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Artwork, Toilets, and EU Identity

By Ted Reinert

A large art installation, billed as a collaborative effort between artists from the 27 member states of the European Union to highlight their respective countries, was hung above the entrance to the EU Council headquarters in Brussels this month. But the representations are hardly flattering.

The Netherlands: underwater, with only minarets poking above the waves. France: bearing a sign reading "on strike," stretched across the whole country. Luxembourg: a piece of gold for sale. Sweden: packed into an IKEA box. Romania: a Dracula theme park. Worst of all, Bulgaria: a series of toilets.

Nor is "Entropa" truly what its creators advertised: the work of 27 EU artists, as it was originally sold to both the EU and to the Czech government, which took over the EU's rotating presidency this year. In fact, it is the work of a single Czech artist, David Černý, perhaps best known for putting sculptures of creepy crawling faceless babies on the already weird-looking Žižkov Television Tower in Prague. The other artists don't exist.

Černý has explained the artwork on his website and has apologized to the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs for not letting them in on the joke. "The art works, by artificially constructed artists from the 27 EU countries, show how difficult and fragmented Europe as a whole can seem from the perspective of the Czech Republic," he writes. "We knew the truth would come out. But before that we wanted to find out if Europe is able to laugh at itself."

The response among EU citizens has been a mix of disapproval and amusement, because while the artwork is amusing enough to make you laugh - some countries more than others - it seems out of place in Brussels, and provides an apt symbol of the problem of the Czech presidency. With the financial crisis representing very probably the biggest challenge the European Union has had to weather since its official founding in 1993, the rotating presidency has passed to one of the most Euroskeptic countries in the bloc.

The Czech Republic's own representation in Entropa is an LED display which will scroll the words of wisdom of iconoclastic, anti-EU Czech president Vaclav Klaus for Brussels to read and enjoy. You can imagine Klaus laughing in private at his countryman's joke.

At a time when mounting economic problems and the restoration of Russian gas to Eastern Europe in a bitingly cold winter are pressing priorities (if Bulgaria is a toilet, it's a very cold one right now), a scandal over artwork comes as an unwelcome distraction. While the government has apologized for the deception, Deputy Prime Minister for EU Affairs Alexandr Vondra also defended the artwork as the official opening went ahead Thursday. The pamphlet explaining Entropa remains on the Czech Republic's EU presidency website.

Perhaps the Bulgarian leadership, which has complained to the Czechs, will get its toilet representation removed from the piece. But it seems Entropa may well stay above the entrance to the EU offices, to the embarrassment of many people who go to work there and the citizens they represent, and to the amusement of the EU's detractors.

Ted Reinert is a graduate student in the European Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Bologna Center in Italy.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

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