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by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
On June 9, 2006, opening day of the World Cup, the tables at the Prague airport coffee shop still had their cheerful Christmas displays -- pine boughs and red wood balls. Dare we think of this as a metaphor for Prague itself? The city seems to be one step behind, or maybe off on a different path altogether.

This may be a part of Czech gallerist Monika Burian’s motivation in organizing Tina B, May 18-June 27, 2006 (her acronym for This is Not Another Biennale). Instead of competing with the major European festivals, she tried something different, inviting a handful of young curators to arrange small thematic shows.

In Prague, rightly considered to be one of Europe’s loveliest cities, the single ugliest building is the art museum. Granted, it is considered a key example of 1920s Functionalism, but the gargantuan white Veletrzni Palace remains redolent of its original purpose as a trade show hall. There are furniture showrooms on the ground level and a top-flight collection of paintings by Pablo Picasso, including a fine 1909 self-portrait and early Cubist still-lifes, hidden in a gallery on the third level. Still, in an adjacent convention hall, Tina B. comes to the rescue with a welcome jolt of energy.

Knowing that sex sells, the fair greets visitors at its entrance with a bowl of condoms on a table, advertising "Peep Show," an exhibition anonymously organized by the fictional character of "Tina B." Behind a pink beaded curtain, Prague’s post-Soviet obsession with prostitution and pornography is made manifest.

Unappetizingly fetishistic or hyper-realist canvases by Czech artists Karel Balcar and Veronica Bromova are shown here alongside notorious photos from Andre Serrano’s 1996 "History of Sex," including a picture of a pretty blonde dwarf laying in proximity to an engorged phallus. The climax of this group (so to speak) is Czech Kristof Kintera’s aptly titled Coitus Bizzarus, a sculptural installation composed of a ripe watermelon accompanied by an electric carving knife, which revs in anticipation.

"Peep Show" is a teaser, if you will, to get attendance for the rest of the shows in the hall. The most interesting of these is French curator Pascal Beausse’s "Same Same But Different." Beausse derived the title from pidgin-English he heard in the Far East, thinking the phrase applied to many of the forms now popular in contemporary art, seeming hybrids of past art movements. Anybody remember Les Nouveaux Réalistes? It seems the mostly French artists in this show do, and there is little doubt about the lineage of the work shown in this exhibition’s red-walled galleries.

Lilian Bourget’s 10-foot-tall Wellington boots stand in humorous proximity to Olivier Babin’s perfectly replicated bronze banana peel. Mathieu Mercier’s smashed ball of aluminum mesh houses a pair of bewildered finches. Pascal Rivet built a life-sized replica of a Brink’s truck out of painted plywood, making a plaything out of something that serves a serious purpose.

Beausse has also included American artists Joe Scanlan, who plants fake forsythia branches in a replica of a Robert Smithson box, using Smithson as a planter, and Kaz Oshira, whose set of wall-mounted speakers marked with decal-like acrylic paintings of birds reference adolescent style. Elsewhere, the entrance to this show is dominated by Wang Du’s giant carpet recreating the cover of Time magazine depicting the loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

Also at the Veletrzni Palace, Czech curator and artist Adam Vackar’s selection of videos, "Reality Blurred," is thoughtful, with those ever-comical Russians, the Blue Noses Group, posing as celebrities from Michael Jackson to George Bush and asking to be forgiven. Germany’s Clemens Von Wedemeyer’s video depicts the making of a film, focusing on how the cast is moved en masse by the director’s orders -- a slightly chilling meditation on order and control. And Vartak’s own sculpture of a fallen black sputnik stands in wry proximity to Wang’s lost Columbia.

Still another gallery includes "Perceptions of Everyday Life" organized by German curator Johannes Schimdt. With an international selection of artists dedicated to observing the trivial and quotidian, the effect here is not great. The exception would be David Adam’s conceptually-based photographs of various wood surfaces from house framing to furniture to faux-grain on plastic, along with an incongruous close-up of synthetic fur. The hilarious title? Timber and Teddy.

All this, and still there is much more to see in this pluralistic festival. Elsewhere at the Veletrzni Palace, other curators focus on contemporary artists from Canada and Finland, including Gary Evans, Lori McGillivary, Christoph Runne, Maisa Tikkanen, Kirsimaria E. Törönen-Ripatti and Esa Tuomiranta.

Yet still there was more. Exhibitions were also staged at venues around Prague. A collection of photographs brought together by Roger Szmulewicz at a contemporary art space called NOVA in New Town, titled "Our Generation," may have been rather predictable, but it included lively newcomer Kerry Skarbakka, who contributed a five-foot photograph of himself falling headfirst down a flight of stairs. The artist performs his own stunts and the fact that the image was not computer-generated was palpable. Also moving were the series of photographs of young boys aspiring to become sumo wrestlers by French photographer Charles Freger.

An old factory called Karlin Hall was commandeered for an installation titled "Large and Digital." The French artist Semp installed a maze of green grass with an old-fashioned tricycle in its center, inviting viewers to embrace their innocence. (During the show, magic mushrooms started growing in the grass and were plucked by those innocence-seeking viewers.) Swede Sean Rogg installed a square of white ash with a projected DVD of a group of fire fighters burning down a log cabin and an explanation that, in Sweden, if a child under 18 commits certain crimes, the parents’ house is incinerated in retaliation. Whether this horrifying story is true, I could not ascertain, but it makes compelling viewing.

Along a similar theme, Austrian Marielis Seyler’s photo mural of laughing children is placed on the floor as what she calls a "trample picture," encouraging visitors to walk and jump on them. It is titled No Chance. Finnish artist Ritva-Liisa Virtanen presented a wall-sized, architectonic drawing of a bundt pan, accompanied by a ring of small cakes made of molded sand on the floor.

In retrospect, the most memorable exhibition, "In a Silent Way," was the least retinal. Granted, Italian curator Daniele Balit was given a prime location, the Monument of National Liberation. Rarely open to the public, this 1929 mausoleum of soaring ceilings, thick marble walls and carved reliefs (used as a location in the film Hell Boy, to give an idea of its spectral quality) is perfectly captivating on its own. Balit just added the soundtrack.

Outside the monument, on the plaza facing the statue of military hero Jan Žižka (ca. 1370-1424) on horseback, a recording by Scottish artist Susan Philipsz sings a siren song. Inside, an explosion seems about to erupt, though the sound is actually American Mark Bain’s live transmission of the vibration of air circulating around the nearby Žižkov Tower. In the crypt, Japanese artist Yuji Oshima installed a miniature searchlight that scans the darkened interior to the accompaniment of recorded voices of American snipers on patrol. And, in the main space, Swedish artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff installed 13 speakers that transmit sine waves meant to enable communication with the spirit world -- the poetic and romantic nature of this venture addresses Czech history and seems to embody the sense of Prague as a place apart.

As a whole, this inventive and unconventional show seemed to prove that Tina B.’s experimental, decentralized approach was a successful way to capitalize on Prague’s experimental vibe. 17 years distant from their Velvet Revolution, the Czechs are in limbo. The Soviet occupation of 40 years is now confined to their Museum of Communism (I’m not kidding). Prague, however, is not yet a Monument to Capitalism like New York or London. Tina B. is an attempt to make the most of this opening, and to engage with the international contemporary art scene on Czech terms.

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HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.