Black Entropa

The funniest sort of scandal erupted this past week in Brussels, in connection with the brand-new (and first-time) Czech presidency of the European Union. Have you heard of this? The New York Times has its account here. It had to do with a huge sculpture that the Czech government commissioned for erection at the building that houses the European Council, one that – as you would expect – was supposed to reflect in some way upon on the EU and its member-states. But the Czechs made a key mistake in entrusting the task to the (Czech) artist David Černý. As the sculpture was set up over the weekend, for completion by Monday, it soon became clear that there was something very wrong; by the time the dedication ceremony was supposed to happen on Thursday, yesterday (and it did), controversy was flying thick and fast.

What were the Czech authorities in charge of EU relations thinking? Černý, after all (whose last name simply means “black”), has always been notorious, it’s accurate to say, rather than just “famous” within the Czech cultural world, bursting onto that scene in 1991 by painting the tank constituting a Soviet war-memorial in Prague a shocking pink color in one daring night-time raid. Although he was briefly arrested for that, that pink tank became a metaphor for the wacky, world-turned-upside down ambiance of the Czech Republic, and Prague in particular, in the years immediately after the 1989 “Velvet Revolution.” Barely pausing to catch his breath, Černý went on to produce a series of additional eye-catching works of sculpture, a few of which you can appreciate on his Wikipedia page. Those “tower babies,” for example: you can pick them out crawling all over the gigantic TV tower, itself located in the Prague 3 district, from much of the rest of the city. And that “riding a dead horse” statue is mighty big and impressive in its own right – look for it at the internal shopping-and-movie-theater-area located within the Lucerna building at the corner of Wenceslas Square and Vodičkova Street (a magnificent building once owned by Václav Havel himself, built by his father – also named Václav Havel).

The thing is, I hope that even with this smallish sample you can still perceive a common theme to Černý’s work. Pink tanks, medieval knights riding their steed upside-down: could we perhaps call it “impishness”? How could the responsible Czech authorities, if they had not been in a coma and/or posted to Outer Mongolia the last fifteen years, ever think that Černý could be induced like a leopard to change his spots and actually produce a “mature” work that the Czech government would be able to present to Brussels without a squabble?

Even more, how could they be so “out of it” as to let things get to so far a stage as the sculpture actually successfully being mounted in its allotted space at the European Council building without anyone in charge looking askance? But they were, and it was, and if you don’t care to follow the NYT link to find out what exactly the problem is, I can reveal to you here that what Černý came up with (and named “Entropa”) was a sculpture representing some kind of plastic-frame structure that you get when you purchase a model of some airplane, with the individual pieces placed within that frame by a thin plastic link, designed to be broken off so you can glue everything together. Except that here the individual pieces are shaped in the forms of the 27 EU member-states, but with artistic flourishes added on to them to poke a little satirical fun at each country. The piece that has raised the most ruckus so far is Bulgaria, as that country is depicted by Černý as nothing more than an assembly of interconnected Turkish toilets (i.e. squat holes-in-the-floor), but Černý manages to lampoon each member-state, including his own.

(We’ll go over them state-by-state shortly. By the way, a lesser “scandalous” aspect of this affair is that, in his proposal for the commission, Černý promised to work with artists from all member-states so that the artistic vision of how to depict each country would come from a native, but in the end he apparently did all the “conceptual” work himself working together with two of his friends.)

“It’s Only Art – And I Don’t Like It!”

The context here naturally points to the Czech press as best-placed to add some informational value to the NYT account. Turning to the leading business newspaper, Hospodářské noviny, we have Vondra and Černý apologize for Entropa. A part might be removed. The quotes are basically what is worth paying attention to in this piece. That “Vondra” is Alexandr Vondra, Czech vice-premier and in charge of European affairs, and now he is protesting his horror at how Černý could surprise him so unexpectedly. He states, “We think that Entropa is a work of art – nothing more, nothing less. I hope that we can agree on that with the rest of the European Union. It does not have to be anything that makes up the image of the Czech Republic or the government and does not represent our view of European lands either.” Furthermore, Vondra expresses his willingness to be open to reactions from other European states and even to institute changes/removals to the work if such were insisted upon. As for Černý, the article actually quotes him thusly: “We deliberately led them [meaning the EU countries and the Czech government] into error [i.e. pulled the wool over their eyes]. For us it was not about insulting anyone but ourselves. I did not make use of any State funds for the installation and I in fact returned them.”

Then we have an accompanying article, also in HN, A difficult day dawns in Brussels. The Czechs must convince the EU that they are witty. About the only new thing this piece adds in its text is the interesting “see no evil” attitude to the controversy on the part of the current Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolánek: “I don’t understand art that much, so I don’t know whether that is a work of art.” But he does hope to be able to get around to seeing it for the first time – some day. (Don’t worry, Mirek, as premier of the country with the EU presidency, you’re not going to be able to avoid Brussels – or the European Council or the building where it is housed – even if you tried.)

But the real valuable aspect of this HN article is that, down below, it has a click-on-the-picture gallery of the individual countries as Černý and his drinking-buddies chose to depict them – or of most of them. (In the following I go in order top row to bottom row, left to right.)

