Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Art Schmart: David Cerny's "Entropa"

On New Year's Day, the Czech Republic started its turn as holder of the revolving presidency of the European Union. To celebrate, their government commissioned a work of art to honor the EU's 27 members.

Art is, of course, just one of those often subjective things.

While subjective, however, those who would argue that the big-eyed paintings of the Keanes, or the works of Thomas Kincade, Painter of Light, are "serious art" are likely in the critical minority - similar in proportion to "scientists" who don't believe in evolution. And the arguments about the work of Andrew Wyeth- now in the news with his recent death -  sure demonstrates how subjective subjective can be.

But what about art of the absurd, the iconoclastic, the anti-establishment?

Because that's sure what the Czech government got for the nearly $500K they laid out for an 8 ton installation piece to hang in the European Council building.

Rather than extol the glory of the EU nations, "Entropa", the symbolic map created by Czech artist David Cerny, plays to decidedly negative images of member countries.

As reported in The New York Times,

Here is Bulgaria, represented as a series of crude, hole-in-the-floor toilets. Here is the Netherlands, subsumed by floods, with only a few minarets peeping out from the water. Luxembourg is depicted as a tiny lump of gold marked by a “for sale” sign, while five Lithuanian soldiers are apparently urinating on Russia.

Other national disses show France on strike, Germany as a bunch of highways that kind of form a swastika, and Italy as a soccer game. Sweden? It's an Ikea box.

If the name "Entropa" wasn't a tip-off, the Czech's should have known that Cerny might have taken a slightly irreverent approach to the project. In 1991, in Prague, he'd painted a tank that stood as a Soviet war memorial bright pink.

The commission apparently called for Cerny to oversee a project in which there would be contributions from an artist of each of the 27 EU countries. Cerny took the money, but faked the contributions. Instead, he and a couple of artist pals came up everything - right down to fake artist c.v.'s and web sites, and the completely absurd, but definitely authentic sounding, blurbs about each country's piece.

The fake British entry, a kit of Europe in which the piece representing Britain has been taken out, says, “This improvement of exactness means that its individual selective sieve can cover the so-called objective sieve.”

If that doesn't conjure up the image of some pompous, pipe- smoking bogue reading along, and sagely commenting, "Exactly." (While at the same time conjuring up the image of "everyman" reading along and asking himself "WTF?")

The hoax was discovered, but not before the piece had been installed, and not before a Czech big wig said that the work "epitomized the motto for the Czech presidency in Europe, 'A Europe Without Borders.'"

“Sculpture, and art more generally, can speak where words fail,” he [the government spokesman] said in a statement on Monday. “I am confident in Europe’s open mind and capacity to appreciate such a project.”

Cerny claims that he knew the hoax would be uncovered, but he and his posse had  "wanted to find out if Europe is able to laugh at itself.”

Apparently not.

The Bulgarians are so outraged that they called the Czech envoy to Sofia on the carpet.

So, Czech officials have apologized, as has David Cerny.

“We are really sorry” about insulting “individual nations,” Cerny, 41, said at the news conference. He said he’s apologized “to my government” and will return the 10 million koruna ($482,700) money he received for the project to the Czech government. (Source for this and the following quote: article on Bloomberg.)

Cerny claims that he was acting in the spirit of Monty Python and Borat, but he also stated that the "plan to have 27 individual artists collaborate on Entropa could not be realized due to 'time, production and financial constraints.'”

I sympathize with Cerny having to try to line up and corral 27 different artists to produce one coherent work.

On a smaller scale, I was part of a group who worked together on a panel for the AIDS Quilt. After years of back and forth, the only thing that prevented our panel from turning into one, big, incoherent mess was when our late friend's partner decided to hire a professional quilter, who helped work things through. We ended up with a beautiful panel that also included individual contributions from all the friends. But it was a struggle.

So I sympathize.

But then I think of the nearly $500K Cerny took for the project, and I have a little WTF moment of my own.

Maybe artists are worth a lot more than writers, but it seems to me that, even if Cerny took half the money off the top for project management, production, and walking around money, he still could have found artists willing to make a contribution for around $10K.

The entire piece is 172 square feet, which means that each of the 27 country sections would have been a bit over 6 square feet. That would have worked out to about $1500 a square foot.

But what do I know about art? (I will say that, for most writers, $10K gets you a lot of words.)

“What do we really know about Europe?” Cerny said. “We have information about some states, we only know various tourist clichés about others. We know basically nothing about several of them. We did not want to insult anybody, just point at the difficulty of communication without having the ability of being ironic.”

"What do we really know about Europe?"

Well, for starters, I know enough about Europe to come up with the sort of boring images that would make most of the EU countries happy to have represent it in a safe and bland art installation. (I say "most countries" because I would have definitely come up short on Bulgaria.)

But, of course, this wasn't what Cerny was after.

I don't blame him for coming up with something ironic and edgy. He just shouldn't have done it on his country's dime (or koruna).

And what was his government thinking when they forked over almost $500K to a known provocateur? Did they really think they were going to get the noble head of Goethe and the White Cliffs of Dover?

Instead, they got Entropa.

Now they have to decide what to do with it. (As I write this, it's still in place - although they may take the toilets out of Bulgaria.)

Art, schmart!

A tip of the artist's beret to my brother-in-law, Rick, for alerting me to this story.


sadamski said...


In czech, this is a point that is often missed on the international level; bulgaria is not just a plain 'toilet', but a 'turkish toilet' as it is known in CZ. Thus adding a sub-cultural pun, much like the soldiers peeing on russia.

Not many people are aware of this, so the whole play-on-words goes over their head.

Anonymous said...

David Cerny is truly an idiot. Maybe he should have chosen something more insulting to depict his own country of Czech Republic: for instance drunk Czech soldiers cowardly holding their hands up, as the Czechs gave up the Sudetenland to Germans in 1938 without firing a bullet and most recently in Afghanistan the Czechs refused to support their fellow NATO units and withdrew from a location of a possible firefight because it was "too dangerous".
Or maybe he could have poked fun at his home country that it uses the Czechoslovak flag in violation of a treaty between the Czech and Slovak Republics that none of these countries would use former federal state's symbols. The true Czech flag consists only of two equal sized horizontal stripes - white above red, same as that of Poland.
Little history lesson for you!