Václav Havel

Prague airport contains a wild illusion sculpture you have to see

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How did objects as diverse as a typewriter, a beer keg, some chess pieces and a car license plate combine to bring freedom and democracy to Czechoslovakia?

If you don’t know the name Václav Havel, you’ll be familiar with him as soon as you land in Prague. On the ground floor of Terminal 2 in the airport that bears his name, sculptor Patrik Proško has created an anamorphic sculpture of the former president using 3,000 objects that represent his life and the struggle for democracy. At first glance it just looks like a pile of random objects, but from a certain point of view it morphs into a portrait that within it tells the story of Havel’s life. You can see it for yourself in the terminal and also click here to get an exclusive Kiwi.com customer discount for the IAM Illusion Museum Prague.

Prague airport contains a wild illusion sculpture you have to seeThe artist, Patrik Proško, posing with the sculpture. © Patrik Proško

So who was Václav Havel?

Writer, poet, dissident, political prisoner and, eventually, president, Havel’s absurdist plays criticized the Communist regime; he took part in the Prague Spring (a period of protest eventually crushed by Warsaw Pact forces invading Czechoslovakia), found himself blacklisted and, for a number of years, imprisoned. He was one of the leading figures of Charter 77, a collective of writers, philosophers, lawyers and diplomats who were “united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world”.

When the regime ended with the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly appointed Havel president and, in the country’s first free elections in 44 years in 1990, his Civic Forum party swept to victory. Following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Havel became president of the newly-formed Czech Republic and is widely celebrated to this day.

The story of a revolution in 3,000 objects

Obviously we can’t examine every single object and interwoven story here — you’ll have to do that for yourself! — but here’s a selection of the objects and ideas that came together to change a nation.

Literature

Havel was, primarily, a writer, so typewriters and writing instruments can be seen throughout the sculpture. It was his dedication to free speech that landed him repeatedly in prison, and was also key to the Velvet Revolution. Keys were also — literally — a symbol of the revolution, so look closely and you’ll see that keys make up part of Havel’s mouth, bringing home the fact that what he said was a way to unlock the country from its oppressive fate. There are also books and other literature he enjoyed donated by the Václav Havel Library, as well as posters for and props from some of his plays.

Prague airport contains a wild illusion sculpture you have to seeOn 7 October 1989, a birthday greeting for Mr. Ferdinand Vaněk (top left) appeared in the social section in the daily newspaper “Právo”. This advertisement became the most renowned in the newspaper’s history. Why did it gain such fame? Ferdinand Vaněk, the name mentioned in the greeting, serves as Václav Havel’s fictional alter ego in his play “Audience”. The photograph featured with the advertisement was of Václav Havel himself. In an ironic twist, the communists inadvertently published a birthday wish for their adversary. © Patrik Proško

Music

“Dear Rolling Stones” begins one of the letters in the process of being typed. Havel was a huge music fan and invited the Stones to play at Prague’s Strahov stadium in 1990; he was also a fan of Frank Zappa, the Czech folk musician Karel Kryl and underground band Plastic People of the Universe.

Beer

Obviously Czechs see their beer as a great source of pride, and Havel was no different. Above the sculpture’s left eye there are beer mats from the U Zlateho Tygra pub (still there in the heart of the Old Town) where he went for a couple of jars with Bill Clinton, as well as a beer barrel from the Trutnov brewery. Havel was employed there as a laborer, driving there in his beloved Mercedes W114 — a photo and model of which also appear in the sculpture.

