A guide to a strange endangered species: public art from the Normalization era
There used to be a law between 1965 and 1989 requiring between 1 and 4 percent of the funds for every building project be spent on public art. After 1989, though, not only was the law dropped but the ownership of the art changed so that now basically nobody is responsible for it. As a result, many pieces including ones made by important artists have been destroyed.
Pavel Karous has been cataloging public art from the Normalization era from years and has just published a “field guide” called Aliens and Herons. The book has hundreds of color pictures of public art across the Czech Republic and into Slovakia, and belongs on the shelves of anyone interested in art and the communist era. In addition, there is a related exhibition at DOX gallery until Jan. 20, 2014.
“The reason why we are doing this project is the terrible way that art from the communist time is being dealt with,” he said.
“From our research we know that in Prague [under Normalization] 1,580 artworks were realized in public spaces, compared to after the revolution when there have been only 56,” he said.
“And the worst is that from these 1,580 some 450 have been destroyed for commercial use of the public space,” he said, adding that a fountain, for example, not only generates no income but is expensive to operate. That same space when turned into a parking lot can generate money for the owner.
Some of the public art works were made by famous artists. “I think 10 percent of these works were like genius, very high quality,” he said.
“What is interesting is that the artists who were having problems with the dictatorship, with censorship under Normalization, didn’t have any problems with the realization of art for public spaces. For the system it wasn’t so dangerous if you were doing something in the public space if you had no signature under it,” he said. “It was much more that [the authorities] controlled publishing of books, newspapers and magazines, and TV of course; anything that has a direct connection to the people,” he said.
“But if you were doing some abstract art in the suburbs of Prague, it wasn’t seen as dangerous to the system,” he said, adding that artists who had otherwise been on a blacklist and banned from working in the arts often were able to do public art paid for by the state.
The name of the book comes from the beginning of the project. “By bicycle we went around and were looking for this art like for mushrooms in the forest because we had no list. No list of the art exists. So we have thousands of objects but we have no idea who did it, when, what was the name of this object. So we have to put it into families to make some kind of system,” he said. The book uses a semi-scientific system of class, order, family, genus and species.
“When we tried to make this taxonomy we used local verbal legends,” he said. People in the area would come up to him when was photographing the art and tell him about it.
One piece of art was known locally by a name from a film. “They said, ‘Oh, this kind of triffid. We call it a triffid because it looks like these human flesh-eating plants from science fiction,’” he said. “And when you look at it, it really looks like a triffid because of its shape.” Similar works of art were also categorized as triffids.
“Or ‘lost the key,’ which are [sculptures of] naked girls lost in the middle of suburbs and it looks strange because if you see a naked girl in the gallery carved out of a white cube [of marble] you can make very easily deal with it because you are in a very cultivated situation,” he said.
“But if you have a naked girl in a public space in the suburbs, where there are [discarded heroin] needles and cigarettes and chewing gum on the ground, and there are junkies and homeless people and people are going to work … and in the middle of it is [a statue of a] very fragile, 15 year old girl you can see there is some kind of tension. And the people call it ‘lost the key’ because it looks like she is waiting for someone or she needs protection,” he said.
“And of course herons, water birds are very typical, and the shapes of eggs remind young people these parasite eggs from [the film] Alien,” he added. Other categories in the book include plague columns, Madonna with child, sprouting tubers and hip bones of mammoths.
Research in public records has not proved to be much help. “During the revolution, many documents were destroyed because of people who had been in power … thought that there would be some information against them. So they would be hanging in the streets or something,” he said, referring to the French Revolution and similar historical incidents that turned violent. The Velvet Revolution in 1989 did not, however. “So they destroyed all the papers.”
“Even in the 1970s and ’80s they didn’t keep perfect information about what they did. Sometimes you look at information from the buildings and sometimes there is only the information that 1.22 percent of the budget had been spent to the art but it doesn’t say who the author is, what it is, where you find it in the building. Just that the law has been met. … So there has been a lot of chaos.”
And after 1918, some art linked to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was destroyed by drunken mobs. But it was only during the first few days and then President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk intervened and asked people to stop.
“But we are destroying this [Normalization era] art 24 years after the revolution. … I think the people have not made a good deal with the past. So we connect everything that has been created in communist times in one pocket, and we don’t separate it like the closed border and censorship [as bad] and art and music [as good],” he said, adding that the communists and fascists destroyed less art than the capitalists.
The two big problems now are ignorance and ownership. The Prague Public Transport company, for example, owns many works of public art but nobody on the staff is responsible for them or realizes that some pieces are worth millions of crowns. “Just because of some revitalization projects they want to destroy it,” he said.
“They have legal and economic and an engineering knowledge, but they don’t have anybody who will take care of the art, so for them it is rubbish. Of course they care after you tell them. After they sell it for just nothing, and when I tell them it was worth 10 million Kč they have like a heart attack.”
Before 1989 the art was owned by the Gallery of the City of Prague. But after 1989 the gallery didn’t have the money to look after it and the Ministry of Culture did not provide any money, so the pieces were turned over to local district governments. “But they didn’t get any money or any [inventory] list because there is no list and no money to make it,” Karous said.
“It was just like, ‘What is in your streets is yours.’ … And in this situation nobody cares. Nobody is responsible. The gallery is not responsible, and the City Hall is not responsible, local politicians are not responsible. So you can sell this public space to the pizzeria or the parking lot and when the workmen destroy the object, nobody will punish them,” he said.