Prague: Silence, History and the Magical City

Before I ever started visiting Prague with regularity, the city was increasingly on my radar thanks to the writing of Tony Judt. I began reading Tony Judt when one of my sisters bought me his monumental Postwar for Christmas a number of years ago and through friends I discovered more of Judt’s work just as his illness seemed to have finally conquered him. His final few works which include The Memory ChaletIll Fares The Land and his conversation with Timothy Snyder, Thinking The Twentieth Century, all give special mention to the Czech Republic and to Prague and to the famed Prague Spring of 1968. Since I began reading this work, a change in personal circumstances has meant that I now visit Prague on a regular basis and over the course of my accumulated visits, I have learned incrementally more and more about the city, about the Czech lands and their history. I have toyed with the idea of writing something about this oft-written-about city previously for The Dustbin, but for the first time, and following my most recent visit, I feel I finally have something to offer up, something like a coherent thought about the place…

“It is as if we conjure the dead and they speak only

Through our own damned trumpets, through our damned medium:”[1]

These lines of Jack Spicer’s from his poem Imaginary Elegies sum up for me the job of the historian, and the care we need to take when we conjure the dead through our damned medium: our damned medium being history. A poetic expression of EP Thompson’s famed rallying call to rescue people from the condescension of posterity, it also acknowledges that when historian’s conjure up the dead, in whatever fashion, they make noise again where there has since been silence.

Like many European capitals, the sheer wealth and depth of the history that courses through the streets of Prague can be overwhelming for the visitor – from the remarkable architectural heritage to be found at places like Vysehrad, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the Charles Bridge and the Waldstein Palace to the seemingly endless public statuary that reminds one constantly through works that are sometimes simple and other times monumental in every sense, of the long deep history which the streets of the city have had to bear from Hussite Revolution to Fascist invasion and much more besides. In that respect, Prague can like so many great cities, seem to be drowning in its own history and the competition moreover of each of these different facets of the city’s history to interest and intrigue the thousands upon thousands of tourists wending their way through Old Town past the sellers of knick-knacks and tack. But as with all cityscapes which are teeming with the weight of so much history, pulling you in different directions and through centuries as you turn from one street to the next, crossing one set of tram tracks at the end of a square to turn on to another, there is also the presence of how silent those pasts can actually be, despite this noisome melange.

What turned my mind to the notion of silence was a number of exhibitions I viewed on my most recent trip to Prague. At the DOX, the contemporary art gallery, there were three particular exhibits that upon reflection had something vital to say about history and silence. The three exhibitions of which I am thinking are the poster as propaganda, 1914-2014, an exhibit of various samizdat publications and finally an exhibition of the Chinese photographer Liu Xia. Reflecting on all three of these exhibitions as I saw them together under the one roof, the theme of silence (especially imposed silence), especially strong in Liu Xia’s work, struck me as equally important to the other two exhibits as well.

The enforced silence of Liu Xia, under house arrest since her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, is a silence that must no doubt resonate deeply and strongly in Prague, a city where silence under the Nazi and Communist regimes was a part of everyday life. With every visit to the city, you become more and more acutely aware of all that has passed on its streets and squares. The different exhibitions that I saw at the DOX each taught me something important about how to understand the history of the Czech Republic and its capital.

The first exhibition on the poster as propaganda tool was a fascinating sweeping history of the twentieth century in central Europe first but gradually widened out to consider other global struggles and revolutions, the onset of globalization, the war on terror and the recent crisis of late capitalism. What struck me as particularly interesting was the periodization of the exhibition. Periodization is a vexed issue at the best of times for historians but the lay out of this exhibition was particularly interesting in terms of the periodization that was employed. Some standard periods were employed such as 1918-1939, but it was towards the post Second World War era that things got interesting in this regard. There was no periodization from 1945-1968, as one might have thought given the shift that was caused by the Prague Spring and its aftermath, or from 1968 to 1989 and the Velvet Revolution – instead the exhibition went with the far broader brush stroke of 1945-1989. Perhaps this was to indicate the wider battle between both sides in the Cold War. Yet, for the Czech people that broader period is probably best understood in terms of the Soviet takeover in 1948 until the Prague Spring in 1968 and from the subsequent “normalization” period that followed until the emergence of Charter 77 and then the Velvet Revolution. The silencing of these two distinctive periods in Czech history meant that the exhibition was to be understood by those who saw it in this much grander narrative, but robbed the viewer of the nuance that a more atomized periodization would have provided.[2]

