THIS is the beginning . . . Because somewhere between not knowing . . . and knowing . . . there lies imagination . . . THIS, THAT and THE OTHER . . . Book 1 . . . OUT NOW . . . THIS is the beginning . . . Because somewhere between not knowing . . . and knowing . . . there lies imagination . . . THIS, THAT and THE OTHER . . . Book 1 . . . CLICK HERE . . .

CURRENT : RED SPARROW WRITERS : storytelling, workshops, book signings : RSPB Conwy : booking now for 29 October 2019
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Thursday, 12 December 2013

A Thursday in Prague...

Itinerary: Dvorac Sec Gallery, Riverside Walk, Veletrzni Palac, DOX Arts Centre
'Signifier' by Remy Dean (photograph, 2013, Prague)
We are sitting underground, in the C14th cellar now occupied by the AghaRTA. The tall glasses of beer are chilled and the soundtrack is way-cool. Prague is probably the most ‘happening’ city in Europe for jazz, and the jazz that is happening here is smooth and moody and just on the right side of cheesy. It is perfect to round off an intensely busy day with a crammed itinerary. If a director wanted to set a scene in an intimate jazz club – this set-up would fit the bill in every respect. The band are spot on:  the twenty-something drummer has a sense of time that glues the music together and there are intervals of pure percussion where he lays down some real solid beats, daddio… the thirty-something keyboard player is Ondrej Kabrna, and this is his trio, his style ranges from smooth to showy… and the forty-something double-bass player mediates between keys and skins with deep rhythmic flourishes and subtle interludes…

The day started with a walk through the chilled sunshine streets around the Old Town and a visit to the classy, private gallery, Dvorac Sec, showing the new Uber Ego collection from Prague’s very own ‘bad-boy’ of contemporary art, David Cerny. I think he would have had a laugh with Jake and Dinos Chapman and he had even appropriated an image of one of their skinless charred Gestapo grinners... very current! The first room of the exhibition was ‘ruled’ by a little red London bus that groaned loudly with the strain of exertion as it went through a repeated routine of press-ups and panting respites. The endless cycle of labour and effort as it strove to carry others on a daily basis…. It was funny, with a political punch-line, like much of Cerny’s post-punk-modernist oeuvre.
Sparky thinks the Cerny-bus wants to play...
The rest of the show was dominated by conglomerations of various bright objects cast in clear resin – a bit like those novelty toilet seats with starfish set into them… There was a big erection that threw colour-dappled shadows in the shape of butterfly wings to each side. On closer inspection, some of the profiles created using this technique upped the cool factor when I recognised who they were ‘portraits’ of… To set the tone, Alfred Hitchcock (no mistaking his famous profile) looks in the opposite direction to Quentin Tarantino, and across the gallery David Lynch looks at everything from a different angle… and is that Jim Jarmusch? These ‘behind-the-camera’ Pop icons look on as a chrome Titanic sinks into the floor and a larger-than-life, though emasculated, muscle-man with a military-copter-head approaches to… well, either effect a rescue, or finish the job, I suppose.
David Cerny's Hitchcock and Tarantino face-off
So, after that kick-start to our planned day of Modern and Post-Modern, we take a leisurely stroll across the river and along its elevated north bank, heading for the huge Veletrzni Palac – the Museum of Modern Art and Design, housed in the suitably Modern, trade palace building.
'Primary' play park
On the way we enjoy hazy views across the city and pass a play area populated by cheery ceramic creatures in primary colours that could easily be mistaken for Pop Art… perhaps vice versa?
Sparky charms this bronze lady
The Veletrzni Palac is great – in size and in quality. An extensive collection of ground-breaking, Czechocentric works spanning the C2Oth century and delving further back into history to put the Modern into context. It is too big to take in during a single visit. Seven or more floors of varied and stimulating stuff… industrial design, rubbing shoulders with nouveau fashion, set-designs next to theatrically expressionistic sculptures, the Minimal conversing with the Romantic, photography and video art across the hall from decorative ceramics and abstract glass… it’s all here and much of it is a refreshing surprise to anyone used to the other big galleries found in European capitals and their ‘usual suspects’. The collection showcases some world-class, highly influential creatives, whose names may well be unfamiliar to you! Perhaps, the initial reaction is to dismiss some of the works as ‘derivative’… but not after you have read the date on the label. Some of the Czech artists who appear to be, ‘a bit like the Paris Cubists,’ or, ‘similar to the Italian Futurists,’ were producing this work at the same time, or even earlier, than their more famous colleagues…
Kurt Gebauer's 'Dwarf - Dog' dwarfs Sparky... it's all relative.
In their own, semi-permanent gallery, the vast canvases of Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic are beautifully displayed. This is the highlight of the entire trip – and that is certainly not a claim made lightly, because some of the other lights of the trip have also been very high indeed. The Slav Epic was Mucha’s masterwork, a series of 20 linked paintings that tell the story of the Slav people and their heroic, noble struggle through historical trials and tribulations. These paintings, produced over the last two decades of his life, represent a spectacular achievement for any solo artist and easily matches the grandeur of Renaissance masters. Perhaps I speak in hyperbole to draw a comparison to Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel - both are fine examples of the graphic novel on  a grand scale. Well, go see the Slav Epic and judge for yourself… it is really difficult to overstate how beautiful, moving and technically accomplished Mucha’s final (and partly unfinished) masterpiece is. Mucha is a real hero of art, certainly recognised as such in the Czech Republic, and it was to those people he bequeathed this truly epic labour of love.

