21 January 2009

Entropa Rules OK

Entropy + Europa = Entropa

While the eyes of the whole world were fixed on Washington D.C., I was also following the Entropa brouhaha in the capital of Europe. In case the drums and trumpets of the American inauguration drowned out the noise of this second installation, let me explain.

Entropa (left) is now on display at the normally dull and grey European Council building in the centre of Brussels. It's an artwork that lampoons all 27 EU national stereotypes, which has caused some countries to throw a fit. Others are unusually quiet.

Entropa portrays Bulgaria as a Turkish squat-down toilet, France is out on strike, Lithuania has three statues urinating on Russia, and my beloved Netherlands sinks beneath the waves (below, right) with only the towers of minarets poking through -- to the tune of wailing muezzins. Oh, and by the way, the United Kingdom is that empty space at the top left-hand of the work: in short, absent entirely -- exactly as Eurosceptics have always wished.

This is undoubtedly the first exhibition in the history of EU Council art displays to cause a diplomatic incident, the usual intent being to get by unnoticed and avoid criticism at all costs. In truth, so successful have they been before the current Czech presidency that I don't know anyone who has even heard of such an art event in Brussels. Until now!

Entropy is a measure of the disorder of a system

The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency for the first six months of 2009, thought it had commissioned a joint work from 27 European artists -- one from each EU country, a cute (if fuzzy) idea.

But it turned out to have been entirely completed by the notorious Czech artist David Černý and two of his mates. Mr Černý, 41, first gained fame in 1991 by painting a memorial to a Soviet tank in Prague a shocking pink (the then Minister for National Defence offered hasty official apologies to the Soviet Embassy), while his spoof sculpture of Saddam Hussein preserved in formaldehyde has been banned in two countries.

Art Attack

Entropa is subtitled Stereotypes are barriers to be demolished, in accord with the Czech EU Presidency motto of "Europe without barriers". The Czechs boasted that the artwork, based on an outline of each country, would speak where words fail.

Er, I wonder what that German autobahn (right) is saying....

According to the artist's proposal, alongside the Italian entry (the map of Italy with nine footballers) is the legend "It appears to be an autoerotic system of sensational spectacle with no climax in sight." And next to the alleged British entry, an Airfix kit of Europe (where there is now a blank space): "this improvement of exactness means that its individual selective sieve can cover the so-called objective sieve."

If that gobbledegook was not enough to warn the Czechs, they have only themselves to blame.

The Czech Presidency is keeping its collective head down. The Deputy Prime Minister, however, bravely stated that "in today's Europe there is no place for censorship. I am confident in Europe's open mind and capacity to appreciate such a project."

His confidence was soon tested.

International Incidents

The Polish piece recreates the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, with the U.S. Marines and Stars and Stripes replaced by Catholic monks erecting the rainbow flag of the Gay Rights movement. Or are they a gaggle of gay priests? Hard to tell. Still, the public in Poland appears to be largely in favour, with 64% considering it "spot on" and only 13% thinking it "an insult to Polish people", according to an on-line poll.

The Romanians, seeing their country turned into a Dracula Disneyland, hauled in the Czech ambassador to complain (I want to know if they bit his neck).

Slovakia, the truncated half of once Czechoslovakia, is portrayed by what looks like a strangled sausage. Rubbing salt into the sausage, it is tied up in the Hungarian tricolour -- a reference to a little ethnic spat between the two EU lands. Slovakians officially claim that it resembles a wrapped-up corpse. The Foreign minister lodged a formal protest, calling it an offence to the Slovak nation.

But most peeved (if that's the word I want) is Bulgaria. The country's ambassador wrote undiplomatic letters of complaint to the Czech EU presidency and the EU foreign policy chief demanding that the sculpture be taken down before the official launching. The first secretary for the Bulgarian office to the EU, said:

“I cannot accept to see a toilet on the map of my country. This is not the face of Bulgaria.”

Individuals outside the government as well expressed outrage about the image:

It is one thing portraying, say, France as a country on strike, but quite another to show my homeland as a toilet. That is downright wrong.

Point taken. Though the French might not agree.

An EU Compromise

EU officials expressed concern. One said: 'This is very provocative for an official building and does not seem to have been properly discussed in the appropriate forum."

The Czechs were bloody but unbowed:

What we approved was a blank map; we decided not to censor anything. When we saw the finished work, we thought it might be too much. That remains to be seen. At any rate, it is an expression of freedom, we decided not to censor it.

Until they did.

Yesterday, as the hands of the clock moved towards midnight, Brussels bureaucrats came up with one of their famous half-way measures: they decided to leave the piece in place but decorously covered it with a black cloth. A map of Bulgaria was pinned to it in case you didn't know what was hidden from view.

What was that famous axiom about Entropy?

The algebraic sum of all the transformations occurring in a cyclical process can only be positive, or, as an extreme case, equal to nothing.


  1. Man, I love David Černý's work. Although, being British, mildly Eurosceptical, and excised, I don't have many grounds for personal complaint - I can well imagine the still quite nationalist-authoritarian Bulgarian government feeling differently. Thanks for drawing my attention to this.

    The conceit of the airfix sprue is genius, too. I wish I'd thought of that.

  2. I've given this a moment's further thought, and it occurs to me that the usual EU format for these things really does need to have a stick poked at it: the idea that an artist of each nation should represent (invariably) his own homeland, because otherwise there's a chance that offence might be caused - it's almost Soviet Union-like in its assumption of an internationalism beholden to a nice, tame bunch of token nationalisms. The unthinkable danger, and the inevitable outcome whenever the applecart is wobbled, is that someone might say something about someone else, that they might not have chosen to say themselves. (note conflation of nations, artists, governments, the easily-offended, pride, shame etc.)

    Good on Černý. Note also mild disapproval of tone in report: "a couple of his mates" indeed: it was a team of artists producing a serious work.

  3. Well put, Richard.

    What I found shocking, too, was the conceit of governments putting up 'art' for their six months' Buggin's turn, then taking it down -- and nobody noticed or cared. That, in fact, was the point of it: invisible, inoffensive (not to mention indifferent) art. The previous French presidency, for example, had a balloon outside the building, painted like a French flag.

    Yes, good on Černý.

    This applecart needs a good shake.

  4. If you hire Cerny, you should know what you're getting.

  5. I would have thought so, Ridger. :-)

    I'm wondering what the Czech media is making of all this. Nothing has yet appeared on Signandsight.com, which is supposed to be a round-up of (translated) Eurobuzz. I'll update if I find anything.


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