Arts: What Tank boy did next

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