Instead of going to the gym after work, I decided to hop on a random tram and hope for the best (I love public transportation, especially the above-ground variety). I spent a leisurely hour rolling across the city and through the western suburbs. As we crossed over the Vltava to enter Nové Mesto, I noticed a bright pink tank floating in the middle of the river. And then I remembered: the pink tank had returned to Prague!
No, this was not some absinthe or Becherovka-induced hallucination. In 1991, Czech artist David Černý and his art school friends painted a Soviet tank (a memorial to the 1945 liberation of Czechoslovakia) a flamboyant shade of pink and mounted a giant middle finger on its turret roof. This was two years after the Velvet Revolution, and the tank was an unpleasant reminder of the 1968 Soviet invasion. The stunt landed Černý in jail and the pink was covered up with a layer of olive green paint. In protest of Černý’s arrest, a group of members of parliament re-painted the tank pink. Černý was eventually released from jail, the tank’s status as a national monument was abolished, and it was moved to a military museum outside the city.
This week, the pink tank returned to Prague, where it will float on a raft in the River Vltava until July 1st as part of the “Week of Freedom.”
The pink tank encapsulates everything I have come to love about David Černý. This is the same artist who shocked the EU with a sculpture that managed to incorporate the most embarrassing stereotypes of each member state, and whose statue in front of the Kafka museum features two men urinating into a pool shaped like the Czech Republic.
I’m no expert in contemporary Czech art (quite the opposite), but I’ve gotten the impression that there is a defiant, rebellious streak that colors modern art from this country– particularly the work produced by artists who came of age around the 1990s. I love the absurdism, the jabs at authority, and the nose-thumbing attitude toward power. I imagine it has something to do with centuries of authoritarian rule, the legacies of Nazi occupation and communism, and the very fresh memories of political and social oppression.
Yet despite its contrarian stance, art is everywhere in Prague: painted on buildings, crawling up towers, peeking out from rooftops. Very often, it’s near impossible to draw a line between installation and vandalism. Is it graffiti or a mural? Does it even matter?