Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pink Tanks and Rotten Cakes: A Research Trip to Prague

by Jenelle Davis

The Pink Tank in the Military Technical Museum Lešany, 2014
Photo Credit: Jenelle Davis

This past summer I spent a month in Prague conducting research for the chapter of my dissertation in art history that investigates the life of a memorial in the Czech Republic post-1945 to the present. I arrived to the beautiful city armed with a small but formidable list of email addresses and phone numbers of local curators, artists and art historians from which, I hoped, I could conjure a few meetings and forge some new connections. What resulted from my efforts went wildly beyond my expectations. The trip proved immensely successful, even if some of the information I garnered was not at all what I expected.

My overarching aim was to meet David Černý, a contemporary Czech artist (or trouble maker depending who you’re talking to) whose action against a monument (or act of vandalism, also depending on who your speaking to) is the focus of a substantial part of my research. In 1991, Černý and a group of fellow art students covered the Monument to Soviet Tank Crews, a tank on a raised platform, with pink paint as an act of rebellion against the lasting Soviet legacy in Czechoslovakia and the failure of the new democratic government to convene a public discussion about the monument’s fate after the Velvet Revolution. My more realistic aspirations for the trip was to be in Prague by May 8 to see the commemorations for Victory Day at the former site of the memorial and to visit the Pink Tank where it now lives in a military museum outside of Prague (and yes, it is still Pink!).

The remnants of the “pink tank cake” and other original materials
brought over to the artist’s studio in a shopping cart. 2014
Photo Credit: Jenelle Davis
Incredibly, one morning I woke up to find an email in my inbox from Černý himself instructing me to call him so that we can find a time to meet! Apparently the curators at his art space, the Meet Factory, appreciated my determination and candor and prodded Černý to get in contact with me. We ended up hitting it off and I was invited back to visit his studio and go through an enormous amount of invaluable original materials including police reports, articles, letters, postcards and even a (rotting) cake made in the shape of the tank! It was astounding, and quite fun for both of us as Černý mentioned he hadn’t even thought about these materials for years.

The story of the tank, and my interest in it, doesn’t end with the initial act; there’s a fascinating continuation to it. On July 1, 2011, on the twentieth anniversary of the Warsaw Treaty’s demise, the pink tank returned to Prague on a palette, floating down the Vltava River. Its return was made at the behest of a ‘anti-totalitarianism’ organization, OPONA. The media portrayed this return of the tank as being quite a seminal event, and so I’ve been presenting this event as such in my written work. But what I found out during meetings with a few local artists surprised me. Not only was the public blasé about the return of the tank (and ambivalent about Černý for that matter) but I also realized that both Černý and OPONA were being bankrolled by the right-leaning political party TOP09. Not that this was a secret, per se, but the insight about the way contemporary politics were mirroring and also rejecting soviet era policies as relayed to me by locals puts a really interesting spin on this project that I wasn’t able to garner through secondhand sources. This problematizes the quaint, easy ending I envisioned to for this chapter and I couldn’t be happier with the opportunity to follow the trajectory this presents.

This trip was supported by a European Union Center Graduate Student Research Travel Grant and a travel stipend from the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, without which, this trip would not have been possible. I am sincerely grateful for the funding!


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