O n the corner of a cobbled street in Prague there is a library within a gallery within the shell of an old power station. The latest exhibition at Kunsthalle Praha, an electricity building turned contemporary art platform, is a fictional library – complete with bookshelves, information desk and silent study area – devised by the Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset.
The result, READ, is a sequence of bibliophilic interiors that celebrate both Prague’s literary heritage and the social importance of libraries everywhere.
Like the remarkably well-preserved Czech capital – which has been resilient to occupation, Communism and capitalism alike – READ provides a reminder that architecture can be a custodian of knowledge and freedoms as much as a shelter from the ravages of history. The exhibition also speaks of the kunsthalle’s origins as the – perhaps quixotic – dream of two visionary collectors.
Spaces – in particular communal hubs – have long been a fascination for Elmgreen & Dragset. Since the early 1990s, the Nordic duo (Michael Elmgreen is Danish, Ingar Dragset was born in Trondheim, Norway) has riffed on the characteristics of swimming pools, airport lounges, hospital wards and private homes, exhibitions that undermine the idea of a “white cube” gallery space and unpick the power plays inherent in specific locations.
The inspiration for the library theme came from Forbidden Toys (1916) by Giorgio de Chirico, one of the highlights of the Kunsthalle Praha Collection. This metaphysical still life of books and other objects became a springboard to an investigation into “how artists historically have reimagined and reworked the idea of what a book can be.” READ features sculptures, paintings, collages, photographs and typewriter art. And books are both subject and artistic medium.
The result is a puzzle box of narratives: works have been drawn from the kunsthalle’s holdings, commissioned from artists and loaned from other private and institutional collections. And then there are sculptures by Elmgreen & Dragset, some created years ago but here recontextualized in a library. Powerless Structures, Fig. 243 – their sped-up wall clock from 2014 – emphasizes the passage of time, while a more humorous approach is evident in The Guardian (2023), a sculpture of a Baywatch-style lifeguard immersed in a book.
The Scandinavian artists are drawn to societal subjects. “We grew up in Norway and Denmark, and there are libraries everywhere – school libraries at that time and local libraries just a few streets away. That doesn’t exist to the same extent anymore,” says Ingar Dragset. “There is a map in the exhibition where you can see that the Czech Republic has the most libraries per inhabitant in Europe.”
Czech works featured in the selection include collages by Běla Kolářová and Jindrich Styrsky plus Surrealist drawings by František Janoušek. Elsewhere, works by guest artists intersect in curious ways: for example, the Turkish artist Meriç Algün has created an irreverent Library of Unborrowed Books out of decidedly unpopular volumes from the Municipal Library of Prague.
“We grew up in Norway and Denmark, and there are libraries everywhere – school libraries at that time and local libraries just a few streets away. That doesn’t exist to the same extent anymore.”
Overall, the assemblage is thought-provoking and wry, an example of creation through curation (the artists worked in collaboration with the institution’s chief curator, Christelle Havranek). And it is a largely monochrome space – white bookshelves, marble sculptures, rows of white book spines – which creates an eerie feeling of walking through a blank page.
Kunstalle Praha opened in 2022 when local collectors Pavlína and Petr Pudil converted a disused transformer substation in the city’s historic Klarov district into a brand-new space to show Czech modern and contemporary art alongside international works.
Decommissioned from the electricity grid in the mid-2000s, the site had for several years been an underground music club called the Kokpit Kafé. Today, what the founders describe as a “creative incubator” possesses old industrial details, world-class galleries and – bookended by the gothic towers of St. Vitus Cathedral and the Vltava River – spectacular views. It’s an Instagrammer’s dream. On opening, it won the Czech National Architecture Award.
The kunsthalle is far more than a tourist attraction. “What really surprised us was the level of attention from the local audience,” says Petr Pudil, an entrepreneur and investor focused on the architectural landscape of the city. He drills down into the numbers. “Recently, 75% of visitors are locals. On top of that, more than 50% are younger than 40, and there are more than 10,000 members.” Visitors are local, young and they return. The private kunsthalle is a new model in Prague’s cultural landscape, but a successful one.
For Pudil, the READ exhibition has a personal resonance. Libraries informed his upbringing during a period when what was then Czechoslovakia was a satellite state of the Soviet Union. “I was born in 1974. It actually wasn’t bad to grow up in a Communist country. The only problem was the Communist Party wanted to treat you as a child for your entire life,” Pudil recalls. “But luckily the Velvet Revolution came when I was 15. My childhood was very much associated with books. At Christmas the best gifts that I found under the tree were books. It was quite expensive for my parents to buy a new one, so I regularly attended libraries.”
“I still remember the spirit of the 1990s when we had a chance to read all the books that were banned.”
During the Communist era, the city’s libraries were subject to censorship. “I still remember the spirit of the 1990s when we had a chance to read all the books that were banned. It was amazing,” recalls Pudil. The ebb and flow of censorship is echoed in the galleries where Elmgreen & Dragset feature the “Fifty Most Banned Books in the United States of America,” ranging from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
History reverberates through the kunsthalle. Next to the terrace bar, Mark Dion’s Cabinet of Electrical Curiosities surveys the trace evidence of the structure’s electrical past in a vast display of switches, fuses, batteries and cables. The American conceptualist, who creates contemporary Wunderkammer, has here plugged into a very Czech power source just as READ has done in the galleries below.
On the corner of a cobbled street in Prague sits an industrial hangover, an erstwhile music club, a Wunderkammer, art space and conceptual library. Kunsthalle Praha can be read in many ways.