Prague airport contains a wild illusion sculpture you have to seeYou can see the photo of Václav Havel and his beloved Mercedes W114 at the bottom of the photo. © Patrik Proško

Signs

In its most literal terms, the large Narodni (National Street) sign represents the events of November 17 (the street still exists, a tram-heavy half-mile boulevard connecting the beautiful National Theater to Jungmannovo náměstí), and for something more metaphorical, take a look at the typewriter just above Havel’s right eye. The final draft of Charter 77 is being completed, the words spilling off the page and into a telephone handset making up part of Havel’s ear. Look closely however and the telephone line is connected to a half-hidden listening device. Someone has been eavesdropping…

Prison

As a dissident, Havel was often subject to appalling treatment at the hands of his captors. As well as the sign for Bartolomejská — a famous site for imprisonment and torture — you can see barbed wire, handcuffs, prison uniforms, a baton and a radiator. One of the most common ways of extracting information was to be thrown to the ground, handcuffed to a radiator, immersed in bright light then beaten to within an inch of your life. Remarkable to think, then, that at the start of 1989, Havel was in prison; by the end of the year, he was president of a newly-freed nation.

Prague airport contains a wild illusion sculpture you have to seeAn ominous view of the handcuffs on a radiator. © Patrik Proško

Patrik Proško: about the artist

We met up with Patrik to discuss the installation and what the piece, the process, and the subject means to him. The first question was, simply, where on earth do you even begin creating something like this?

“You begin with research. You find out everything you can about the subject’s life, then start looking for objects related to the story. I then announce the project on social media asking if anyone could donate objects, and also reach out to relevant institutions, in this case places like the Olga Havel Goodwill Committee, Charter 77 Foundation, the Divadlo na Zábradlí [a theater that staged many of Havel’s plays], the VIZE 97 Dagmar and Václav Havel Foundation and the Václav Havel Library. I shopped in bazaars, second-hand shops, flea markets, searched online, some things came from my family and some I made. I also went in-depth into other aspects of Havel’s life with historian and biographer Pavel Kosatík.

“Then it’s all about assembling the piece. You start with a 2D picture as a reference for what you’re trying to replicate, then it’s about assembling. I actually had more than the 3,000 objects you can see here to give myself the widest scope possible for texture and shape, but in my studio I don’t know how many kilometers I walked! Place an object, come to the front, how does it look? Go back, move it, replace it, alter something else, return to the front viewpoint, repeat, repeat, repeat. No computers, no other visualization, just… choosing, positioning, building.

Patrik ProškoThe artist- Patrik Proško © Patrik Proško

“I must think on eight levels at once. First, I have to find things related to the life of the person being portrayed. That thing then has to have a specific shape, and also a specific size for a certain morphology of the portrait in different locations. When I manage to find these three factors in one thing, I still need it to have a specific color. The fifth level is working with a specific light source, because each object has its own shadow, but it must not cast a shadow on places where there should be light in the portrait. In this installation, in some places I use shadow as an additional color instead of a colored object, for example in the right corner of his mouth, under the nose, and under the collar. In all, the actual assembly took four months.”

How does he see the result?

“I wanted it to be a piece for people and for the Czech Republic. It is made up of donations from Czech people, so it is, in a way, a national piece.

“Thanks to people like Václav Havel, I have a high quality of life today. I was 14 when the revolution came, and I had everything ahead of me. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to build our museum, I probably wouldn’t have been able to travel the world to create international projects and maybe I wouldn’t even be an artist. The Velvet Revolution had a tremendous influence on my life, and today I greatly appreciate what I have.”

Václav Havel‘Havel forever’ inscribed on a portrait at the Czech National Museum, 2014. © David Sedlecký

About the IAM Illusion Art Museum Prague

This anamorphic portrait of Václav Havel was commissioned by the IAM Illusion Art Museum Prague, opened in 2018 and one of Prague’s top attractions. It’s a world where reality, fiction and illusion combine, playing with your senses and imagination and expanding how you perceive the world. After all, sometimes finding a different point of view is the best way to see the world, right?

As mentioned above, Kiwi.com customers can get a discount on tickets and skip the line on arrival by clicking and booking via this link.

For additional discounts, make a reel of the portrait at the airport tagging in both @kiwicom247 and @iamprague on Facebook or Instagram. There’s more information hidden in a QR code on the back of the sculpture.

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