The monumental celebrations of this year’s “eighth anniversary” are in full swing. One of the most important events: commemorating the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, was the Re: public festival, which took place at the Brno Exhibition Center over the last few weeks. Ladislav Zikmund-Lender, in his critical commentary, shows that the dramaturgy of the festival corresponds to the widespread concept of the state as a synonym of the nation and to the tendency of Czechs to appropriate Czechoslovak history regardless of the other national groups that helped to co-create it.
Every schoolboy and schoolgirl know from geography classes that the basic feature of a state is a clear and recognized border. In the form in which Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, it disappeared twenty years later, and it was never renewed. The festive celebrations of the centennial anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia this year, therefore, worship a state formation that has not existed already for eighty years. This paradox best describes what Petr Pithart said at a recent conference What was Czechoslovakia? State, nation, culture: “In the end we have always given the nation priority over the state.”
Between May 26th and June 17th, 2018, the Re: public festival was held at the Brno Exhibition Center, which was one of the key events in the celebration of the anniversary of Czechoslovakia. How was it? What image did Czechoslovakia create? What can it tell us about how we think of ourselves as former Czechoslovaks?
When the Moravian Gallery in Brno opened the exhibition Paneland: The largest Czechoslovakian experiment (review) in autumn last year, it was the first reed in the project Re: public, which won the subtitle “Let’s be back together!” The ambition to celebrate the anniversary of Czechoslovakia along with Slovaks did not go far. Although in May at the Brno Exhibition Center the Czech and Slovak Prime Ministers cut the ceremony tape together, the expected financial support from the Slovak government did not happen. On the contrary, it was subsidized very generously from the Czech side: it collected 108 million crowns from public budgets, with sponsors paying the rest of the total cost of 130 million.
The ornamental, but not factual participation of the Slovaks at the festival is very typical for the way we embrace the Czechoslovak unit. Concurrently, but a little in the shade Re: public was held in Brno by the regular Meeting Brno. On one of the debates held in the framework of the Meeting called Year 1918 – Victory or Tragedy?, it was said that today’s Czechs regard Czechoslovakia as their own, as evidenced by the fact that, in spite of the Czechoslovak symbols convention, they appropriated the Czechoslovakian Flag in 1993, while the Slovaks do not relate to Czechoslovakia this way. Slovaks celebrate October 28th as a national holiday only exceptionally this year, Czechs every year. If it is true what Milena Bartlová said that “during the whole period of the First Czechoslovak Republic, the Czechs were able to solve their conflict with the Germans – in which they were the winners, they knew what to do – while their relationship with the Slovaks did not raise a question,”then exactly the same is true for this year’s celebration of Czechoslovakia and especially the festival Re: public. We haven’t diversified from the idea of superiority over the Slovaks yet (and what about the Rusyns, which we do not even consider) and we won’t do so without an open debate.
The festival Re: public reflected among others also the events of Manual of Brno Exhibition Center 1928-1918. The Brno House of Arts has prepared a special circuit throughout the Brno Exhibition Center within the Brno Architecture Manual, which documents and presents Brno’s modern architecture to tourists and researchers. The center of this presentation was a temporary pavilion A, where practical brochures with a trail on the site were available free of charge, while the Brno House of Arts held regular guided walks around the grounds. Knowing and popularizing the architecture of the fairgrounds at the same time pointed to its very poor state of affairs. When celebrating the anniversary of the Czechoslovak state and then the misjudged anniversary of the assassination of St. Wenceslas in 1928 could be the Exhibition Center built for the purposes of the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Czechoslovakia, it could have been at least repaired after ninety years.
