The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Czech Artist Courts Controversy.

Czech artist David Černý (recently dubbed the ‘enfant terrible’ of the Czech art world by the BBC’s Rob Cameron) has courted fresh controversy with his most recent exhibit entitled ‘Entropa’, a play on ‘Evropa’ (the Czech word for ‘Europe’) and ‘Entropy’ meaning ‘disorder’.  Installed in the EU Council headquarters in Brussels, and unveiled on 12 January to celebrate the Czech Republic’s assumption of the EU Presidency from 1st January 2009, it wasn’t long before the 16 metre square, seven tonne framework raised not only eyebrows, but also indignation and anger.

Why? While the Czech government thought they had spent $ 500,000 USD commissioning a collaborative effort between artists drawn from all 27 countries depicted in the piece to celebrate and promote modern Europe, the end product transpired to be the work of Černý and a couple of Czech compatriots, who chose to ‘celebrate’ Europe by drawing on a number of popular cliches and crude prejudices to represent EU member states. As a result, France was depicted as ‘Greve!’ (a country ‘on strike’), Italy as a giant football field, Romania as a Dracula theme park and the UK found itself excluded from the European ‘map’ altogether, in a clear reference to its perceived Euroscepticism:

Czech it out! Cerny's contraversial art installation 'Entropa'

In a statement released shortly after the true nature of Entropa  was revealed, Černý said the following:

“Grotesque exaggeration and mystification are signs of Czech culture and the creation of false identities is one of the strategies of current arts … The work thus parodies socially committed art that balances on the brink of would-be controversial attacks on national characters and an innocent decoration of official spaces.We knew that the truth will be uncovered. Still before we wanted to find out whether Europe is capable of laughing at itself”

Some EU countries however, have failed to see the funny side. Bulgaria (depicted as a Turkish squat toilet) certainly don’t appear to be laughing. After expressing ‘profound indignation’ about their unflattering depiction,  the Bulgarian Government formally requested the immediate removal of their ‘country’ from the piece, resulting in ‘Bulgaria’ being covered over with a black shroud and somberly concealed from view from 20th January:

The Bulgarian Government demanded that the portion of the exhibit representing Bulgaria was covered over, after expressing outrage at their depiction as 'Europe's toilet'.

Toilet Humour? The Bulgarian Government demanded that the portion of the exhibit representing Bulgaria was covered over, after expressing outrage at their depiction as 'Europe's toilet'.

The Czechs aren’t laughing that much either.  Leading government  ministers claim to be outraged,  having been ‘misled’ about the nature of the piece and it’s origins. Czech President Vaclav Klaus initially pledged his support for the installation, but following the controversy generated after its unveiling, he moved quickly to distance himself from the scandal, claiming that Entropa was ‘neither funny nor good’ and offering a public apology to Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov.

Elsewhere however, the response to the scandal has been more muted. While some EU diplomats half-heartedly called for the removal of the Entropa exhibition, the  official launch went ahead on 15 January, and two weeks on from the initial furore it remains on view in the EC headquarters (minus Bulgaria). No other country have filed an official protest about their image, despite some depictions having the potential to prove equally controversial and detrimental. Germany, for example, is illustrated as a series of autobahns described as ‘resembling a swastika’:

Controversial? Germany as depicted by David Cerny.

Controversial? Germany as depicted by David Cerny.

So why aren’t the German government also clamouring in outrage? After all, if we’re dealing in national stereotypes, the Germans are all too frequently accused of humourlessness. It is interesting that those most offended by Entropa are among the newest members of the ‘European club’. Most of the former East European states who have joined the EU in recent years saw their accession to membership as a real turning point, a ‘return to Europe’ after the decades of communist rule. Perhaps this is an indication that these countries are still afraid they aren’t being taken seriously as ‘Europeans’, still having to prove their worth, and not yet secure enough in their post-communist identity to be able to shrug off such negative stereotypes. Bulgaria, who only joined the EU in January 2007, are still smarting after the recent European Commission decision to suspend almost EUR 500 million of their EU funding in July 2008, due to their failure to combat organised crime and corruption in line with EU accession requirements, while the Czech Republic are obviously anxious to be seen to be taking their first stint in the EU Presidency seriously.

Whenever art and politics combine there will be controversy, and the Entropa exhibition also raised another issue: that of censorship and freedom of speech.  Alexandr Vonda, Czech Deputy Prime Minister, while publically apologising for any offence caused by the exhibition, also defended the piece by claiming that ‘art is freedom of expression’ and that this demonstrates that ‘twenty years after the iron curtain, there is no place for censorship in the EU’.

You can see a video clip of Cerny explaining the inspiration behing Entropa courtesy of the BBC website here:

And Wikipedia have a full listing of the images used to represent each of the 27 countries, and their symbolism here:

January 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 2 Comments