Going on Assignment in Prague July 2024 – July 6, 2024
Art & architecture: David Cerny’s Musoleum
By Audrey Boyd
by Audrey Boyd
A work by David Cerny at the newly opened Musoleum. Photo from the gallery’s website.
The Czech Republic’s artistic bad boy opens his own morbid museum.
David Cerny, the Czech Republic’s middle-aged enfant terrible and arguably the country’s most famous artist internationally, is at it again. Known for his provocative sculptures around Prague and abroad, Cerny recently opened a museum of his own work in a former distillery on the outskirts of the capital.
The artist has been well known at home ever since he was arrested in 1991 for painting a Soviet tank that served as a war memorial bright pink. While he has developed a reputation for attention-gathering stunts and objects over the years, Cerny made his biggest splash internationally back in 2009.
Instead of creating a sedate piece of art to hang in one of the European Union’s main buildings in Brussels – highlighting the then-Czech presidency – Cerny chose to parody sensitive stereotypes of each of the EU’s member states. And not only that: he concocted a massive hoax, a “mystification” as the Czechs call it. The supposed contributors to the Entropa installation from each EU country were mere creations, as Cerny and a couple of friends had done all the work, from the sculptures to the ludicrous artist bios.
Even with that reputation in mind, his newest project, the Musoleum, still holds the power to shock.
The building’s six floors display a cross-section of the artist’s work over the course of his career, from early drawings to his better known sculptures, and models of uncompleted pieces. There’s a bar on the ground floor and outside terraces with views of the Prague skyline.
“The building is listed and it wasn’t possible to knock it down. So we decided to preserve it and turn it into a cultural institution,” Cerny told the Czech news site Echo24. “Somehow, over time, it became the David Cerny museum. Then I realized that it’s not a museum, but more like a mausoleum.”
The displays are meant to be viewed from top to bottom, starting on the fifth floor, accessible via a glassed-in elevator. The tranquil view of the city does not prepare visitors for the disturbing scenes awaiting them.
Behind a glass door, the tour de Cerny begins in a room that makes violence visible. Four giant automatic pistols hang from the ceiling. They point toward the center of the room, at each other. The surrounding walls are lined with illuminated “x-ray” sculptures and framed scribble drawings. In one corner stands Violin, an assemblage that is part of Cerny’s x-ray series: a transparent violin case containing two guns, a grenade, and small plastic toy babies (the latter a common theme in Cerny’s art, if typically giant-sized).
As you view these works, you are startled by intense and unexpected sounds. There are loud booms and crashes, along with screeches that could be screams or howls. You become fully immersed in the exhibit, whether you like it or not.
“It feels like a fever dream,” said Ysanne, a tourist visiting from Australia. “I don’t know if I would call it scary … It’s shocking, but feels weirdly natural.”
Heading down to the fourth floor, you are confronted with a disturbing and uncomfortable exhibition of the naked body, or bits of it. Male and female bodies alike, Cerny does not leave anything to the imagination. Some sculptures are realistic, and some are more abstract. Nonetheless, it’s jarring to see the most intimate parts of a person, detached and hung on the walls.
The next floor opens up a whole new world – one that just feels plain wrong. Lining the walls are plastic-wrapped blowups of those toys where the legs, arms, head, and accessories are separate plastic bits that a child unsnaps and assembles into an action figure.
However, these figures are by no means meant for children. The figures start out simple, such as a figure of a “rock star.” As you go through the room, the titles of the works get more appalling. One is called Dead Raped Girl. One piece depicts Adam and Eve, and Halfway through the room, you see the figure of Jesus. Religion and pain are the room’s dominant motifs.
An American tourist who declined to give her name called the Christ toy “gross.”
“The disrespect for religion and faith makes me scared for the future of our society,” she said.
Large windows on the five above-ground floors let in lots of natural light. The works on the second floor are colorful, abstract portraits of famous people made out of resin and other objects like guns.The ground floor holds Cerny’s early and probably most famous sculpture after his pink tank: an East German Trabant car with stout legs, standing on all fours. For relief, a full bar is nearby, and a small gift shop.
There is one floor left to explore, the basement. As the Musoleum’s finale, this floor is completely different from the rest. It is entirely dark, with no windows and no sounds. A black curtain at the entrance blocks the view of what is inside. This creates an intense feeling of trepidation.
As you pull the curtain aside, you see a ghastly scene. Sprawled on the ground are four sculptures of dead bodies, with limbs separated and broken apart. They appear to be suffering as they crawl towards something lost in the murk.
The air is filled with a filmy, cloudy substance that mimics a thick fog. The swirling mist makes it hard to see the figures clearly in the dim light. The room builds a sense of confusion and disarray. Although the room is quiet and calm, it is a terrifying place to be.
The Musoleum experience is built on anticipation. For example, the above-ground floors are all connected. As you explore one floor, you can look over a railing around the central well and see the art on the floor below. This keeps you constantly distracted, intrigued, and exposed.
A visit to the Musoleum leaves emotions lingering in its wake. Whether it’s the unsettling art or the unearthly sounds echoing through the rooms, some part of the experience will stick with you.
Seeing Cerny’s art is bound to make anyone wonder, “What was his intention when creating these pieces?” He was once quoted as saying, “I just enjoy pissing people off.”
Audrey Boyd is a journalism student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She wrote this review as a participant in this summer’s edition of Transitions’ Going on Assignment in Prague course.