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Artist's Unflattering Look At Europe Puts Czech Presidency In Bind

The official opening of 'Entropa' in Brussels
The official opening of 'Entropa' in Brussels
BRUSSELS, January 15, 2009 (RFE/RL) -- Just before noon Brussels time, Europe's most talked-about artwork came to life.

The Czech Republic, just 15 days into its EU presidency, is courting controversy with a massive art installation in the form of a provocative map of Europe.

The creators of the map say it is an irreverent display of familiar stereotypes -- which must be recognized before they can be overcome. But some countries are having trouble seeing the joke.

On a map of Romania, the fanged head of Dracula started nodding above a theme-park entrance. Scattered across Italy, half a dozen footballers in the Azzurri colors holding little footballs began moving them rhythmically up and down.

Miniature cars stirred into motion along nine autobahn strips in Germany. Merry rows of small lights in the colors of the Russian flag lit up in Bulgaria, around a series of squat Turkish-style toilets.

Called "Entropa," the giant work meant to represent the 27 EU countries greets officials and visitors in the huge glass-domed atrium of the bloc's Council of Ministers building in Brussels.

The installation is the brainchild of the Czech artist David Cerny and a few of his friends, commissioned by the Czech government, which assumed the rotating EU presidency on January 1.

In displaying the work, the Czechs are following a tradition established by earlier EU presidencies. But no other country has managed -- or chosen -- to shake up the staid atmosphere of the EU headquarters in such a provocative fashion. The work stirred so much anger, in fact, that the Bulgarian government has asked for its map to be removed.

Unveiling "Entropa" today, the Czech deputy prime minister, Alexandr Vondra, offered a broad defense of the principles it stands for, saying it symbolizes freedom.

"We have created a space for freedom to speak for itself. Also, we wanted to prove that 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, there is no place for censorship in Europe," Vondra said.

Vondra was unapologetic in his defense of the artists, saying "freedom of expression is the founding principle of democracy," and pledging that "Entropa" will remain in place until the end of June, when the Czech presidency lapses.

Vondra did say, however, that the Bulgarian portion of the map would be removed should Sofia insist. Vondra also rejected any association between the Czech government and the stereotypes on display in "Entropa," saying it does not represent the "Czech presidency's view of Europe."


Assen Indijev, a Bulgarian journalist, said he was offended by his country's representation in the piece, but didn't want it to be removed.

"I personally think that even though the whole exhibition is meant to be provocative, some of the countries are portrayed less provocatively than the others. As you see, Belgium is only [a box of] chocolates, which is OK. Or even Greece, which is devastated by fire," Indijev said.

Czech artist David Cerny
"But you have the Poles, Polish priests raising the gay pride flag, or Bulgaria being portrayed as a toilet. I personally, as a Bulgarian, don't like the Bulgarian piece. And I don't like the fact that it's in the Council of Ministers, where every country is trying to do its best when there are summits or councils. But what could we do?"

Slovakia has also expressed its displeasure with Cerny's work, which depicts the country as a large piece of Hungarian salami -- a reference to Slovakia's uneasy relationship with its large Hungarian minority. Slovak officials say they are considering whether to ask for their portion of the work to be removed.

Other governments may have cause to be upset, though none has formally protested so far. Poland, for example, is represented by a group of Catholic priests erecting a gay pride flag in a potato field. In Lithuania, replicas of Brussels' famous Manneken Pis, a sculpture of a urinating boy, stand on the country's border facing southeast -- toward Belarus.

The German autobahns intersect in ways suggestive of a swastika. Luxembourg is a nugget of gold with a "For Sale" sign attached. Estonia displays a sickle and hammer with modern grips and engines turning them into, respectively, a hedge trimmer and a jackhammer.

The Netherlands is submerged in water, with only the tops of minarets emerging from the floods. "We'd rather that it had been tulips or cheese," said one Dutch citizen ruefully as he looked at the installment.

But the Netherlands may be better off than Britain, which is entirely missing from the map, in a nod toward the country's notorious disdain for Europe. Ireland, a furry set of bagpipes, has a bald patch where Northern Ireland should be.

Thomas Schmidt, a journalist from Austria, was satisfied with his country's depiction as home to an array of nuclear power stations, saying he "understood" the Czech sense of humor.

"I think everyone seeing Austria with four nuclear power stations, we laugh at it, because it makes fun of our very fundamental anti-nuclear position in Europe. And compared to other countries it's not so much insulting, it just makes fun," Schmidt said.

Europe Laughing At Itself

The artists themselves seemed a little overawed by the stir they had created. David Cerny repeatedly apologized for any offense "Entropa" may have caused.

Tomas Pospisil, another member of the collective, explained the aim of the artwork was to throw some irreverent light on the stereotypes and cliches that inform Europeans' views of their neighbors.
The representation of Germany in the installation

"Yes, these are all cliches. This is a silly view of Europe. These are works that we pretended that fictional artists created, fictional artists that have some very obvious, very cliched ideas. This is the way that we wanted to make fun of art," Pospisil said.

Pospisil and Cerny also offered an apology to Bulgaria, saying they had no intention of insulting the country or its citizens. Cerny says the image of a toilet is a memory retained from a childhood visit and has been "misunderstood."

Pospisil said "Entropa's" antecedents and inspiration should be sought in the character Borat created by the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and the "Flying Circus of Monty Python." Both merge sharp social satire with elements of the absurd.

A more serious matter, from the Czech government's point of view was the fact that 25 of the 26 putative authors turned out to be fictional characters, dreamt up by Cerny and his collaborators.

A brochure introducing "Entropa" says a native artist, named and furnished with quotes and a professional history, has created each of the pieces. In fact, none of the other artists exist, though by some unfortunate coincidence in some cases they have real-life namesakes.

Vondra today said he regretted this: "Only after 'Entropa' has been installed here, we learned to our greatest and unpleasant surprise, that the participation of 27 artists was, in fact, a mystification. It was an unpleasant shock for all of us, including me."

But he appeared to consider the matter closed, satisfied with Cerny's explanation that he had not spent any of the money provided by the Czech government for "Entropa's" European contributors and will return the funds.

"Entropa" has drawn steady crowds since January 12 when it first appeared. The fact that much of it is a hoax has only added to its appeal.

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