Wisdom underfoot: Manhole covers on Kampa quote underground artists

Fourteen iron covers in the sidewalk recall the words of Czech poets plus French artist Marcel Duchamp.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston Published on 17.01.2022 11:28:00 (updated on 17.01.2022) Reading time: 3 minutes

People seldom stop to read the text on manhole covers. A series of cast iron covers on Prague’s Kampa island seeks to capture your attention. The metal covers look back to the Czechoslovak underground art scene in the communist era. The work is a broad visual pun playing on the concept of underground art, and manhole covers that would actually lead under the ground.

The project called Voices from the Underground (Hlasy z podzemí) consists of 14 metal utility covers. They can be found in a row in the path leading to Museum Kampa., and will be there for the foreseeable future.

Voices of the Underground at Kampa. Photo: Raymond Johnston.
Voices of the Underground at Kampa. Photo: Raymond Johnston.

The first one is a round cover and has a 1961 quote, in English, from French artist Marcel Duchamp. The 13 smaller square covers have quotes from Czech poets including Jiří Kolář, Jan Hanč, Zbyněk Hejda, Andrej Stankovič, IM Jirous, Egon Bondy, JH Krchovský, Pavel Zajíček, Filip Topol and others. The total number of covers is the same as the number of stops in the Stations of the Cross, a traditional route that marks Jesus’ final persecution.

Czech quotes, roughly translated, include: “The word modern is very old,” by Jiří Kolář; “Who is different, that one is a pig,” by Andrej Stankovič; “Drunkenness is a certain audacity,” by Ivo Vodseďálek; “We live in Prague, where the spirit itself will one day appear,” by Egon Bondy; “I find it awful, but it starts to get to me – this city is tight,” by Filip Topol; and “Everyone builds their own luck – train driver and conductor,” by Ivan M. Jirous.

The covers were made by artist Viktor Karlík between 2000 and 2013, and installed near Museum Kampa on Nov. 17, 2021, the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Funding came from Prague’s Art for the City, and it also had support from the Prague 1 district and was under the auspices of Prague 1 Mayor Petr Hejma.

“Prague 1 has always been a center of culture; whether it was music, theater or literature. That is why I was very happy to support the installation of Viktor Karlík's cycle in Kampa Park, where it will remind us that one of the basic conditions for human freedom is an independent and free culture,” Hejma said when the covers were unveiled.

Karlík, who was involved in samizdat publishing in the 1980s, said he has connections to all of the quoted artists. “I am their longtime reader. I graphically edited or artistically accompanied their books. I personally met all these poets except Jan Hanč,” Karlík said.

“An imaginary point, but also the motto of the whole set of square hatches, is the only circular cover with the words of Marcel Duchamp from 1961: ‘The great artist of tomorrow will go underground.’ Among other things, his statement perfectly captures the fates of real cultural figures and their works in the totalitarian regimes of the second half of the 20th century, and the pervasiveness of Duchamp's thought is deepening again today,” Karlík added.

He said the quote was both a spiritual and topical statement reflecting, among other things, the issue of resistance to commercial pressures.

There are several layers of symbolic meaning to the project. The embossed words have power – in bad weather, they help to keep people from slipping. Inspirational works by underground artists can function in the same way.

Passersby read the quotes at 'Voices of the Underground.' Photo: Raymond Johnston.
Passersby read the quotes at 'Voices of the Underground.' Photo: Raymond Johnston.

“One could also think, for example, about how many people would have to step on each voice from the underground for the embossed font to gradually disappear. … Trampled words have a long tradition in the Czech Republic, it is something like a national skill. But on the other hand, as they say, important things often lie on the ground, on the sidewalk,” he said.

Karlík, born in Prague in 1962, is a sculptor, painter, and graphic artist. He is a co-founder of Revolver Revue, where he still works. In 1989, he co-founded the Independent Press Center and subsequently the weekly Respekt. He has numerous exhibitions in the Czech Republic.

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