Eternal Remont flagged this story a few days ago already – before it hit all the news stands. I laughed out loud but didn’t think of bringing it here until I came across more detail at openDemocracy and elsewhere. If the story missed you by so far, read the account of a credulity straining clusterfuck at the highest European levels – which manages to tie in some urgent developments in individual countries as well.
Chronicle of a wreck foretold
As of the beginning of this month, the Czech Republic took over the presidency of the European Union for the next six months.
To celebrate the occasion and underline the presidency’s commitment to art and Europe’s cultural variety, the Czech EU Presidency embraced the idea of an exhibition on the premises of the European Council, one of the EU’s three main institutions. The commission was won by David Černý, a Czech artist. In his proposal, one artist from each of the twenty-seven member states would contribute a symbolic representation of their country. In a postmodern, playful kind of way, of course. The Czechs boasted, recounts the BBC’s Mark Mardell, that the artwork would speak where words fail.
Černý may be best known for the stunt he pulled back in the heady years after the velvet revolution. He and his friends took to a Soviet tank that was still being preserved as monument to WW2 Soviet tank crews, and painted it pink. After he was promptly arrested and the tank was repainted green, 15 members of parliament took advantage of their official immunity and re-painted the tank pink again. In short, the artist had the kind of fame that would allow him to land a job like this, but might also have alerted the Czechs to what was going to happen…
The resulting Entropa exhibition is shaped as a giant, 256 m² (2,760 sq ft), “Airfix” sprue frame, which is affixed to the European Council seat, the Justus Lipsius Building in Brussels. Each country, adorned in various, um, colourful and controversial ways to reflect national specificities, is shaped as a snap-out plastic part inside a frame of tubes, like one of those old-fashioned modelling kits.
The Czech EU Presidency published (6MB, PDF) a suitably fancy brochure. It features an introduction by Černý:
The EU puzzle is both a metaphor and a celebration of this diversity. It comprises the building blocks of the political, economic and cultural relationships with which we ‘toy’ but which will be passed on to our children. The task of today is to create building blocks with the best possible characteristics.
The cost of the work has been variously put at €373,000 or $500,000 (EU Observer), 10 million Czech crowns or $606,000 (National Post) or 13.2 million crowns (Wikipedia). Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra spent lavish praise on the artists. “I am confident in Europe’s open mind and capacity to appreciate such a project,” he said, and, a tad defensively: “in today’s Europe there is no place for censorship”.
The EU Observer sketched the scene on the 13th:
Gaggles of EU officials, diplomats and journalists were to be found standing under the construction throughout the day trying to puzzle out where their country could be found. [..]
“We’re Ikea …of course,” said one grinning Swedish official, referring to the representation of his country as a giant flatpack [..]. “Who are you?” he asked. But his colleague was unsure. She thought she was the “one with meat on it.”
Even before it was unveiled, the exhibition backfired, however. While some Germans expressed unease at how the pattern of highways that crisscrossed their country in the exhibit was somewhat redolent of a swastika, it was the Bulgarians in particular who were not pleased at what they saw.
“It is preposterous, a disgrace,” declared Betina Joteva, spokeswoman of the Bulgarian permanent representation to the EU. “It is a humiliation for the Bulgarian nation and an offence to our national dignity.” The government promptly demanded that the Bulgarian piece of the puzzle be removed before the official opening.
More photos and video below the fold.
It didn’t help, considering Bulgaria’s long and traumatic history of Ottoman “oppression”, that the brochure’s version of the work designated it as “Turkish toilet”. openDemocracy’s Dessy Gavrilova recounts:
The Bulgarian ministry of foreign affairs asked the Czech ambassador to explain the artistic insult [..]. The affair escalated: the Bulgarian representative to the EU issued an official protest-note; Bulgarian deputies in the European parliament from the nationalist Ataka party warned that they would remove the shameful work with their bare hands; and leading Bulgarian media outlets screamed on their front-pages that the author was “a Czech crook” [..].
Hexed by a hoax
In at least that last complaint, the Bulgarians were onto something. It was the Daily Telegraph‘s Bruno Waterfield who soon sniffed out that something was amiss. For one, the artists presented in the brochure were surprisingly hard to find back on the web.
Take the British artist, Khalid Asadi – whose contribution was to leave an empty space for Britain in the work, an allusion to the country’s love-hate relationship with what the Brits call “Europe” (i.e., the mainland). Waterfield found a phone number for an artist with that name and an overlapping biography, but it got him through to a “Peckham squat turned trendy art exhibition space,” where noone knew anybody called Asadi.
The Czech newspaper Lidové Noviny and Bulgaria’s Radio Darik were on the case too. Darik journalist Elena Zhelebova was particularly keen to discuss Bulgaria’s contribution with artist “Elena Jelebova”, but she too found no trace.
