Franz Kafka had the distinct fortune of growing up twice-alienated from his hometown of Prague, given that he was a German-speaking Jew in a Czech-speaking city full of anti-Semites. And yet, outside of a year or two in Berlin toward the end of his life, he never managed to wrest himself from the “claws” of the moody, mesmerizing “city of a thousand spires” that now counts him among its most famous inhabitants.
In death, Kafka’s relationship to the Golden City has been almost as complicated—indeed, it seems primarily monetary, as his mystique works quite well to part hordes of tourists from their korun at the museum, bookshop, cafes and stores that bear his name or his gaunt, sharp-eyed visage. For the Czechs, however, claiming Kafka has always been something of a burden—and not just because Czechs rarely crack a smile for anything other than an ovocny dort.
But seriously: How would you feel if your country’s most famous author wrote in the language of the people who’d colonized and annexed you, not once but twice? Plus, thanks to Kafka’s spot on the Soviet blacklist after the Prague Spring, his works were banned in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic; possibly soon “Czechia”) until the Velvet Revolution. It would be safe to say that the majority of the good people peddling wares covered in his likeness have never read a word of The Castle, despite staring up at a really imposing one all day long—and that they withstand the fawning adoration of tourists such as myself with a mixture of resignation and the overwhelming (but repressed) urge to defenestrate me.
So, for decades, despite being one of the most widely read German-language authors of all time, Kafka has essentially belonged to nobody, with his archives scattered around the world, in the UK, Germany and Israel; everywhere, it seems, but Prague, and with fights over what remain of his papers continuing to rage on multiple continents.
But that’s all changed now, thanks to K., this stunning public kinetic sculpture by Czech artist David Cerny (also famous for, among others, a sculpture of two peeing guys, and the iconic babies crawling up the Zizkov TV tower).
K. is made of 42 layers of reflective stainless steel, 38 of which move. It’s been in place for over a year but recently sparked worldwide curiosity when this error-filled video was posted to Facebook on Monday by INSIDER art. It’s been shared 5.3 million times since.
K. stands 10 meters high and renders the author’s arresting chiseled face, those remarkable ears, even his trademark fashionable middle-parted hairstyle—in a constantly-morphing assemblage of metal. His face is both perennially staring over the plaza and surrounding buildings at Spálená 22, and yet never static or fully graspable. This is only exactly like the omnipresent but inscrutable court that presides over Josef K. in The Trial, knowing exactly where he is and what he’s doing; present in everyone around him from clueless petty officials to teenage prostitutes and yet unable or unwilling to present him with a formal charge.
The piece isn’t far from Kafka’s old office at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Union at Na Porici 7 (where he worked as a high-ranking executive, by the way, and not, as per the widely repeated myth INSIDER championed, a “clerk”); it’s also not too far from nova radnice, Prague’s city hall, where presumably millions of Czechs go to be mired in the inscrutable and intransigent bureaucracy of Middle Europe. Notably, the piece doesn’t “stare at” that city hall, as INSIDER claimed, in some sort of rebuke to the bureaucrats—actually, it’s in front of a mall. It was financed by the mall, in fact.
However, that doesn’t mean that the sculpture, by a prominent and provocative Czech artist, doesn’t get Kafka, because it does. Now, the city he couldn’t leave—despite both his protestations and the lukewarm embrace of his countrymen—has a rather monolithic piece of proof that Czechs do, in fact, get him. If only the thing were behind a door nobody could enter, it would be perfect.