One of the more striking posters displayed was a Czech poster imploring people not to forget Lidice, a town carpet bombed out of existence by the Nazis in retribution for the assassination of Reinhard Heidrich. Film footage of the town’s destruction was powerful but so too is the knowledge that all official records of the town were destroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to eradicate, to silence, this place out of history. This was a violent kind of censorship, an important theme that carried over elsewhere in the gallery and in particular in the exhibition of Liu Xia’s photography.

The photographs being exhibited were disturbing in their sense of claustrophobia, but perhaps the most disturbing element of the entire exhibit was the room containing the last filmed footage of Liu Xia since she was under house arrest. In this video too, silence was a powerful thing. The video was taken by two friends of the photographer who made a daring, and successful, attempt to enter the photographers home, they breathlessly rush to the top of the stairs and then as viewers we see Liu Xia whisper, quite silently, messages into one of her two friends ears before both decide it would be better and safer to leave of their own volition. This coupled with the photographs give extra meaning to the exhibitions title “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia”.[3] In the video we see the silence of secrecy between friends, another important theme in recent Czech history and something which informed the movement that produced the various samizdat publications that were the life’s blood of many artists and writers who were not a part of the official culture of normalization – writers like Bohumil Hrabal or Vaclav Havel. The particular samizdat publication which was the focus of the DOX exhibit was Pražská imaginace (Prague imagination). [4]

Here again in the samizdat publication we see a kind of silence that was brought on by the effects of normalization – the retreat from public life into the private world and what Tony Judt has described as “pro forma political conformism”.[5] It was in this private rather than public world that samizdat publications circulated. The weird state of difference between one’s public face and private opinion has recently been examined by Paulina Bren who asked “what then was ‘normal’ about normalization? That nothing, and yet everything, was normal was hinted at by ordinary citizens’ own adoption of the term…”[6] In such a world, and again as Bren notes, in a world where whats passes for normal is a state in which there is nothing happening, then the silent, covert writing, publication and reading of samizdat work becomes an important whisper in an otherwise silent society. It was in precisely this context which Czech action art emerged. As Pavlina Morganova has recently written of early Czech action art, its function was as “a public performance and an attempt to penetrate the routine lives of other people.”[7] In other words, an attempt to break the silence, the stillness, imposed by communism and particularly its normalized form after 1968.

Vladimír Havlík, Experimental Flower, 1981. Source: http://www.artlist.cz/?id=1222
Vladimír Havlík, Experimental Flower, 1981. Source: http://www.artlist.cz/?id=1222

So in the magical city of Kakfa, the Golem, of Kepler, there were disruptions of the everyday with the hanging of empty frames on streets to create fleeting images, cobblestones were replaced by flowers, and Czech artists interrupted the silence of normalization by actions and activity that was often collective. Magic was returned in fleeting moments that only some may have seen, and they may have been amused, bemused, or cheered by these noisy moments that have left no physical traces today, but whose power is not silent, or silenced. Such are the moments that make history.

[1] Jack Spicer, “Imaginary Elegies, I-IV”, in Allen, Donald M., The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, Berkely: Univesity of California Press [1999 edn.], p.143

[2] Jaroslav Anděl (curator),“The Poster in the Clash of Ideologies, 1914-2014”, DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague, 14 February-19 May 2014.

[3] Liu Xia, “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia” (exhibition), DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague. Exhibition runs from 28 February-9 June 2014.

[4]Jiří Hůla (curator), “Pražská imaginace, 1985-2005”, DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague. Exhibition officially ran from 6 March-20 April 2014.

[5] Judt, Tony and Snyder, Timothy, Thinking the Twentieth Century, London: Wiliam Heinemann 2012, p.234

[6] Bren, Paulina, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 2010, p.3

[7] Morganova, Pavlina, Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain, Prague: Karolinum Press 2014, p.49

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