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Petr Hájek – from football pitch to art gallery

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Petr Hájek is a name that some of you may know from the developing Czech art scene. As owner of the Chemistry Gallery, Petr has carefully crafted a superb gallery to showcase talented young Czech artists and their impressive work. We sat down in Café Louvre, a historical hub for creative Czechs of the past including writers Franz Kafka and Karel Čapek, for a chat about the birth of the Chemistry Gallery and Petr’s wide array of hidden talents that make for an inspiring tale.

Are you originally from Prague, Petr?

I was born in Olomouc, but I was living in Hranice na Moravě until I was six then my family moved to Prague. So Prague is my home.

Tell us a little about the Chemistry Gallery? How did it all begin?

Well, it’s kind of a funny story because I studied law here in Prague and before that I was actually playing football. So I used to play football, I used to be a lawyer and now I own an art gallery (laughs).

Very diverse!

I played football until I was about 22 or 23.

Professionally?

Yes, I played for Sparta. When I was studying at the faculty of law, I was also playing for Sparta’s B team. And when I finished my studies I knew that I could try to play football in the first and second league, but it seemed to me that it was time to do something else. So I started to work for Czech Invest. Then when the CEO at that time, Martin Jahn became the vice prime minister for economic affairs, he became a member of the government and offered me to join him, so I became the head of the business environment and legislation department. Our aim was to make sure new legislations never harmed business environments in the Czech Republic.

Then when he finished in the government, his team left the office and I started to think about what I really wanted to do. I had two ideas, one was to organize music concerts and the other was to open an art gallery – a street art gallery. At that time a lot of people were organising concerts so I thought it would be better to do a gallery. Suddenly, it became an idea that I couldn’t get rid of. So after three years of talking about it, I started to do something. At that time, I made friends with a photographer Martin Kamen and he was interested in something like this as well. So once we met and talked about it and I decided to make it a gallery for young artists. I thought that just a street art gallery in a Czech environment would be too narrow. We wanted to be something very different. For me at the time it seemed impossible to do it as I was working in PricewaterhouseCoopers, but Martin made it possible. So we opened in October 2008 in Vinohrady. At the beginning Martin was the art director while I was responsible for the operations and financing. After a year, he left so I took over the art directing. When he left I took it as an opportunity to open up to new curators and new ways of presenting art. It’s been going for 6 years now.

You’ve certainly done a lot, I’m not even sure what to ask you now! It’s very interesting that you went from football to art. Are there any similarities between them? Did one influence the other?

I’m always thankful that I played football. I loved it and started to travel with it. I also think when you play a collective sport it helps you to become a collective team member. This is always helpful when you’re working in a big company, or on your own. I still play football now but only with my friends. I have a team with classmates from my secondary school.

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Did you want to be a football player when you were a child or were you interested in art?

My mother was a headmaster at a basic school and my father was a geologist so there wasn’t a lot of art about. When I was 6 I wanted to be a truck driver (laughs)…. I still don’t have a drivers license.

Me neither, driving isn’t for me.

Then I wanted to be a teacher, because of the summer holidays. But once I started playing football, I wanted to be a famous football player.

What kind of art do you prefer?

Actually, I really like street art and graffiti, that was my original idea for the gallery too. I’m pleased that some people regard us as a street art gallery. We represent some of Czech Republic’s most well known street artists like Michal Škapa or Pasta Oner. Every year we have two or three exhibitions of street artists. But we have a variety of styles, and I’m pleased that some of our collectors believe in my taste and selection.

More: Artist Pasta Oner on Warhol and the spirit of Prague

Why the ‘chemistry’ gallery?

There needs to be chemistry between the audience and the art, the same with the artist and the art they create.

I see, and why did you move to Holesovice?

Dejvice and Letná have always been my neighborhood. But we moved because I found a good space there. We started in Vinohrady which was an 80 square meter flat so you had to ring a bell to get in. At that time I was also interested in a nice renovated space in Konviktská Street (Nové Město). I knew the owner of the space and he kept telling me about another place in Kampa, but I thought there were a lot of strange galleries there and I didn’t want us to be like them. But eventually I went to see the space, and it was next to Charles Bridge and it was 240 square meters, approachable from the street. I decided that it doesn’t matter where the gallery is, but what’s inside. But after a year the rent increased and became too expensive so I found a space in the Orco building in Bubenská Street. Originally we were on the corner, then we moved to our current location. It’s bigger and better and we also have a dance studio downstairs so it’s not a typical gallery, because of this studio there are more people there to see the work. So it came to me by chance in the end.

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The Chemistry Gallery’s 6th birthday, October 2014.

You’ve had some interesting events, how was the Andy Warhol New Year Eve’s party?