The Czechs initially responded churlishly at the suggestion of fraud, insisting that all 27 artists would be at Thursday’s grand opening. But within hours, the game was up. Grinding his teeth, Vondra had to admit that they had been conned: “I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the creator of the work of art Entropa was in fact David Černý and that is was not made by 27 artists representing all the EU member states.”
David Cerny soon owned up to the elaborate hoax, which he had undertaken with just a few collaborators. “Grotesque exaggeration and mystification are signs of Czech culture and the creation of false identities is one of the strategies of current arts,” they declared. “We knew that the truth will be uncovered [but] we wanted to find out whether Europe is capable of laughing at itself”.
“We apologise to Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and their offices for not having informed them about what is true and for having misled them.”
At the official unveiling ceremony on the 15th, Vondra was forced to explain to the gathered bigwigs and bureaucrats that “this piece of art has never been meant as the Czech Presidency vision of the EU or the member states. And however the latest discovery may be shocking, it does not change anything in this regard. This is not how the Czech government or the Presidency view EU or any member state.”
Somehow, his dour repentance did not quite jibe with the newly dynamic art work he presented. The squat toilet representing Bulgaria? Turned out to have flashing lights. The cars on the swastika shaped autobahn road network cruised back and forth. Each Italian football player toyed with his ball in suggestive fashion.
Not the Czechs again
The whole affair isn’t helped by the fact that the Czechs already have something of a name as troublemakers. It’s no coincidence that the Czech Republic is represented in the art work as an LED screen with quotes by President Vaclav Klaus.
Klaus, as The Australian summarises, “believes that climate change is a myth, has compared the EU to a communist state and refuses to fly its flag over Prague Castle”. Moreover, he’s just tried, unsuccesfully, to force Topolanek out of his Prime Minister job – even though they hail from the same party. Pondering the upcoming Czech EU Presidency, the Austrian newspaper Die Presse published the headline “Oh God, Vaclav Klaus will come next”.
There is some irony, at least, in the fact that a country whose President has repeatedly lampooned the EU’s hapless bureaucracy should find that its own civil servants were too incompetent to uncover a half-million-dollar hoax, when a couple of intrepid reporters found out within hours. Did they really never once wonder whether this could possibly be for real?
It also doesn’t help that a Danish photographer chronicled “before and after tampering photographs” showing that “lego bricks were added to the Denmark exhibit,” a model of Denmark made out of Lego, “to remove an incendiary resemblance to the Prophet Mohammed” (as shown here).
In Bulgaria, this ain’t no joke
In Bulgaria, meanwhile, indignation is still raging. The youth wing of the ruling Socialist Party yesterday presented the Czech ambassador to Bulgaria with a toilet bowl in protest.
From a Bulgarian point of view, the whole timing of the incident is just, let’s say, terribly unfortunate. The EU has been withholding hundreds of millions of euros in assistance to Bulgaria since it released a report last July chronicling endemic corruption, alleged vote-buying, money laundering and shady ties between organised crime and political parties (including the governing Socialists).
The EU is due to evaluate the country’s record anew this month, with another $15 billion is at stake. Facing a 75% disapproval rate and rioting anti-government demonstrators, the government is spinning furiously to shirk the blame. As always, it is happy to play the ‘patriotic’ card – in Bulgaria, it’s the ex-communists that do most of the nationalist rabble-rousing, a function of the late comrade Zhivkov’s habit of launching campaigns to subjugate the Turkish minority whenever popular dissatisfaction loomed. Gavrilova writes:
[The] government in Sofia – discredited, unpopular, and facing in June 2009 the challenge of a national election – is constantly looking for scandals (especially “anti-national” ones) it [..] could exploit in the interests of an appeal to the patriotic majority of voters.
It is into this context that the Entropa affair fell – making it unsurprising that it was seized on as just the latest episode in the EU’s grand anti-Bulgarian conspiracy. The entire Bulgarian government machine, against the background of a media chorus, sought to mobilise the always-latent sentiments of offended patriotism and radical provincialism to give content and shape to their outrage.
Only in Europe?
The only one left laughing is Černý, even though he promised to return the money he was paid for the project. After all, he just created, per Gavrilova, “one of the most successful conceptual art works of recent years”. He’s not all that apologetic, either. “Europe has problems laughing at itself, that is the point of all this,” he told Waterfield.
The Canadian National Post had a similar take, in a blog post headlined “Art hoax proves humour is banned in Brussels”. Is that quite fair, though? It’s quite the massive fuck-up, all in all, and it’s so wrong in so many ways so typical of the EU, they all deserve the ridicule. But consider this contrast: the US government may never have quite bungled up something this badly, or at least not something of this type – but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t ever have tolerated the whole idea in the first place. Imagine an art work featuring Utah as an inviting sheep, Masschusetts as a flaming queer, and Mississippi as a noose … hanging on the facade of, say, the State Department. One day, eh!