Semi-permanent? There are plans to tour these huge canvasses internationally, New York, London, Paris, Tokyo… so if you possibly can, see them here in Prague where they belong. No scan or print can convey their monumental power, they have to be experienced first-hand. We had the entire gallery to ourselves, which was a luxury and a lovely opportunity to really engage at a deeper level often denied in our more popular galleries… where timed entry tickets allow us to shuffle, shoulder to shoulder, from exhibit to exhibit as if on a conveyor belt… These deeply poetic and moving works deserve more respect than that. And so do you.

After this Czech C20th saturation, we pushed on, through some urban sprawl, to a newly converted building in the middle of a huge housing estate to have a look at what is happening right now. This is the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art.

Regardless of the art on show, this is a great space, with very welcoming and well-informed staff and a relaxed atmosphere. On the second floor, there is a freely accessible research library (mainly, though not exclusively in Czech) that you are encouraged to browse.

The majority of the ground floor gallery space was given over to the exhibition titled, ‘Where is my Home?’, including a good variety of photography and graphic works. A video installation about the life of a ‘tramp’ was the one that captivated me the most - oddly moving and filled with sound philosophical propositions. After watching the short film, there was a second chamber with some portraits of those he met ‘on the road’. There was great humour and humanity.
Volker Marz figurines (L - R: Donkey, Che, Marilyn, Joseph)
Volker Marz had populated the upstairs gallery with hundreds of tiny, painted clay figures. The overall effect was disturbing in the same way as grotesque illustrations for children can be disturbing. There was some overt ugliness, some restrained weirdness, some Freudian-pseudo-psycho-sexual-innuendo, and some other attempts at humour. Sparky quite liked the red-eared donkey, but was not sure at all about the rest… and I was feeling a little illified too, until the Joseph Beuys figurines cheered me up a bit, particularly the set of three where he slept next to Che Guevara and Marilyn Monroe… So, then I needed a good coffee in the old-meets-modern cafeteria, with its seductive cakes, angle lamp ‘chandeliers’, mismatched tables and chairs. The doors opened onto a roof terrace with patio furniture and views of some large scale sculptures, including a Christ made from lost trainers and a huge crimson skull in orbit around the ‘little tower’.

The night breeze was refreshingly cool and the tram took us on a ‘fairground ride’ of blurred suburban streetlamps back to the golden lights of the Old Town centre… Before 'all that jazz' gets under way, there is just enough time for a meal of rustic cabbage soup followed by slow-roasted pork knuckle - served on a wooden 'sled-plate' with freshly made coleslaw, pickled vegetables, green-beans, mustard, horseradish... probably the best meal of the trip, thoroughly enjoyed in the relaxed and tasteful (literally) U Dvou Sester (Two Sisters) restaurant - when in Prague...

Then a short walk to the inconspicuous AghaRTA club …that’s jazz!

Ondrej Kabrna Trio - same venue, different bass-player.

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