Czech artist's EU stereotypes provoke outrage
Toilets and Lego and workers' strikes, oh my! A Czech artist forces EU members to come face to face with national stereotypes, and not always with positive results.
If the last 100 years of art has taught us anything, it is not to underestimate the power of the toilet.
In 1917, the impish Marcel Duchamp changed the face of modern art by offering up an ordinary, ready-made object, a urinal, as a work of art.
Despite the fact that the exhibition he submitted his work to was supposedly democratic, open to anyone that paid the 6 dollar membership fee, the work proved so unsettling that it was hidden behind a screen and referred to by some contemporary press reports only as a “bathroom appliance.”
Now, yet another artistically rendered bathroom appliance is causing controversy, but this time on a more international stage.
On Wednesday, Bulgaria demanded that the European Union take down a huge art installation at its headquarters in Brussels, part of which portrays the country as a series of squat toilets.
Not the face of Bulgaria
The work, Entropa, commissioned by the Czech Republic to mark its EU presidency, is a symbolic map of Europe depicting crude stereotypes attributed to European Union member countries. Romania, for instance, is shown as a Dracula-style theme park and Denmark is depicted as a face built out of Lego bricks, which evokes the Prophet Mohammed's caricature that caused so much uproar in the Muslim world.
The Euroskeptic United Kingdom is represented as an empty space and Germany is shown as a series of interlocking autobahns that some say resembles a swastika.
"I cannot accept to see a toilet on the map of my country,” said Betina Joteva, first secretary for the Bulgarian office to the EU. “This is not the face of Bulgaria."
She said that the Bulgarian ambassador had sent letters to the Czech EU presidency and EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana demanding that the 16-square-meter (172-square-foot) installation be pulled down before the official public opening of the exhibit in the main EU Council building on Thursday.
The Czech ambassador to Bulgaria was hauled into the foreign ministry in Sofia earlier this week over the matter.
The Czech presidency responded by saying they were willing to take the Bulgarian part down and were sorry if it caused offense. Slovakia also is considering whether to ask for its country's removal as well: The map depicts Slovakia as a Hungarian sausage or a human body tied by a red-green-and-white string, the national colours of Hungary, apparently referring to the historically tense relations of the two neighbours.
The Czech sculptor behind the work, David Cerny, insisted that the Entropa exhibition was not a political statement and that the critics should lighten up.
"Entropa is an art piece, not a political statement,” said Cerny, enfant terrible of the Czech art world. “It is funny and ironic because sometimes you can use humor as a catharsis. It is a mirror in which you bend yourself and you smile, and you think 'this is it', no one should take it seriously."
The anger at the artwork among some delegations has been compounded by embarrassment, after it was revealed recently that the work was a fake.
Cerny admitted on Tuesday that he had deceived EU officials with the exhibition.
He had initially asked an artist from each of the 27 European Union member states to represent the stereotypes and prejudices about their own country but said he had failed for different reasons and decided to invent names, working with only a small group of Czechs on the project.
"We knew the truth would surface, but before that, we wanted to find out whether Europe can have a laugh at itself," said Cerny.
Apparently, not everybody has been so eager. "So far we have received no apology from the Czechs,” said Joteva. “We are waiting for this but first of all, let's get this ugly thing down."
The Slovak National party has also demanded that the sculpture be taken down and has called it an offense to the Slovak nation, although no formal complaint has been lodged.
However, an unrepentant Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek told reporters in Strasbourg that he hoped the installation would not be pulled down until he had seen it.
"I hope that when I get to Brussels it is still there and I well be able to see it, so I will know what everyone is laughing at and is outraged by," said Topolanek, whose country assumed the EU's rotating presidency on January 1.
In an invitation to the official opening, the Czech EU presidency said the deal with Cerny, famous for painting a Soviet tank that serves as a World War II memorial pink, "clearly stipulated that the work should be a joint project of artists from the 27 EU member states."
"I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the creator of the work of art Entropa was in fact David Cerny and that it was not made by 27 artists representing all the EU member states," Czech deputy prime minister for European affairs, Alexandr Vondra, said in a statement.
Nevertheless, Vondra seemed reluctant to discuss the possibility of removing the sculpture.
"The fact remains that we have provided a platform for free artistic expression and that is how Entropa must be viewed,” Vondra told the Czech daily Lidové noviny. “But, had I known the circumstances were different than we had thought for a year and a half, I would not have authorized it."
The main reaction when the sculpture was unveiled to reporters and diplomats on Monday was laughter.
"Stereotypes are barriers to be demolished," the Czechs said in a statement.
Other depictions in Entropa include Poland shown as a Catholic clergy erecting the rainbow flag of the gay community in the style of a famous photo of American troops raising the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima in World War II.
The Netherlands is presented as totally flooded with water with just the minarets of mosques visible.
Italy is transformed into a giant football pitch with players holding strategically-placed footballs.
France is draped in a banner that reads: “STRIKE!”
But Cerny is confident that the stereotypes provoke valuable discussion instead of merely trading in banalities: "Grotesque exaggeration and mystification is a hallmark of Czech culture, and creating false identities is one of the strategies of contemporary art."