for his politically thought-provoking, and some say offensive, works. Cerný first attracted attention in 1991 when, as a young art student, he painted a memorial to a Soviet tank flamingo pink. The memorial was originally meant to honor the World War II Soviet liberation of a part of Czechoslovakia. Citizens, however, came to see it in a different light after the Soviet invasion of 1968.

He ruffled quite a few feathers in 2009 when, instead of collaborating with other European artists for an international exhibit, he and his friends created Entropa. The work depicted European Union member countries in a less- than-savory manner, with Bulgaria being represented as a series of squat toilets  and Romania as a Dracula-themed park. He later apologized and explained that the work was a commentary on national stereotypes and was a challenge to see if “Europe is able to laugh at itself.”

He has also tried to find out if his own country could laugh at itself. Outside the Kafka Museum, he has two peeing statues ‘‘writing” Presidential quotes into a map of the country. A computer below the puddle encourages public interaction as it can receive text messages, and senders can have their SMS “written” into the map.

Cerný is notorious not just for his work but for his defense of artistic expression. He was a known critic of the director of the National Gallery, who he found tyrannical and more interested in politics than art. When Cerný was to be honored at the National Gallery, he refused to set foot in it so long as the director still held his post. Instead, then President Vaclav Havel, himself a writer and a 1970s political dissident, stepped outside and presented the award to Cerný on the sidewalk.

Janko, a twenty- something Czech, says Cerný’s art contributes to shaping civic society and public discussion. He wishes Czech streets had more art like Cerný’s provocative and witty works.

Cerný himself was asked before if the totality of his work holds some meaning, he admitted rather candidly that other than doing it for his friends he “just enjoys pissing people off.”

Cerný’, although appearing to give himself too little credit, is seen by those who appreciate his humor as a necessary force in a country where some have slowly become indifferent 20 years post-Communism.

Jan the Young Martyr

Mohamed Bouazizi was an ordinary street vendor in Tunisia before his self-immolation triggered a barrage of protests against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in December 2010. The strongman was eventually ousted this year and the domino-like effect that is still ongoing in the Middle East and North Africa has been called the Arab Spring.

Decades before, a similar awakening occurred in what was then known as Czechoslovakia. Prague Spring, however, was cut short by the Soviet invasion and those opposed to a more liberal government. Civil resistance followed, with citizens showing various acts of defiance. One of those citizens was a young student named Jan Palach, who was distraught at how his countrymen were subjected again to foreign domination. He was equally aghast at the level of passivity and demoralization at the time.

While the more common form of protest here would be the burning of effigies, Palach chose to light his own body on fire.  He was given medical treatment but died days later.  The authorities became so concerned about the impact of his death that they had his remains cremated and placed an old woman’s corpse in his grave.

Palach’s political self-immolation was copied by other young activists.  He has been immortalized in song, poetry, and a public square in Prague. He even has an asteroid named after him. A memorial in his honor can be found at the Hall of Freedom in Switzerland’s Jungfraujoch glacier (Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino are given the same tribute).  His dream of a free country was not fully realized until 20 years following his death.

Twenty-seven year old Czech Vitek says that Palach “left us an important message, which is not fully understood today. Self-sacrifice of such a scale is only understandable in desperate times, which my generation never experienced.”

What is tragic in Palach’s sacrifice is that many years since then people like Mohamed Bouazizi must still take his or her own life to effect change.  Would that it would not come to that again.  Do not be indifferent to the day when the light of the future was carried forward by a burning body, goes a song dedicated to Palach.

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