  • The UK: It’s not there at all! Its spot in the “frame-of-model-pieces” is taken up by a big space that looks like that piece has already been removed.
  • Hungary: Strange indeed. You see Hungary filled with melons, and a structure arising in the middle that looks like Brussels’ famous Atomium, but here composed of melons at the vertices, connected by sticks of Hungarian salami!
  • Lithuania: A straightforward message here: five sculptures of Brussels’ famous Mannekin Pis statue are presented, all of them “mannekin pissing” over into neighboring Belarus.
  • Austria: Shown as a nice, grassy country – but with four nuclear-reactor towers right in the middle! It’s appropriate, as Austria has famously been hyper-sensitive to the (Soviet-era design) nuclear reactors located in neighboring countries (mainly the Czech Republic and Slovakia), from way back in Communist times.
  • Bulgaria: As already described, an interconnected arrangement of squat toilets.
  • The Czech Republic: This one is hard to understand, as it appears to be simply a glossy-blue silhouette of the country, with golden trim. But located within that silhouette there should be placed (they were supposed to appear at the time of the dedication ceremony) various statements of current Czech President Václav Klaus. They’re mocking Klaus like he’s some sort of latter-day Chairman Mao – get it?
  • Romania: Made up to look like a Dracula theme-park. Not too original, don’t you think?
  • Cyprus: The bloc-figure of Cyprus is cut in two and sways apart into the two halves. But that’s because, in fact, Cyprus itself is an island divided in two parts, where it’s really only the southern, Greek part that is an EU member-state.
  • Latvia: Latvia is depicted “as if we had mountains,” when in reality Latvia has no mountains. I guess Latvians dream of having mountains.
  • Finland: This one I have a hard time understanding myself. Finland is shown with various exotic, red-colored animals on it: a hippo, an elephant, a crocodile. Of course, in reality such animals are to be found there only in Helsinki’s zoo, if even there. But the figure of Finland itself is clearly made out of planks of wood, so at least that is very accurate about Finland.
  • Greece: Greece is depicted as a scorched, burned-out land. For whatever reason.
  • Ireland: Depicted as a big set of bagpipes.
  • Malta: A pedestal with an elephant on it, and a big magnifying glass for looking at the (smallish) elephant with. Because elephants are said to have lived on Malta 20,000 years ago, you see.
  • Luxembourg: An ingot of gold shaped like Luxembourg, with a “For Sale” sign extending from it. OK, finally one that is understandable.
  • The Netherlands: Flooded with water, from which only seven minarets protrude. Finally one that is actually excellent, very spot-on!
  • Italy: Italy as one big soccer-field, complete with players.
  • Estonia: Simply with modern, up-to-date versions of both hammer and sickle. Rather cruel to the Estonians, who would gladly pay to have their country towed out to sea so that it could be located far, far away from Russia.
  • Belgium: A candy-box, with chocolate bon-bons and those famous Belgian pralines.
  • Portugal: Shown as a chopping-bloc with three chunks of raw meat on it. Interestingly, those chunks are themselves shaped like Brazil, Angola, and Mozambique. So this is a comment about Portuguese colonialism.
  • Spain: Was just as colonial as Portugal, probably more (although not as late). Nonetheless, Černý and his team depict the country as just a building-site, with a stray uncovered, unexploded bomb (from the Spanish Civil War?).
  • France: Short and sweet: Covered by a banner proclaiming “Strike!”
  • Germany: Overlaid with nine strips of what is obviously autobahn – which some see as arranged in a vaguely swastika pattern.
  • Sweden: Not in the form of Sweden, but just a long box – like the kind IKEA furniture comes in. (Get it?) But this time, the “furniture” inside is apparently Gripen fighter-planes.
  • Slovenia: Just an inscription carved in English: “first tourists came here 1213.” Ha ha. Actually, the lands that are Slovenia were very close to the Roman Empire, so that Černý and his team could have added a “B.C.” to that “1213” and probably been more correct.
  • Slovakia: Depicted as a joint of Hungarian salami, bound together with string in the three Hungarian colors of red, white and green. Rather insulting to the Slovaks, I must say, who have had considerable problems with Hungary through their history, including a certain tension remaining between the two countries even today, due in part to the considerable number of Hungarian-speaking minority citizens in parts of southern Slovakia. You’d half-think that this would be the next one (i.e. after Bulgaria) to prompt an official diplomatic protest and a withdrawal – but would the Slovaks want to be so openly rude to the Hungarians by doing that?

Who’s missing? Denmark, for one! Poland, for another! I really would like to know the take from Černý & co. on those countries, but no amount of Google-imaging has turned anything up yet. The only clue about Denmark that I have is from this article from the Kristeligt Dagblad ((but which is sourced to the Danish news-agency Ritzau; title is “Scandal-artist apologizes to everybody”) that Denmark is presented as made out of Lego-blocks (OK, makes sense) in a way that somehow recalls the famous “Mohammed-cartoon” drawing of the Prophet with a bomb in his turban. Interesting! If/when I find pictures for the Danish or Polish entries on-line I’ll post an update with the links – if I remember.

UPDATE 1: Can’t anybody be thorough and comprehensive anymore? You can go here to see a slide-show of many – but not all – of the EU member-states as portrayed in Entropa. This includes Poland, which shows four men dressed as priests raising a flag Iwo Jima-style – the rainbow flag of the Gay Rights movement! I’m still looking for a picture of Denmark, though.

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