Arts: What Tank boy did next

Is sculptor David Cerny the Peter Pan of communist art? That might explain why he's in Kensington.

London is not a city where you would expect to find architectural monuments to communism, but in fact it boasts at least one. This is the concrete hulk built by the former Czechoslovak government to its own paranoid specifications at the Notting Hill end of Kensington Palace Gardens. Allegedly, the embassy could have withstood a siege for three weeks, and it still squats sullenly beside its grander neighbours. From 11 November, however, its dreary facade will be transformed by the witty and disturbing installations of Czech sculptor David Cerny, who is best known as the creator of the most exuberant icon of Prague's Velvet Revolution - the Pink Tank.

Cerny was a 23-year-old art student when he applied pink paint to a Soviet tank that had stood for 40 years in a Prague square, a monument to liberation from the Nazis that had become more of a reminder of Russian occupation in the 20 years since the Prague Spring of 1968. Although this delightful "happening" actually happened more than a year after the revolution, it caused a storm of controversy. Communists and other conservatives were outraged, and Cerny was even prosecuted for vandalism, but ex-dissidents and young people were enchanted. A group of MPs defiantly repainted the vehicle when the killjoy local authorities scrubbed it down. "Where's the pink tank?" tourists still ask hopefully. They are always disappointed to learn that it was tidied away to a military museum years ago, but the image is indelible, and they still buy the postcards and T-shirts.

The embassy exhibition is timed to coincide with the BBC series for the anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, since Cerny himself figures in the programme devoted to Czechoslovakia (Freedom's Battle, 14 November). A leader of the student demonstrations that triggered the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Cerny was one of the very few young people to regain the limelight during a transformation period dominated by middle-aged heroes and villains. Even before he became "the Pink Tank Man", thousands of Praguers and foreign visitors had been intrigued by his sculpture Quo Vadis?, a life-size Trabant car on four huge human legs. Installed on Old Town Square in the months following the revolution, it now sits in the garden of the German Embassy as a monument to the tens of thousands of East German refugees who abandoned their "Trabbies" in Prague when they fled west in 1989.

A decade later, at 32, the elfin and tousle-haired Cerny still looks so young that if we had been in an American bar, rather than a cafe under Prague Castle, he might have had problems getting a drink. As a rebel he seems more Peter Pan than James Dean, but he jokes that the obliging Czech ambassador in London is a "very brave man" to allow the exhibition. In fact, scandal is unlikely, but one of the objects on show - a pistol larger than a man - will recall the time that Cerny found the British police as humourless as the Czech variety.

In 1992, Cerny created a set of mammoth pistols for exhibition in East London, and then he had the idea of giving one of the guns predatory bird feet and installing it on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. In the end, the project organisers decided against the "guerrilla" installation, but not before Cerny had distributed posters announcing a "Day of Killing". Fortunately he was back in Prague before he learned that Scotland Yard had launched a search for a Czech "psychopath".

Since his father is a graphic artist and his mother an art-restorer, Cerny is not a rebel against family tradition, but otherwise his constant run-ins with authority started early. His drawing teacher isolated him from the rest of the class for disruptive behaviour. His refusal to play the servile communist game meant that it took him three attempts to get into the Design department at Prague's School of Applied Art, where despite his talent, his constant involvement in demonstrations brought threats of expulsion.

Cautiously I ask him if he minds being labelled the enfant terrible of contemporary Czech art. He pulls a face, says he hates the term and starts to muse on the awful fate of becoming a "geriatric terrible".

A cynic might say that since the revolution, Cerny has found that the high-spirited iconoclasm that could once have earned him a prison sentence in Eastern Europe is highly bankable in the West. After the Pink Tank, his work was taken up with enthusiasm by influential galleries in the US, and Cerny now owns a flat in Manhattan.

On the other hand, no one can really claim that the Czech wunderkind has sold out. He still dislikes "gallery art" and prefers to present his work in the street to the unsuspecting public. He is also far from willing to cut himself loose from the Czech scene - in the last two years he has let his New York flat and spent most of his time in his native city, branching out into film design and even acting, and working on new installations for Prague.

His most recent street project could not have been more Czech, since it was an equestrian statue of the national saint, monarch and martyr Wenceslas. Naturally it was placed in Wenceslas Square, at the other end from the 19th-century statue by Myslbek that is Prague's best-known monument and a national shrine. Cerny produced an exact copy of the older Wenceslas, but while Myslbek's prince is flanked by saints and riding purposefully into the national future, Cerny's hero is alone and mounted on the belly of a polystyrene steed that is dead and hanging upside down from a 10m pole. "This is an affront to all decent people!" a patriot has written neatly across the label, and the artist crows with delight at the reaction.

Cerny all but thumps the table as he declares that he cannot stand political art and insists art should be created, "without a reason", and "rationalisations come later". All the same, he can scarcely deny that much of his work has political resonance. He admits his Wenceslas expresses both his disgust with nationalism and his disappointment at the gloom and sleaze that have overtaken Czech society since the heady days of the Pink Tank.

None of Cerny's installations, however, are political in some narrow, declaratory way and they all have the haunting "ambivalence" that he regards as the essence of art. They are also conceived and executed with a style and discipline that lifts them far above any slapdash disposable gimmickry and has won Cerny admiration from conservative Czech academicians. In his ostensibly juvenile way, Cerny calls the London embassy exhibition Hanging Out, but the sculpture that gives the show its title is of an elderly intellectual clinging to a pole for dear life. Although the artist has quipped that the point of his sculptures is just to produce "a pleasant tingling in the nose", what you will find in W8 is authentic Central European vertigo.

'Hanging Out', 11-15 November, Embassy of the Czech Republic, 26 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W84 QY. David Cerny welcomes comments at http://www. davidcerny.cz

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor