Czech "Bad Boy" David Cerny

05cerny_190I was delighted to learn, this morning, of Czech “enfant terrible” artist David Cerny, who was profiled in the New York Times.  I guess I had seen the pink tank at some point, but this was the first I heard of his caricature of the Czech president encased in a giant, fiberglass anus, not to mention his installation featuring “two bronze sculptures of naked, urinating men, which proceed to swivel their hips and move their protruding penises to trace his four-letter words into a pond shaped like a map of the Czech Republic.”

The article goes on to explain how Cerny became a “folk hero” when he staged an elaborate prank when the Czech Republic had the rotating six-month presidency of the EU last year.  Apparently some (no doubt officious) Czech dignitaries hired him to oversee a project where artists from each country in the Union would create a work that would “proudly display the unique traits of [their] country.”  Instead, Cerny did all of them himself, savagely lampooning each country (“Bulgaria as a Turkish toilet, Catholic Poland as a group of priests raising a gay flag and Germany as a network of motorways eerily resembling a swastika”), and then made up fictional artists and fake biographies for each one, complete with absurd narratives about the pieces.

That has got to be one of the best abuses of cultural cachet I’ve ever heard of.  The article quotes a Czech museum director who says that his art is “destined for the amusement park,” but then reveals that Cerny also placed that guy in the fiberglass anus, feeding slop to the Czech President to the tune of “We Are the Champions.”  If ever anybody earned his reputation as an artistic “bad boy,” it would have to be him, right?  How do you beat naked sculptures peeing swear words onto a map of your home country, or using your status to embark on personal vendettas against museum directors in the form of elaborate installations making fun of them?

The article, which is a little bit fawning (it says he looks like Mick Jagger, and also breathlessly reports how he “considered” getting fake boobs and walking around Prague with them.  Maybe it’s just me, but he’d have to go ahead and actually do that before I’d call it newsworthy), quotes him talking about the difference between the U.S., where Americans are “taught to be proud and as visible as possible,” and the Czech Republic, where “we are taught to be silent and invisible.”  I am fascinated with the idea that this sort of behavior made him a “folk hero,” as it is all too easy to imagine the opposite reaction were some American artist to make a statue of somebody peeing on the American flag or what have you.  Perhaps Dan or one of our Czech readers can further elucidate this cultural distinction.  (I’m also hoping that this post will inspire Dan to tell us about some other famous Czech pranks that I learned a little about when I visited last year.)

EDIT: Dan reminds me that Cerny also made the creepy babies that adorn the Zizkov TelevisionTower, as described in a recent post.  They seemed sort of crazy when I first saw them, but they are clearly on the tamer end of the Cerny spectrum.

Today's entertainment

I just found out that there’s a French mathematician named Jacques Tits. He works primarily in group theory and has a theorem called the ‘Tits alternative’. Professor Tits also introduced a theory of buildings which are sometimes referred to as ‘Tits buildings’.


I guess there was probably a time when he was only an assistant professor, aka ‘Ass. Prof.’. Incidentally, a google search for ‘ass professor’ yields this totally ridiculous headline from the 1922 New York Times (and, no, it really was published in the Times, not the Onion— here’s the link to the full article):


I haven’t had this much fun since I found out that my friend’s roommate Zehra- a short, cheerful Turkish woman doing her medical residency in San Francisco – has Akdagon as her last name, thus making her Dr. Akdagon in professional circles. I immediately burnt a copy of the Dr. Octagon album for her, which we all listened to with great enjoyment.

When Natural Disasters Collide: Misc. Edition


A few quick follow-up thoughts on Krafty’s When Natural Disasters Collide: California Edition post:

1. I couldn’t be more excited about the (slim) prospect of Hurricane Jemina wiping out the forest fires ravaging SoCal right now. It’s clearly the best chance that the ‘When Natural Disasters Collide’ concept has of ever actually happening. But, it would be even better if forest fires were also given names, like hurricanes. Imagine how invested one could get in rooting for Forest Fire Gerald vs. Hurricane Jemina, say. You could probably even gamble on the outcome.

2. Another potential matchup that only just occurred to me would be Tsunami vs. Tidal Wave. This would have an instructive component, in that people often confuse the two or think that they’re the same thing. So, this would be for bragging rights, like those pro wrestling matches where one guy gets to tear the other’s mask off. Although, it would be hard to stage a fair fight, because tsunamis are much, much bigger than tidal waves (which actually hardly qualify as natural disasters at all, to be honest). It would have to be a very small tsunami against a very big tidal wave, such as the ones in the Bay of Fundy that supposedly reach 50 feet.

3. All this talk of natural disasters over the last two days, I’ve listened to ‘When The Levee Breaks‘ a good 3 or 4 times. Is there a better song about a natural disaster? Or is this as good as it gets?

