Existentialist Thought from Prague

Kafka Sculpture by David Černý

There is a significant amount of public art in Prague, none so impressive as the moving, metal sculpture of the head of the great Czech author Franz Kafka. Artist David Černý designed this, and if you click on this link, you can see the sculpture move.

What also stands out are David Černý’s fiberglass creations of the seeming otherworldly babies, three of which are installed on the grounds next to Museum Kampa and others who are fixed on the Žižkov t.v. tower which is 709 feet tall and one of Prague’s most notable landmarks. It seems appropriate that these works would emerge out of the same city in which Kafka was born. I have long been an admirer of the surrealist and existential writings of Kafka, most notably his work The Metamorphosis (1915), and Černý’s art seems to share something with Kafka’s sentiments.

The babies, as one can see as they “crawl” the grounds outside the museum, have bar codes implanted in their foreheads, and I find this to be a powerful comment (as many others have, too, I am sure). To have taken a symbol of innocence and to have registered it with a dominant symbol of capitalism provides a grand juxtaposition that, for me anyway, shows disregard for capitalist enterprise and, perhaps, even a disregard for or a lack of belief in innocence itself. Like Kafka’s work, Černý’s babies seem to signal a powerful existentialist comment on the role of individuals within systems that might not provide meaning.

One of Černý’s babies.
Detail on Žižkov Tower
Kafka statue by Jaroslav Róna

Maybe I am fixating on existentialism here or, rather, a sense of futility, as it seems impossible at times to understand new places or collectives which are unfathomable to a new eye. Maybe one can only make sense of the self and not others, and maybe travel writing, therefore, is not actually about new places but about the experiences of individuals in new places.

It seems to me at this point that maybe the only things shifting in this new place are architecture, language and food. That is, at times I feel like the new place I am in could simply be Toronto or any other large city except for the medieval buildings, the language which I don’t understand, and changing cuisine. In and of itself, this reflection doesn’t make life absurd necessarily, but it suggests that the outside world and experiences in different places might be illusory and that meaning and understanding might only be grounded in the minds of individuals.

Street named after Kafka