Events within the Re: republic festival, which relate to visual art, are, except for one exception, a bizarre mixture of the nationally-oriented Czech narrative. The Brno House of Arts, in addition to the architecture of individual pavilions, presented another, much more important but rather subtle topic. It is the research about a manufacturer called Viktor Bauer and his mansion in the grounds of the exhibition center, which the art historians Jana Kořínková and Markéta Žáčková have been dedicated to for nearly two years. The conclusion of this research is two fundamental findings: Viktor Bauer did not let the architect Adolf Loos modify only the dining room on the ground floor and the bedroom, but Loos’s adjustments were far more extensive. In addition, the authors of the research came to the conclusion that Viktor Bauer, a businessman of Jewish origin, handed over the land for the construction of the exhibition center in an essentially involuntary manner. Bauer’s story is reminded by a short-term intervention suggestively reconstructing the original Loos design of the interior of the dining room in an otherwise rather dilapidated mansion, which the Brno Exhibition Center rents as an office space. At the festival Re: public we can find a panel exhibition about the coexistence of Czechs and Germans in Czechoslovakia, but in a closer look, we find that it is a presentation of the “competitive” Festival Meeting Brno. The presence, visibility and rehabilitation of a non-ethnically Czech narrative is an honorable exception at the Re: public festival, but we can rightly doubt whether it is sufficient for Brno, a city with a large proportion of German population and Jewish population between the wars. Of course, this complaint goes to the festival’s dramaturgists.
In Pavilion A there is also the exhibition, Me and Sokol, which was dedicated to the Sokol construction of national identity. There is no word about the state any more. We have simply colonized the Sokol thought and infrastructure, as well as other cultural phenomena such as the Czechoslovak Church, the Cremation Movement, Legionary Organizations, the Czechoslovak Masonic Organization, which was an important power link of the economic and political elites, Slovakia and the Carpathian Ruthenia. In contrast to other presentations, however, it must be acknowledged that the authors of the Sokol exhibition have been able to provide at least some interesting analytical data on a limited space. The original charts with the quantification of Sokol membership and its sociological structure, as well as the attempt to create and graphically present the analysis of the functional composition and disposition of the Sokol Houses (although the resulting typology is eventually tucked into stylish categories of noisy “isms”) are quite a sympathetic attempt to introduce the history of this institution.
The most popular attraction of the Re: public festival was certainly the Alfons Mucha exhibition: Two Worlds, the Slav Epic and posters located in pavilion H. The Slavic Epic is here again without a critical frame, as something worthy of admiration. A bizarre, large-scale series, however, has a very dubious ideological backdrop in its era of anachronistic aesthetic qualities, surprisingly still uncommon: the sponsor of the Slavic Epic Charles R. Crane was convinced of the superiority of some races and nations over others, which was that rare in the first third of the 20th century (it is so rare that Crane approves of the rise of Hitler and his policies), but if we want to refer to such values as the basis of the cultural construction of identity or statehood today, it is rather troubling.
The Moravian Gallery in Brno occupied the whole G1 pavilion with the exhibition Avant Garde: A great make-believe for the future. In the giant hall, the curators Jana Zielinski, Jiří Macek, Jan Press and Ondřej Chrobák built a labyrinth of scaffolding, into which they included a series of artworks, kinetic and light installations and video projections. “Together with architects and designers, we tried to outline the future, a free city. His sketch is a structured network, a wilful city occupied by leading Czech designers of the younger generation with their fantasies,” write the curators. The structure of the multi-level labyrinth offers a truly spectacular spacial experience. Visually welcoming is also that each piece of work is provided with a “manual for use”, ie instructions on how to look at it, how to enter it and a clear explanatory text. The question poses whether Maxim Velčovský or Kryštof Kintera are really members of the young generation, however it’s a vague term.
Unfortunately, I found a fairly fundamental crack in the concept of a “free city”. That is, two days before I visited the festival I bought new shoes that wounded my feet. I found myself among people with reduced mobility for a while, which gave me a somewhat different perspective and defined other visitor priorities. As it turned out, it is only very limited for people with reduced mobility – the ramp connects only the level of entry with the lowest level, all other works are accessible only via a stairway. Is the vision of the city of the future, which is just for healthy, young and walking people, truly free?
