EU presidency left red-faced over artwork


BRUSSELS — Each European Union presidency hopes for some “oohs,” “aahs” and positive publicity when unveiling its redecoration of the European council headquarters.

Usually, the artists involved don’t apologize profusely for their creations.

And the officials introducing any new artworks don’t generally refer to them with terms like “dismay” and “unpleasant shock.”

Of course, the art usually does not involve toilets, drunkenness and masturbation.

Artist David Cerny’s “Entropa,” commissioned to celebrate the Czech Republic’s six-month turn at the helm of Europe, includes all those and more as stereotypes of the 27 member states.

So when the Czech deputy prime minister, Alexandr Vondra, took center stage to introduce the massive centerpiece, it seemed unlikely that he'd get away with simply a few innocuous remarks.

As Vondra spoke, “Entropa” loomed behind him: Cars began spinning along a German autobahn, a Dracula theme park shaped like Romania lit up garishly and a field of Italian men in sports uniforms started making suspicious moves with their soccer balls.

While the animation and disproportionately loud audio track distracted his audience of bureaucrats, diplomats and journalists, Vondra persevered with a litany of apologies, explanations and reassurances that this was all a joke — most of all on him. Vondra revealed that he had only learned this week of the true evolution of “Entropa,” and that is was an “unpleasant shock.”

“Entropa: Stereotypes are Barriers to be Demolished” was envisioned by the Czech government when it was commissioned 18 months ago as a collage representing the whole of the EU created by a team artists from each member state. Prague wanted it to be an “expression of artistic freedom,” Vondra said. The Czechs are trying to prove that a small and relatively new member state could handle the presidency just as professionally as any other.

The government hired the edgy Czech artist David Cerny to run the show, find the partner artists and bring it all to fruition with a budget of 500,000 euros. Handsome booklets were printed up with each artist describing his or her contribution, along with previous exhibitions and prizes.

But as viewers had their first glimpses of the work on Monday morning, they caught their breath — and not because of the installation's beauty. And as the list of “artists” got out — their names nowhere to be found on the Internet — there were rumors the presidency had been duped by Cerny.

On Tuesday, Cerny admitted it and apologized to his government, promising that he wouldn’t take a cent of the budget. There were not 27 artists, just him and a couple creative buddies who wanted to push the envelope and “see if Europe could laugh at itself,” he said in a statement.

The answer to that, it seems, depends on one’s nationality.

Finnish newspaper columnist Kari Huhtanen was among those laughing as he described the depiction of his country, something he said had been deciphered for him by a friend who’s a recovering alcoholic. The Finland panel looks like a trio of jungle animals (dominated by a reddish-colored elephant) and a person lying on the ground. According to Huhtanen, the man is the stereotypical drunk Finn armed with a knife, and the pink elephant his familiar companion. This is just how the Norwegians and Swedes would describe the Finns, he said.

Britain isn’t on the grid at all, a clever way of highlighting that country’s skepticism toward integration. Many of the depictions — such as Sweden as an IKEA box, or anti-nuclear Austria with power-plant smokestacks, or Hungary decked out with watermelons — just warrant a shrug.

But then there’s Bulgaria, portrayed as a rudimentary toilet — a hole in the ground. Cerny said he went to Bulgaria once as a child and that’s what stood out to him. The Bulgarian government isn’t chuckling in the least. Instead, it’s lambasting the Czech government for letting this happen. Complaints have been made both in Sofia and in Brussels, asking that the Bulgarian portion be removed.

At Thursday’s event both Vondra and Cerny apologized to Bulgaria — and anyone else who might be offended — and said the Bulgarian panel could be taken down. Not all Bulgarians think this is a good move. Writer Yovka Dimitrova said that while she doesn’t like the whole toilet thing, if it’s removed “no one will even remember we are in the EU. It should stay.”

Cerny rejects interpretations that see the German highways as a swastika and the Danish Lego constructs as the Prophet Muhammad caricature that caused outrage among Muslims. The latter has been particularly troublesome because the name of the supposedly fictional artist — Susan Malberg Andersen — is actually the name of a real Danish artist. She’s not happy.

“Just a coincidence,” the Cerny camp insisted, saying they would add her to the list of people to whom they’re saying “sorry.”

Other national portraits are a bit puzzling, such as generally flat Latvia being shown as a mountain range. “It’s not so expressive,” said Latvian government official Evita Grzibovska. “It makes me feel like they didn’t really do their homework” to come up with a more creative image.

It could be worse: Neighboring Lithuania is shown as soldiers urinating off the edge of the country in the direction of Russia.

France is shown as a big sign reading “Grève!” which means “Strike!” — something the French do a lot of.

“Sure, it’s a cliché, but for me it’s very entertaining,” said Benoit Le Moinq, who teaches French to EU diplomats. “Whether it’s diplomatic…” he added with a laugh.

Obviously, the Czech government recognized that it’s not, so as the Italian footballers gyrated behind him, Vondra did the best he could to disavow "Entropa."

“This piece of art has never been meant as the Czech presidency vision of the EU or its member states,” he emphasized, “and no matter how shocking the latest discovery might be, it does not change anything in this regard.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct Grzibovska's title.