A provocative wall
An opportunity to make outsider art visible in the city's center
Posted: February 6, 2013
The site-specific Artwall runs for approximately a kilometer next to the road along the embankments just below Letná Park, a section frequently filled with cars and trams. It gets thousands of casual glances a day, not to mention people who visit the site specifically to see the work. This high-visibility position is not mere chance; the wall was originally constructed with the purpose of posting can't-miss communist political propaganda.
It remained empty for many years after the fall of communism, returning to be repurposed in 2000 with the "Flower Power" project by the Los Angeles-based artist Barbara Benish. The idea of converting the wall into a gallery first came to her in 1989, when she co-curated "Dialogue Prague/Los Angeles," the city's first exchange exhibition with U.S. artists in half a century. "I had seen the niches for many years whenever I visited Prague and remember even the Soviet propaganda posters there in the '80s," Benish said. "But that night it occurred to me what a wonderful place this would be to establish a new art space for the expression of a new sensibility - already in the air in July 1989. Of course, it was still impossible then. But, two years later, anything was possible."
The wall was later successfully established as a permanent public exhibition space. It presented a number of Czech and foreign artists, among them Lenka Klodová, Mirella Bentivoglio, Martin Zet and the Pode Bal group. But the exhibition "Collective Identity," presented in May 2008 by the art group Guma Guar, led to the ban of the Artwall that year. It was intended to criticize corruption, but the city, then under the leadership of Pavel Bém, took offense and withdrew from its leasing contract, effectively closing down the gallery. The former mayor refused to comment for this article.
Negotiations with the city, at last under a new administration, started again three years later. In November 2011, the gallery re-opened under the auspices of Mayor Bohuslav Svoboda. "One of the reasons for closing the gallery was a campaign of its artists criticizing the methods of the former administration while it considered hosting the summer Olympic Games in Prague," Svoboda said. "I do not like censorship in any form. I am a supporter of maximum civil and artistic freedom. That is why I think the parody Praha olympijská was not beyond the pale: You can make fun of anything if it doesn't give the impression of something cheap."
Since that winter, the Artwall Gallery has hosted exhibitions by Voina, Ladislav Vondrák, Tereza Janečková and Pavlína Míčová, Kennardphillipps, Milan Kozelka and Alexander Pushkin. It is now entering the second year of its renewed existence.
Artwall still mostly points out social or political problems, but it seems to have carte blanche for now. "Even if the projects of this gallery are mostly provocative, my opinion is that it belongs to art, too," Svoboda said. "Neither the mayor nor city management should be judging the art projects - of course, on the understanding that they do not conflict with the legacy."
The next exhibition will be "The Art of Killing" by the photographer Lukáš Houdek. The selected photographic series focuses on the massacre of German civilians in Czechoslovakia in 1945. He took the selected cases using archival sources and historical analyses and reconstructed them in figurines. "The space of Artwall Gallery is a big challenge for every artist," Houdek said. "And if man brings to this very visible space a taboo subject, which the mass killing of German civilians in 1945 undoubtedly is, he has to accept diverse reactions to it. The project provoked tensed emotions even at the time of its creation. It can be even stronger now, after the discussions preceding the presidential elections." Houdek's interest in this topic is not just to provoke: His family comes from the borderlands. "Art of Killing" will be on display from Thursday, Feb. 7, simultaneously at the Artwall Gallery and in the National Technical Library.
And Artwall has announced an open call for three projects to be exhibited from June to December. Owing to the spot's tangled history, it will be very interesting to see the character of the winning projects.
Monika Ticháčková can be reached at