A controversial artwork in Brussels

10-02-2009

A recent opinion poll suggested that a majority of Czechs are so far satisfied with their government’s running of the EU presidency one month on – even its handling of the gas crisis and the conflict in Gaza. But one area the government apparently mishandled was its commissioning of artist David Černý’s Entropa, the controversial art work which surprised Europe when it was unveiled in Brussels roughly three weeks ago. Even now, it is apparent the work will not soon be forgotten. But was it appropriate? The artist and colleagues duped the Czech government into thinking the work was a collaboration of different artists; still others felt it went too far in its parody of national stereotypes. The Entropa controversy in this Talking Point.

January 15th, Brussels: Entropa – David Černý’s massive new art piece – a replica of sorts of a giant model kit, complete with individuals countries attached to sprues, is unveiled. The work is a parody of national stereotypes across the 27 EU countries, from Cyprus to Sweden. Italian footballers make sexually suggestive movements with footballs; German cars race across highways shaped like a broken Swastika; Lithuanians pee across an imaginary Russian border. It is clear Entropa is a work intended to shock. Slovakia and Bulgaria are two countries that officially protest - the first depicted as Hungarian salami, the second as a Turkish squat-toilet.

Worse, the Czech government learns it has fallen for a hoax: Entropa is not the work of different EU artists at all. Political analyst Bohumil Doležal:

“The government bears a large part of the blame: they should have checked David Černý’s work and learned far sooner that all of the artists involved in the project were fake.”

In Brussels, Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra meanwhile is left no choice but to apologise at the artworks’ unveiling:

“Only after Entropa had been installed, here, we learned to our greatest and unpleasant surprise that the participation of 27 artists was in fact a mystification. It was an unpleasant shock for all of us, including me, although the conceptual artist David Černý apologised to the government later on and informed me yesterday that he did not use the Czech taxpayers’ money appropriated for the project. Entropa is just art – nothing more, nothing less.”

Perhaps, but most would be hard-pressed to remember the last time any work of art caused so much “noise” in Brussels. Although some of the criticism is scathing at home, throughout Europe many of the main headlines are positive: “Europe needs the shocking Czechs” some note, suggesting Mr Černý is bang on, simply by stirring things up. Among some Czechs a different view: Milan Knížák, the head of the National Gallery:

“What I really hate is that he cheated from the very beginning. You know, the people from the government were very naïve. But Alexandr Vondra trusted him, maybe too much. And he cheated him and wanted to cheat him from the very beginning. And it has nothing to do with artistic freedom. Nothing at all.”

But Tomáš Pospiszyl, one of several assistants who collaborated on Entropa, disagrees. He admits it was unpleasant fooling the government over the course of several months, for which he and the others apologized. But he stresses in this case was necessary. Why? The work – with its risky depiction of Bulgaria as a toilet or Sweden in an Ikea box would have otherwise never have gotten off the ground.

“The point of the work was to not to create something out of fibreglass and metal but to stir a discussion and this is part of it. Entropa is not an object but a process, so it is important for every person who want to be part of the discussion to say what they think, including criticism. We wanted to open discussion not only about the work itself but also our understanding about what Europe in 2009 is.”

But what has the work really said about Europeans, given Entropa is largely the vision of just one artist? That it is easy to laugh at our differences? That we should be able to take a joke? Many people, it seems, aren’t that sure, even now, although at the same time many view the artwork favourably. We asked passers-by for their opinions on one of Prague’s streets.

“I think it’s funny. I like the idea. I understand that some countries might not like it, but I think it’s really, really funny.”

“Well I haven’t seen it all – like all parts of the work. But the parts I did see, I liked. I think everybody should know what is well-known about his or her country and other countries. Italy is known for football, so in the installation Italy is made with football.”

“In the European context it isn’t very good. It also doesn’t say very good things about us. Maybe we should be more polite. It should be more about society, not just ‘We are the Czechs!’ – and we want to shock. That’s exactly the way it is.”

“I think that he can do what he wants. It isn’t so bad and if he says it is art – everything is art these days - I don’t have a problem with it.”

But others argue the work is mediocre at best. Milan Knížák, the head of the National Gallery, again:

“It’s possible to make a piece which can be very visible, but the way this one was done was bad. The piece is solely based on anecdotes and jokes and making fun of other lands, as well as attacking our president – which was his purpose as David Černý said. And that’s not enough in creating a piece. I understand: it ‘might’ be advantageous for the Czech Republic to present something which is special and aggressive. But for me the piece is not so special and the piece is known for all the mistakes and all the cheating: not because of the piece itself.”

And some, like political analyst Bohumil Doležal, clearly wish this was a scandal which hadn’t happened. When I spoke to him not long after Entropa was unveiled, he put it like this:

“This kind of thing is always political and these kinds of things have to be handled with tact. But the artist presented almost none. First, Mr Černý pretended Entropa was the work of 27 artists. Then, he admitted the work was his own and that the ironic point-of-view was his. But no one will take it as such: they will take the work as an ironic commentary by us as a nation. This was really unfortunate and it would have been better to have sent anything other than this.”

But Tomáš Pospiszyl, one of those who worked on Entropa, suggests perhaps some are taking the work – as well as the scandal – just a bit too seriously.

“Maybe because we are so scared that we will screw up because we currently have this important place in the European Union, at this very moment. This seemed to be an act that could ruin the credibility of the Czech Republic. But in fact our experience was the opposite: most of the European countries took the work as a joke, something which it was also possible to laugh about, which was also the point of the work.”

So, where in all of this is David Černý? On something of a hiatus, apparently: a recorded message on his phone suggests that the artist is now in North Carolina, perhaps working on a new commission, perhaps just taking a respite from all the press. When we tried to reach him over the course of a week, he never answered. Meanwhile, Czech artist Jiří David, famous for putting a neon heart over Prague Castle six years ago, says Mr Černý will come out of the Entropa controversy wholly unscathed.

“I think this was a master stroke in self-marketing on his part and now everyone now will remember his name. He will now have trouble meeting demand from customers for the rest of his life.”

So is Entropa a scandal? In light of the issues, from economic crisis to integration that Europe currently faces, it is probably fairly minor, perhaps one reason why many abroad weren’t inclined to take the work - and Mr Černý’s methods - all that seriously. Here in the Czech Republic? A slightly different story: some love the work, others clearly are not that enamoured. This much though is certain: it will be a long while before anyone in government (and perhaps some on the art scene) trust David Černý again.

10-02-2009