Tim Gosling in Prague -
Four days ahead of Czech parliamentary elections, a giant middle-finger salute directed at Prague Castle - seat of the head of state - appeared on October 21. The sculpture appears a protest both at the cynicism of Czech politics, and the efforts of President Milos Zeman to leverage the disillusionment within the country to increase his power.
At ten metres tall, the purple finger - mounted on a barge floating on the Vltava River which weaves through the capital - leaves little room for interpretation. Artist David Cerny refused to discuss the work, except to say that the gesture is well-known and clear. More important, he told state broadcaster CTK, is the direction in which it is facing. Zeman is not currently in the country and through a spokesperson said that he did not want to comment on something he has not seen.
The election on October 25-26 follows the collapse of the previous centre-right coalition amid a corruption and spying scandal. The left-leaning Zeman, who took office in March, exploited loopholes in the constitution to install a "caretaker" government, despite objections from all the major parties. Many have likened the move to a "quiet coup" by the president.
The Social Democrats (CSSD) - which Zeman led as prime minister at the turn of the century - is set to win the most seats in the election. However, forming a governing coalition looks like it will be a challenge, and the support of the Communist Party (KSCM) in one form or another will almost certainly be needed. Should that happen, it would be the first involvement of the communists in government - albeit likely in an informal role - since the Velvet Revolution ousted the regime in 1989.
At the same time, the rule of the caretaker government has given Zeman the time to reinforce his position within the CSSD. The president has the power to appoint the new PM following the vote, and few expect CSSD leader Bohuslav Sobotka to get the nod without a fight. A party carrying the president's name - SPOZ - looks unlikely to make it past the 5% threshold needed to take up parliamentary seats.
That leaves polls predicting that even joining with the communists may not secure the CSSD power. Weary of corruption, poor governance and the harsh austerity imposed by the last administration, protest votes look to be propelling Ano 2011, a new party established by billionaire Andrej Babis, into the role of kingmaker. Fearing instability and Ano 2011's lack of a political programme, every major party has said they won't work with Babis. However, they may have little choice.
A survey on CTK suggested Czechs are split in their response to Cerny's artwork. Some 47% agree that the finger salute to the castle is "funny and poignant work", a reflection of the country's dark sense of irony and the jaded cynicism towards politicians of all stripes. But an equal number consider it a "cheap and deviant provocation". A slim 6% are concerned that it insults the presidential office.
The enfant terrible of the Czech art world, Cerny came to prominence as the country broke away from communist rule in 1991 when he painted a Soviet tank - used as a memorial to the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945 - pink. That guerilla action also saw a finger erected on the top of the incongruously coloured military hardware.
Cerny has form for being particularly antagonistic towards the communists, and gave them the finger again in combination with barbed wire for an anti-communism campaign. A swarm of giant babies designed by the artist crawl up Prague's communist-era TV tower.
However, he has also expanded his focus to include the two politicians that have retained a vicious grip on Czech life since communism fell. While the new finger salute targets Zeman, elsewhere in the city it's possible to climb a ladder up a pair of legs, stick your head in the anus and watch a video of former PM and president Vaclav Klaus being fed to the tune of "We Are the Champions". Cerny offered high-profile support during the bad tempered presidential election in January to Zeman's opponent Karel Schwarzenberg.
In 2009 he infuriated the EU when commissioned to lead a collaboration of artists celebrating the diversity of the bloc. Cerny quietly did all the work himself, with the resulting "Entropa" depicting, ammeter other things, Bulgaria as a Turkish toilet and Italy as a field full of masturbating football players.
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