Art and Ethics: Views from Prague

Filming at Sedlec Ossuary

During the last stop on my recent roadtrip, I stopped in Kutna Hora to see the “Bone Church,” or Sedlec Ossuary, a chapel adorned with human skeletons. Though the site is typically open seven days a week, my arrival coincided with the making of a movie inside the chapel, and the ossuary was closed to public viewing. I had to settle for taking in the Cathedral of St Barbara, a huge church and a UNESCO world heritage site.

The day after I returned to Prague I set off for the National Gallery with more contemporary exhibitions in mind, and I was not disappointed in the least. The National Gallery boasts Czech Art from 1850-1930, Czech modern art from 1900-1930, Czech modern art from 1930 until present, international art of the 20th and 21st centuries and temporary exhibitions.

St. Barbara Cathedral, Kutna Hora

What stood out most to me was Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibition “Law of the Journey.” This is a very large installation where a huge rubber boat is suspended from the roof of a main building on the ground floor with rubber figures seated in the boat and one figure shown as falling over the side. This is Ai’s depiction of refugee crises (Ai was also a refugee), and, at this point in time, it stands as a powerful reminder that we need to fight for human rights: those who are in a privileged position (like those who can wander to galleries and museums and take in spectacles with no thought of having to struggle for survival) have an obligation to contribute to preserving and supporting the lives of others.

“Law of the Journey,” Ai Weiwei

Ai’s art made me re-consider a recent conference I attended where I presented a paper. “Interpreting Migration: An International Disciplinary Conference,” held in Liberec, Czech Republic, was dedicated to considering many issues, some of which were those which Ai’s exhibition has one consider. See

The conference call for papers read as follows:

“At a time when refugees as well as those migrating for better work and study opportunities or a more democratic life make headline news, thematize presidential debates and EU membership referendums, when national identity is increasingly defined against the free movement of people, the issue of migration could not be more topical as a focus of rigorous intellectual debate. Thus, our conference aims to bring together experts from all disciplines of the humanities and social and political sciences to discuss the phenomenon of migration, in all of its complexity, taking into account both its challenges and potential dangers to migrant and society, and its potential to be positive and enriching.”

The conference provoked significant discussion, and I was left thinking about Syria in particular and how divorced I really am from any conception of what human beings must be enduring. Though the Czech Republic is far removed from Syria, the places are connected together by land, and though the distance between the two places is about 2500 kilometres, there is a much stronger connection in the Czech Republic to this contemporary tragedy than there is in Canada. The distance between Canada and Syria is almost 10, 000 kilometres, but, more than that, Canada is cut off psychologically from a land mass where people are jumping borders in desperation. So the question becomes, how does one take intellectual ideas and exposure to art dedicated to examining the condition of human rights and put them into play? Is partaking in intellectual discussion and exposing oneself to realities enough? What does it mean to take an active part in attempting to contribute to crises such as those which today’s refugees are experiencing? Is art enough?

“Kleopatra,” Jan Zrzavý

Of course, art is never enough when it comes to immediate human need, but I did not instantly stop in my tracks and find the nearest donation centre where I could realistically add to monetary support for today’s refugees. I did not cancel my travel plans and take the money I have reserved for travel and give all my funds away. I did not devote more than ten minutes to standing in front of Ai’s piece. I continued throughout the gallery, as I’m sure many others have done, without rushing out the gallery’s doors and taking immediate action.

There were other pieces that caught my attention, too, in the gallery. Jan Zrzavý’s  (1890-1977) “Kleopatra,” a modernist-inspired piece stood out among the various paintings with its bold colours and almost Martian-like woman. Perhaps this painting grabbed my attention because I have been trying to make sense of the depictions of women that I have seen around Prague. At times, I wonder if one is being presented with classically inspired representations of women or the objectification of women or if classical pieces objectify just as much as contemporary depictions.

“Female Torso,” Wilhelm Lehmbruck
Night Gym, Prague

At the gallery, for instance, I was reminded of a statue on the top of a building in Karlovy Vary as it is not unlike the much later female torso created by German artist Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919) found in the National Gallery as well. These, in turn, made me recall a “night gym” which is advertised here in Prague. Although the woman’s breasts are not exposed as they are in medieval or modern sculpture, the voyeuristic gaze is undeniably heterosexist and patriarchal, if not misogynist, especially since googling reveals that this is a strip club. I wondered if, somehow, all of these public displays of the female body shared something in common.

My day ended with visiting the controversial “Body—the Exhibition.” I had not done much, if any, research into this exhibition before I went. It was only after my visit that I began researching responses to this “work.” My ruminations about both human rights and objectification came together during this visit and in a powerful way.

“Body—the Exhibition”

On the one hand, the exhibition seems to be a potentially rich training vehicle that would serve physicians and their students very well. I am not sure, however, how it “trains” the greater public. All human beings—cadavers—were referred to as “specimens” without a foregrounded recognition of them as human beings. Most of the cadavers were Asian. As later research revealed, the source of the bodies is potentially suspect.

Statue, Karlovy Vary

It was not until the next day that I began feeling incredibly disturbed. Even without reading the reviews which greatly problematized this exhibition, I feel that there is something gravely unethical about it, and I wish I’d never visited it. The main question in my mind is “how does one die so perfectly that the body becomes a perfect specimen for display”? The other question in my mind is “when does there come a separation between a sentient being and ‘remains’”? Via articles, I have been exposed to the dismay which Aborigines in Australia feel with the fact that Aboriginal remains were stolen decades ago and exported worldwide and that there is a strong movement to repatriate remains to Australia. Of particular note here is Aboriginal woman Truganini (1812-1876), from Tasmania, whose remains were exhumed from the ground and put on display. Some of her skin and hair also found their way to a collection in England. It was not until about fifty years ago that her remains were repatriated and that her last wishes, to be cremated, were respected.

I thought back to Kutna Hora and my arrival there which coincided with the ossuary being closed down. I wondered what the difference was between viewing the remains at the “Bone Church” and attending “Body—the Exhibition.” Is there a statute of limitations when it comes to putting remains on display? Are medieval remains today any less sacred than the remains being touted in “Body—the Exhibition”?

What about human rights and their relation to art and what art attempts to say? What exactly can rightfully constitute an exhibition of human life?