- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
The Czech Republic, having only taken over the rotating European Union presidency in January, has already managed to offend its EU peers with a sculpture it installed in the atrium of the European Council headquarters in Brussels. Titled “Entropa,” the sculpture makes light of European national stereotypes:
[C]ountries digested depictions of their national character as a Dracula-inspired theme park (Romania), a rudimentary toilet (Bulgaria) or a flooded land with minarets poking through (the Netherlands)…
Other national depictions in ”Entropa” include Luxembourg as a lump of gold on sale to the highest bidder, France emblazoned with the word ”Greve” (”strike”), Denmark made of Lego, and Sweden lying within an Ikea flatpack. Britain is simply missing – supposedly a reference to its deep Euroscepticism.
Worse still, the piece turns out to be an eleaborate prank. It was not the work of artists from all 27 EU member states, as had been claimed, but was created by a single Czech artist, David Cerny. (You probably want to make sure your speakers are turned off if you click on that link at work.) The Czech government has been forced to make a public apology.
Arguably, the Eurocrats should have known what they were getting into. As anyone who’s read Kafka or seen a Jan Svankmajer movie can attest, Czech culture has always had a somewhat dark, surrealist edge to it. This is, after all, a country that elected an absurdist playwright as its first post-communist president. I reported on the country’s strange obsession with Frank Zappa for Radio Prague in 2004. The documentary, Czech Dream, a feature-length prank in which hundreds of real Prague residents were tricked into attending a fake supermarket opening in an empty field, is another good example.
So while Cerny’s sculpture might not be great diplomacy, I like that a bit of classic Czech weirdness has been injected into one of the world’s stuffier organizations.
(Hat tip: Passport reader Aaron Lovell)
Update: Cerny responds to the controversy:
Grotesque hyperbole and mystification belongs among the trademarks of Czech culture and creating false identities is one of the strategies of contemporary art. The images of individual parts of Entropa use artistic techniques often characterised by provocation. The piece thus also lampoons the socially activist art that balances on the verge between would-be controversial attacks on national character and undisturbing decoration of an official space. We believe that the environment of Brussels is capable of ironic self-reflection, we believe in the sense of humour of European nations and their representatives.
That belief was clearly mistaken.
Photo: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images