An event by Kateřina Šedá called EX: PO: The Largest Czechoslovakian Date took place in the last weekend of the festival in the G2 pavilion. The artist, as well as the curators of the Moravian Gallery, approached the theme of celebrations of Czechoslovakia with a concept that has the ambition to look into the future. She wanted to address the vast social problem of loneliness, which is certainly a crucial topic. As with other projects, however, she doesn’t solve the set out and thoroughly relevant problem in a complex way but only like with some way of acupuncturing it, superficially. Instead of creating a place where anyone who is just at the fairground can come to meet anyone and for whatever purpose, she has created a complicated construct for the invitation of 959 men and 959 women (because of 1918). The entire G2 pavilion was glued with expensive cut graphics with the logo of the EX: PO event so that all entries were marked “Closed society” at the time of the event. The action of Kateřina Šedá has been criticized by the committee of the Queer Memory Society (of which I am a member). Although she said it was not limited by age or sexual orientation, she did not consider whether she really created the conditions for people of a different sexual identity and emotional orientation to want to come to the event. How did she guarantee that the dating site would be safe and understandable for them and their otherness? As the subsequent violent reactions showed, the date was actually mostly considered heterosexual (“LGBT community has a Prague Pride after all…”). Finally, it is not important what the artist says about their work, but how it finally appears. One of the few compelling reflections was given by critic Magdaléna Šipka on the pages of the literary magazine H70, which noted that Kateřina Šedá’s action was exclusive also in other respects. And if the event has the word Czechoslovakia in its name, it is a legitimate question, what was the representation of Slovaks.
Summed-up, underlined: For whom and about who was the festival Re: public? It was for ethnic Bohemians who think of themselves as followers of Czechoslovakia and they uncritically perceive Czechoslovakism as a normal setting for thinking about Czechoslovakia. The festival did not offer any problematic reflection or revision, unlike the Meeting Brno festival, which had re:vision in the subtitle itself this year and tried to really get it. There is nothing to be devoted to minorities that have been a legitimate part of Czechoslovakia, whether national, religious or sexual.
It is also not possible to take into account or highlight people with a variety of disabilities. So if Re: public was something, then a festival of smooth normality. Only a few days after its end, the German Chancellor commented very vaguely on the expulsion of the Germans after 1945 during the Refugees Day in the sense that it was not morally or otherwise justifiable. It is almost literally the official position of the Czech Republic. Despite this, the public space was filled with opinions that a multicultural state, such as Czechoslovakia between 1918-1938, had never worked, and the ethnically non-Czech population “had to be removed”. By its attitude and by what topics Re: public decided to include, and on the contrary, what it displaced, it creates a breeding ground for such attitudes. It simply turned out that, especially at the Re: public festival: “the state was and is the source of our ever-recurring misunderstanding,” stated by Peter Pithart.
We can hope that, at various other state anniversaries, generous subsidies will be given to entities that can distinguish the notions of nation and state and will be capable of at least an elementary critical approach that may not be incomprehensible.
 Pithart, Petr, Co bylo Československo? Stát, národ, kultura?, in Milena Bartlová et al., Co bylo Československo? Stát, národ, kultura, Praha 2017, s. 245.
 According to research by British psychologist Dominic Abrams, the youth ends at age 40 (cf. here), for most Czechs, youth ends at age 35. As an artistic-critical category of “young” most often refers to those artists who (still) are not part of the artistic establishment.
 A guided tour about the past of LGBT in Brno took place only a month before the festival within The month of Queer History.
 Viz Pithart (note 1).
Cover photo: Entrance to the event EX: PO: The Largest Czechoslovakian Date by Kateřina Šedá (the poster on the door says “closed society”). Photo: Ladislav Zikmund-Lender
This article was first published by Artalk.cz in Czech.