Well it was an ideal possibility to use our location as one big club. It was nice, there were about 400 people there after midnight. There were three dance shows because of the school, it’s great to be able to use them. We also had a reincarnated Andy Warhol – a performer dressed up like him and walked around the gallery. He also had an iPhone with a wireless video signal transmitted to the LCD displays. There was a pop art filter to make everything look topical. There were 6 DJs too.

How would you describe Prague?

The word I use the most when talking to foreigners is ‘blooming’, I think Prague is blooming and it will keep going for the next five years. This is something that you can’t see that much anymore in other cities like Paris for example. There are a lot of opportunities for cultural projects here now. When we started chemistry there were not many galleries, but since then there have been several galleries created, some of them focusing on young artists. It’s going to be an interesting time.

If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you see?

Well I’ve thought about this before and I would like to see three periods. The first is the period of Charles the 4th in Prague, then the pharaohs in Egypt and the Roman Empire before it went to hell.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?

I think I have to say Leonardo DiCaprio because I like him a lot. Maybe Paul Newman too, if he was still alive.

Where do you like to hang out in Prague?

As I said before, my main area was Dejvice and Letna, but now I live in Prague 1 and my favorite place is Bukanyr. I like Q cafe too because it’s run by my friends and it’s around the corner from where I live. I go where the good music is.

What’s your favorite word?

Favorite word? I think ‘báječně’. Whenever someone asks me how I am, I always say that. It means fabulous, great, wonderful etc.

Check out what’s going down at the Chemistry Gallery now, including the Tadeáš Kotrba exhibition which has now been extended until the 13th of March.

From March 24 – 29, the gallery will also exhibit works from the 14th International Contemporary Art Fair ART PRAGUE, an internationally reknowned event in the world of visual art.

Written and transcribed by Ryan Keating-Lambert. Photos from The Chemistry Gallery. Headline photo by Jakub Kajbin.

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Photo by Nikolas Tušl 

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The Anonymous Bar Brothers and their vision

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Anonymous… According to the Oxford dictionary is defined as something having no outstanding, individual, or unusual features; unremarkable and impersonal. Interesting, considering that Anonymous Bar in the centre of Prague’s old town appears to be nothing short of remarkable and outstanding. I’d like to say that I don’t love a good drink and I’m not out almost every night, but that would be a lie. I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve never seen anything like this, nor have I met two owners that are so driven to succeed and really create something original amongst an ocean of mainstream tourist traps. I sat down for a chat with the “Anonymous brothers / owners” to see what makes them tick and found that the bar is particularly loveable for these reasons…

1. The three souls of the bar.

The brothers took inspiration from three stories or ‘souls’ stretched out over the last 400 years. The first being the true story of anti-hero/terrorist Guy Fawkes’ infamous and spoiled attempt to blow up the houses of parliament in London on November the 5th, 1605. The second soul was created by Alan Moore who wrote the graphic novel V for Vendetta that adapted Fawkes’ face into the mask that many now recognise as being a symbol of revolution and rebellion. The novel was later adapted into a film of the same name starring Natalie Portman. And finally, the third and final belongs to the hacker activist group ‘Anonymous’ who have also used the mask to rebel and expose government data to the general public.

2. The interior.

What was once an old horses stable has seen a great transformation over the years. The brothers have drawn inspiration from the 3 souls of the bar. All three can be seen clearly from the handmade furniture to famous and familiar paintings that have been airbrushed with the mask – everything has also been made and designed locally. The brothers have clearly spared no expense and have imprinted their vision and character upon every last brick. Even the toilets have the appearance of Evey’s (Portman) prison cell in the film.

3. The drinks.

Again drawn from inspiration of the 3 souls, each drink has been carefully crafted, selected and named. The brothers were kind enough to let Petr and I sample ‘V’s blood’ (named after V for Vendetta) – a blood bag labelled V+ filled with a homemade bitter infused with vermouth and raspberry tea which is then drizzled over a giant ice cube and mixed with brokers gin and campari – based on ‘negroni’, a cocktail made in Italy in 1919….incredible. The bartenders also bring a number of different qualities and entertainment to the hideout. As well as being trained as ‘mixologists’, they also bring charisma, dancing skills and some classy magic tricks.

Continue reading for a personal / anonymous interview with the brothers and to also see it all for yourself through Petr’s eyes and lenses. This is truly a spectacle that has to be seen by all. This kind of quality and originality is seldom seen in the Czech capital.

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Where are you guys from originally? Are you from Prague?

Anonymous 2: Yes, we were born here in Prague in Vinohradské nemocnice.

So you live together?

Anonymous 1: Yes, we have a little house there and we live together because we can do a lot of work. It’s good.

Ok, so doesn’t it ever drive you crazy that you live AND work together?

A2: Yes! (Laughs)

A1: No, it’s ok (laughs) My brother is a bartender and plans the drinks and entertainment whereas I look after the numbers, the PR etc.

