Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Czech Art Shocks Brussels

As I walked into the European Council building in Brussels for a pair of meetings yesterday, my eyes were led upward by multiple fingers pointing amidst audible breaths being drawn in to an enormous new art installation. Entropa depicts the EU as a build-it-yourself set of plastic parts, with each country represented by a blunt stereotype.

Italy is a football pitch, Germany a spread of autobahns in which those with the intention to do so might see a swastika, Sweden is wrapped up in a flat-pack Ikea box, and the UK, perceived as more eurosceptic than most, is noted by its complete absence. The Netherlands is under water apart from a few minarets, and in Poland, a Catholic clergy raises the gay rainbow flag.

The group I was with mostly laughed, getting the joke right away: we Europeans have such simplistic prejudices about each other -- and among ourselves within individual countries -- and Europe will not be built until these mental barriers really start coming down.

But many of those gasping at it clearly found it offensive, and it has sparked controversy in the media. Admittedly, Bulgaria, which comes off as a squat toilet, might have a bit more to gripe about than others.

And the Czechs, who currently hold the six-month rotating presidency and commissioned the work, were somewhat embarrassed when it emerged that the artist, David Černý, had apparently scammed them, having initially told them the work was made by 27 EU artists when he created the whole thing himself. But, come on, Prague: you commissioned David Černý -- what did you expect but controversy?

Even still, to me, it's brilliant: great art, provoking some wonderful conversations and hopefully breaking people out of their day-to-day complacency. Once again, I am amazed people just don't get humourous political art.

Let's admit it, here in Brussels we all hear the same kinds of national stereotypes coming from some of those who actually work in the EU institutions. Many people seem to ask almost as a matter of course what member state a person in a particular position in the system comes from, and then they immediately make sweeping judgements about how that person will respond to a request or explanations of behaviour in the style of, "ah, well, he’s from X, so that explains it". Then, a wave of knowing nods around the table. We have yet to make Europeans even among those most likely to feel comfortable with that identity.

Ať žije David Černý!

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