When Natural Disasters Collide: California Edition


Dedicated Mock Duck readers may recall Dan’s suggestion of a Fox-type show called When Natural Disasters Collide.  Putting aside its merits as a TV show concept, the idea is getting a lot of currency this week as a proposed “solution” to the wildfires that are raging out of control throughout California.  Lo and behold, noted some astute disaster observers, there is a giant hurricane bearing down on Baja California, just to the south of the area beset by wildfires.  Maybe it will shift course, and save the day!  Apparently there is even some vague plausibility to this idea, although it didn’t sound like it when my mother (who would prefer that I move as far away as possible from anywhere where there might be earthquakes or fires) suggested it, as if we could just radio the hurricane and ask it to switch course.

I’m not conversant enough in old monster movies to think of the right analogy, but I do recall this as a fairly common trope, where one wild and dangerous force of nature is held at bay by a second wild and dangerous force of nature.  Based on my experiences as a resident of the Golden State, however, even if the hurricane did hit us, it would probably team up with the fires to cause mass devastation via landslides.

Mysteries of Czech language: K(e)rmit

(Part of an ongoing series. Previous installments begin here).

There’s a verb ‘krmit’ in Czech that describes the act of feeding an animal, small human or very old human (basically, anyone who can’t feed themselves). Czech is a very precise language in that there are often these highly specific verbs to differentiate between slightly different activities (feeding somebody else vs. feeding oneself, taking someone somewhere by car vs. taking someone somewhere by foot, and so forth). The pronunciation is phonetic: just say ‘Kermit’, but try to stifle the ‘e’ as much as possible. It helps if you smoosh your chin into your chest to constrict your throat and sort of gurgle the word out. Czech language is full of these consonant clusters– you can in fact say ‘fart, death, burp’ without using a single vowel.

I had a hard time convincing my wife that ‘Kermit’ is actually a real name in the native English-speaking world and that I wasn’t just pulling her leg. I think this might be the worst-conceived name to give a Czech kid, narrowly surpassing ‘Brezhnev’, ‘Khrushchev’ and ‘George W.’.

Amateurism, Elmer Bischoff and Jacques Henri Lartigue

During my just-finished vacation to Poland (described in last post), I had an interesting conversation with a musician/composer guy about a manuscript he’s just finished writing for a novel. His main take was that it had been really fun to write because it provided him with a break from the tasks that he considers his real career, principally composing music and trying to organize stoned, discombobulated jazz musicians. And, because writing is strictly a sideline thing for him, he allowed himself to take his time with it, dropping the manuscript for an entire year and then picking it up again later when the urge struck. Above all, the persistence of fun came across really clearly in the way he talked about his experience with writing.

This reminded me a lot of all things bloggy, naturally– as I’ve written about before, part of the whole point of starting a blog was to find a venue that’s conducive to light, breezy, dilettante-ish writing rather than labored, serious ‘I am trying to be a writer’-type writing. It occurred to me that another, simpler way of putting this is that there’s something inherently amateurish about this format, for better and for worse. This got me thinking about the quality of amateurish-ness, which I would define as when you’re doing something where you don’t exactly know what it is you’re doing and the results perhaps benefit from the circumstance of not knowing.


Many years ago, I went to a show of works by the painter Elmer Bischoff in Oakland. Bischoff made his name doing fantastic figurative oil paintings but then got bogged down and hit a ditch that he described as a ‘state of immobilization.’ The solution came when he dropped oil paint and suddenly began working with acrylics, producing playful, abstract paintings of an entirely different nature. In fairness, I would have to say that his acrylics are never really as good as his oils, but the significant thing is that you can palpably detect the sense of  fun re-entering the picture in these later acrylic works. I’ve always remembered his account of this switch in the exhibition catalog that I read at the time: it felt, he said, like “leaving a church and entering a gymnasium. The lights were turned up and there was a very different spirit and feel about the whole thing.”


Above: Bischoff oil painting on left, acrylic on right


The photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue is an example of an artist whose work exudes amateurism, in part because he created his most famous works when he was a kid between the ages of 6 and 18. Lartigue’s early photos have an evident sense of childishness in all the best meanings of the word. Topically, they show a kid’s world, often taken from a kid’s low vantage point: Lartigue taking a bath, his cousin sliding down a bannister, car races, sports. Aesthetically, they show a world full of energy, motion, speed, fun– the things that kids are drawn to.


Self portrait, age 8


His cousin, Bichonnade


1912 Grande Prix


Self portrait, age 15

Bizarrely, although Lartigue took photos his entire life, he supported himself mainly as a painter until his childhood work was rediscovered and rocketed him to international fame late in his life.

The director Wes Anderson is reportedly a big Lartigue fan. There’s a shot of Max Fischer in Rushmore that’s modeled exactly after one of Lartigue’s teenage self-portraits as an homage.