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Back to Reviews 96


 Lawrence Weiner's
Tattoo on the 
Veletrini Palace


National Gallery


David Cerny's coffee
lounge (which has 
been functioning -
with drinks and
food - for two weeks)


 David Cerny's coffee


Rudolfinum Concert
Exhibition Hall
where Pivovarov was 


Antonín Chittussi
Fishermen on the 
River, late 1880's


Milan Knizak's
New Paradise
combined animals
and futuristic
airplanes on


Milan Knizak's

letter from

reading the signs

by Tim Gilman-Sevcik

"Please let me out" "please let me out"

"please let me out" read the billboards

I pass on the #9 tram on my way to the

main train station in Prague. It's not

your typical sign, which would be

something more like a row of women's

bottoms with the caption, "They've got

their Sun Factor."

Every free inch of Prague's streets and

buildings has been plastered with billboards.

I've even seen slide projections of ads on

the sides of huge communist pre-fab apartment

blocks. So the city is an excellent setting for

the public art project organized by the British

Council Window Gallery, featuring billboard-

type works by Peter Friedl, Gillian Wearing and

Lawrence Weiner. Friedl, an Austrian conceptual

artist, designed the cryptic "please let me out"

billboard, which was spread throughout the city

and confounded the typical advertising

billboard's stress on product recognition.

The quotation is attributed on the poster to

one Capt. Bellamy, a pirate who appears in

Daniel Defoe's fiction and who also may be an

actual historical figure. The piece was

completed by a blue-and-white striped refuse

container that looked vaguely like a ship--

perhaps the Captain's--that was dragged

around to various locations near the posters.

Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, who splits

his time between New York and his houseboat

in Amsterdam, posted his trademark messages,

including "Things made to be seen forcefully

obscured." Perhaps a reference to the signage

that increasingly intrudes upon the city's

graceful 14th-century buildings, Weiner's

"tattooed" messages share a kind of carpet-

bagging foreignness, in this context, with

another Western import--the graffiti tagging

that covers the Metro and much of the city's

buildings. British artist Gillian Wearing

presented several screenings in alternative

theater spaces; I wasn't able to attend, but

was told that the work was a short film clip,

played repeatedly, of a conflict between two

women, one older and one younger. It starts

with what looks like a reconciliation, but

then turns into a cruel and violent fight.

The trick is that the film is being played

in reverse.

Prague's National Gallery has also gotten onto

the city's walls with a series of what has

been called "ultra-details," posting images

of just the eyes of figures from works in

the permanent collection, such as a self-

portrait by Picasso. The billboards are

strikingly beautiful, with only the logo of

the National Gallery in one corner along with

the slogan "100 Years," to mark its

anniversary celebration.

If only everything inside of the institution

was as harmonious as its billboards. As

part of a highly politicized reorganization

of the country's museums, the modern

collection opened last December in the

Veletrzni Palac, a historic building that

had been under renovation for years. The new

museum premiered without a director, but it

did receive substantial criticism for its

curatorial decisions. Now a new curator has

been selected, Jaroslav Andel, who had

emigrated to New York and worked as an

independent curator there. He agree to

return to Prague and take the position on

the condition that he receive a Western-

level salary, an undisclosed sum which

certainly dwarfs the less than $1,000 per

month that the directors of other galleries

in the national system receive.

Andel has shaken things up a bit by removing

the majority of the works from the '70s and

'80s, in particular the former "Obstinates"

group, local artists whose members currently

play prominent roles in the contemporary

scene. The works of over 20 artists have

been replaced by a "visitor's lounge" that

is composed of red, white or blue shipping

crates for artworks, which have been used

like building blocks to make furniture,

partitions and planters. On the door leading

to the room is a sign declaring that the

visitor's lounge is closed while finishing

touches are being made. The room was created

by the young artist David Cerny, just returned

from a visit to New York, and who became known

here for painting a Russian tank monument

pink in the early 1990's.

The Metro was also plastered with posters for

a new show by Russian painter Viktor Pivovarov,

a long-time Prague resident. His "Sonia and

the Angel" exhibition, featuring work from the

late '80s and early '90s, was mounted in the

Rudolphinum concert hall and gallery on the

edge of the Vltava River, a magnificent neo-

Renaissance building that is one of the largest

galleries in the city and home to the Czech

Philharmonic. Pivovarov's storybook pictures,

drawing from memories of his Russian childhood,

were a sensation and brought in crowds of visitors,

who had stayed away from the previous exhibition

of minimalist sculptor David Rabinowitch who

realized for the first time some of his boxy

trough constructions from the '60s.

I was personally treated to a small demonstration

of public resistance to modernism at an

exhibition of early 20th-century landscapes

by the Czech-born and Italian-influenced

Impressionist painter Chittoussi. An elderly

gallery attendant approached me and, after

warning me to keep my distance from the pictures,

confided, "You see how many people there are

here," indicating the crowds inspecting the

seasonal views of Czech and French countryside,

"before this we had some of that modern abstract

art, and the place was empty."

On the other hand, the former Fluxus artist

Milan Knizak has been getting more press than

some politicians. His recent letter to the

People's Paper newspaper criticizing

Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's lack of taste

was only one of many inflammatory attacks that

get him onto magazine covers and television

political programs. His art is like that of a

grown-up child, including oversized sculptures

of soldiers, inflatable dolls with babies,

futuristic weapons and mutated infants in

glossy, colorful plastic. The billboards for

his spring show at the Manes Gallery, a big

white functionalist building on its own island

in the Vltava River, were a garish display of

color and gesture. But the public didn't rush

to the show. In return Knizak proclaimed that

there should be visas to control who is

allowed into which exhibitions.

In the art community he is an outspoken voice

of almost foolishly brave criticism, and now

that his tenure as director of the Academy

of Fine Arts is up, he might even run for

president. And who would be a better replacement

for poet/playwright president Vaclav Havel

than a painter?

TIM GILMAN-SEVCIK is an American freelance

journalist who lives in Prague.