How is your bar more unique than others? I know that you pride yourself on your drinks, especially the cocktails.

A2: Everything is about how you speak to the customers. Everything starts at the main doors. You start a conversation with them and ask them about their favourite base for the drinks.. Do they like vodka, whiskey, gin? Most people, especially here in Prague, think that a cocktail is just about juice and syrup. We want to show people how you can make and play with spirits and herbs and all these things, you know?

Sounds great. And whose dream was it to open this bar?

A2: Both of our dreams.

A1: When we found this place we didn’t really know what we wanted from it, it started with my brother and his bar work.

A2: I used to wear the (Fawkes) mask while I worked. I travelled in Europe doing a bartender’s competition and this mask became my image.

And why this mask specifically? Is it because you want to remain anonymous? Are you in the hacker activist group?

A2: If we were, do you think we would tell you?

No (laughs). But it was worth a try anyway.

A1: A lot of people don’t know what this mask means. Some people know it from Anonymous, but not many know where it originally came from. And that’s what we want to do; we want to explain the history of this face and of course to talk about V for Vendetta and ‘Anonymous’.

A2: Before we were here it was a strip bar, a typical one.

A1: We changed everything.

A2: I knew the story behind the mask and I suggested it to my brother and thought hmm… that could be cool! So we put our ideas together and combined the three ‘souls’. Everything has a reason – it all started with this mask. V’s terrorist hideout was the reason for our interior design here. Every original bar must have a concept.

A1: We have similar ideas to the hacker group ‘Anonymous’. We don’t have any brands here. We don’t have a deal with Coca-Cola or Absolut vodka. Everything here is from us. We don’t like the mainstream. A lot of bars here have too many brands.

A2: We have a motto here. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. Come to our hideout and relax.

It looks a lot like the real hideout from the film. I think people are going to be impressed! Have you ever had any really intense fans that actually come in wearing the mask already? I’ll be honest.. I probably would.

A2: Not many, but some people from all over the world directly come with the mask and of course we give them a bit of a bonus because we love this.

Great. I’ll bring mine next time then!

A2: We have had some very interesting customers. But we won’t talk about them because everyone has the chance to remain anonymous here. We don’t collect emails or any personal contact information. You can organise reservations through Facebook, but that’s it.

Ok, now Guy Fawkes was seen as a bit of an anti-hero in English history. A terrorist, but also as a freedom fighter. After all, they celebrate this day every year by lighting bonfires in London. Do you think that the Czech Republic has a similar anti-hero in its history?

A1: Yes, maybe Jan Palach.. He burned himself in protest against the Russian occupation.

And what do you generally think about the hacker group? Do you support them? Are they active in Prague?

A2: We’re not going to tell you! (Laughs) On Facebook we get sent a lot of invitations to participate in events. They are actually raising awareness about plastic foreign objects in food in the US right now – we support them not by joining them, but in our own personal way.

What is your favourite cocktail?

A1: The Monkey 47 gin and tonic, it’s an old one from Germany. The gin is of a very high quality.

A2: And mine, 100%, is the New Orleans Fizz – gin, egg whites, fresh lemon, lime, sugar, vanilla, cream soda and orange flower water. The egg whites combine the flavours together. You must shake the drink for 10 minutes, which sometimes can take a while on a Friday (laughs). It’s originally from nineteenth century New Orleans. But, my favourite drink also depends on how I wake up in the morning.

And A2, what inspired you to get into mixology?

A2: It was all about studying and reading about it. And of course also trying everything behind the bar and experimenting.

What advice do you have for people planning to open their own bar?

A2: You must love it and you must find people who think the same way as you. Now in this age, it’s not easy to survive – so you need a lot of friends to help and support you, like we do. What you imagine in your head – put it in your hands.

Sounds cool. Now onto our People in Prague questions! How would you describe Prague?

A1: It’s amazing.

A2: Historic.

A1: It’s crazy. Every night in Prague is crazy actually.

A2: And weird. I mean, everywhere here you can still smoke in restaurants. Czech Republic and Albania are the only countries left in Europe that are doing this.

If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you see?

A1: If I could choose I would like to see the Czech Republic in the 16th century or Prague in the 13th or 14th century. Or 16th century in London. I would love to see New York City during the financial crisis – Black Friday.

A2: In 1830, the godfather of bartending Jerry Thomas created all of these drink categories. I would like to have him here in the bar.

And Finally, for the silliest question… Do you think Natalie Portman has a bad English accent in V for Vendetta?

A1: (Laughs)

A2: There are always three teams of people; those who love it, those who hate it and those who don’t care. But for me, Natalie Portman promoted the film, she put the story out so I don’t care about her accent because she did a good job… and she’s very beautiful of course.

For more information or to make a reservation, refer to their Facebook page or website.

Written and transcribed by Ryan Keating. Photography by Petr Kurečka.