How one artist started the conversation for conservation
It’s the Winter of 1989 in Czechoslovakia. Pavel Karous is 10 years old and in the midst of one of the most historic events in Eastern Europe. People are touching the young wide-eyed boy, picking him up, hugging him, mussing his chestnut brown hair. “You are in paradise, Pavel!” “Freedom!” Words of triumph and celebration echo in the air, swirling above the small boy’s head. Even at 10 years old, Karous is overwhelmed with emotion for something he couldn’t even begin to fully comprehend.
It’s now been 29 years since the Velvet Revolution of Czechslovakia which resulted in the end of the communist regime and the separation of Slovakia and Czech Republic.
“It was like you were at a concert of the Doors or the Rolling Stones and you were on LSD,” Karous says of the experience. “It was a very strong emotional situation that took like a year.” A year-long acid trip is sure to be accompanied by a pretty wicked comedown and Karous recalls the happiness in the country fading soon thereafter.
Aliens and Herons
At 39, Karous is now a professional artist living in his hometown of Prague who has dedicated much of his career to documenting and preserving public art that was made during the communist regime of Czechoslovakia. The importance of remembering the past is essential to Karous. Yet it is not memorials representative of communism but simply statues and architecture and art created in the public sphere made during this time. His project is entitled ‘Aliens and Herons,’ referencing some of the themes of the statues he’s photographed. Before any of it was a website, book, and political statement, it was just a hobby. He didn’t start the project with the intention of being a lobbyist or an activist or a voice for those of the oppressed communist era- he simply wanted to lose weight.
A 21-year-old Karous was an ambitious young sculptor with a passion for art and history but also could have benefited from some exercise. So he found a way to combine the two by biking around Prague and taking pictures of sculptures around the city that were created during this time. He ended up taking more than 1500 photos of these sculptures, noticing that the general public did not really know much about them or their history. They didn’t have authors, and they were just sort of there. “We have not been taught in the universities about this art because of this stupid anti-communistic ideology,” Karous says.
Over the approximately 20 years that Karous has been working on this project, many of the statues were taken down mainly for reasons of privatization and commercializing public space. He felt a sense of neglect for these sculptures and knew he had to do something.
One day, Karous was at a pub with his brother and was explaining to him about Folimanka Park, a park full of Normalization era art in Prague. There was 55 million put into the revitalization of this park and part of the money went toward the destruction of some of these sculptures. They were sculptures of skateboarders and people and everyday things that did not appear to be ugly reminders of communism. With a combination of anger and one too many beers, Karous told his brother that he can’t live with this. “This is a democracy?!” he exclaimed.
“My brother said to me: ‘if it makes you this pissed off, you have to do something about it’,” Karous says. “otherwise you will die of a heart attack one day. Or cancer.”
And thus, what started as a hobby soon became something much bigger. Karous created a website, community, and voice for this neglected art. Most recently, he released ‘Aliens and Herons ‘in a book format that serves as a nature-like guidebook dividing the types of statues into class, order genus and species creating a tongue-in-cheek approach to the subject.
The book seemed to generate some buzz and can be spotted in bookstore windows across Prague. In it, Karous categorizes this public art, and provides their locations, artists and history.
“This whole project has been made just for discussion with the city,” says Karous. “But for them, they are not interested in it.”
Life at home
Karous mainly got his art education in his hometown of Prague, studying art in secondary school and university there. He also did a year of university in Plymouth, England where pills were cheaper than alcohol in the early 2000s. After having some fun, he returned to Prague and continued studying and working in various niche areas of sculpture art, glass art, and visual art. Over the span of his career, he’s held many art exhibitions and shows for his copious projects. A theme he seems to gravitate towards is art in Czechoslovak history.
Just shy of 40, Karous has now settled down in a small suburb of Prague, away from the busy city centre. Children playing in the streets and elderly people tending to their gardens create the backdrop to this humble neighbourhood. It’s cozy, with a friendly vibe, nothing too lavish. Karous lives with his wife and two young children in a quaint apartment, equally decorated with tasteful art and an assortment of kid’s toys. The five-year-old boy and four-year-old girl run in and out of the kitchen, a new toy appearing in their hand each time. There are crayon scribbles on the walls-the kids are evidently inspired by their father. This day, Karous had taken the day off and took his kids on a day trip to the zoo. He’ll get work done after the kids go to sleep, he explains.
Art and family are clearly the biggest components of Karous’ life. It can be hectic at times especially since his wife travels for work, but he says he makes it work, as he chuckles over a glass of rum.
Continuing the fight for preservation
Karous says that the fact that he saw good quality unique art is what provoked him to take on this job.
“When I saw this art, I saw it was absolutely nonsense that they were destroying it, because I saw so much very, very, very good art,” says Karous.
Karous is clearly passionate about the preservation of historical art and this is made especially evident in his upcoming project he has been working on. He has begun working on a new book, this one about Hotel Praha, an old hotel in Prague that was built for VIP guests of the communist party. The hotel housed over 120 unique art projects inside. It was bought by Petr Kellner, the richest man in the Czech Republic and owner of PPF Group, and was torn down in 2014.
“The architecture was fluid, no right angles,” Karous says. “It connected with nature as the architecture grew up from the landscape.” It was a progressive piece of architecture and art and a true loss to the Czech art world and the community. Karous played a key role in demonstrations against this destruction but power and money ultimately prevailed. Karous is currently working on a book to commemorate these artworks that were destroyed. He works comfortably out of his cozy apartment with his colleague, and this arrangement works well with his family life.
Karous has become a guardian of communist art, voluntarily or not. Though there are many who are active and passionate about preservation, Karous is a key figure in the ongoing conversation for conservation. He is fuelled by his passion for quality art and will continue the fight for what’s right.