Friday, January 16, 2009

"Entropa": Buyer's Remorse

There is now a 170-square foot piece of electronic art (with moveable effects and music) in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels, titled "Entropa," that resulted in an apology from Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra to the 27 member states of the EU who may be offended by the depictions of their countries.

Created by Czech sculptor David Cerny (who credits Monty Python and Sasha Baron Cohen as influences) the work is a parody of stereotypes of the member states; its subtitle is "Stereotypes are barriers to be demolished." It plays with the notion of the Czech European Presidency motto "Europe Without Barriers." (Cerny is previously best known for his parody of British artist Damien Hirst, in which he pickled what appeared to be a body of Saddam Hussein.)

In Entropa, Belguim is depicted as a half-full box of half-eaten Praline chocolates; Bulgaria is a series of connected "Turkish" squat toilets; the Czech Republic features an LED display flashing controversial quotations by Czech President Václav Klaus; Ireland is a brown bog, with bagpipes playing music every five minutes (-shouldn't that be fiddles?); Germany is a hint-of-a-Swastika assemblage of autobahn segments; Romania is a Dracula-style theme park; Sweden is an IKEA self-assembly furniture box containing Gripon fighter planes (made by the Swedish aerospace company Saab); and so on. (For a full list, click here.) The Bulgarians were the first to notice the unflattering depiction of their country, insisting that their portion be removed. (Harry's Place offer a link to the official Entropa brochure, no longer available at the EU website.)

Here's a piece about the environmental themes explored in the piece: Austria is a series of nuclear reactors; Spain is a giant construction zone, with a fallen bomb in the Basque region; Hungary is a nuclear think-tank.

The countries are represented as pieces of an unassembled model kit, attached to the plastic grid from which they would be detached before (presumably) being glued together – with some kind of toxic glue? (Der Spiegel has a slide show of a number of the images.)

This is not an idealized Europe, an homage to unity and enlightenment values. Instead, it's a conflation of Europe and entropy, the idea that nature tends from order to disorder in random systems over time. Entropy also refers to a formal lack of pattern or organization; to the loss of information in a transmitted message; to the inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society; and to the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity.

Hmmm. As a cautionary artifact, designed to offend and provoke (in the great history of subversive artworks) I would have to say that Entropa appears to be successful, a brilliant and witty hoax. (It was supposedly the effort of 27 artists representing their own countries, a giant collaboration – like the European Union itself – but money and time represented constraints, and were given as excuses for the misrepresentation.) I found an interview in the Prague Daily Monitor (which will not link, for some reason) in which the artist says he thought someone would surely uncover the "hoax" dimension of the piece earlier than the day after its installation last Monday.

And here is a statement by Cerny (as well as a lot of blogosphere commentary) which begs the question: just what is a "sense of imny," one of those "hallmarks of European thinking"? ("Self-reflection, critical thinking and the capacity to perceive oneself as well as the outside world with a sense of imny are the hallmarks of European thinking.") Humor, perhaps? We'll see!

Whatever else, Entropa suggests that the commissioners need to learn to read art more carefully, paying attention in advance to what it is they are bargaining for as a representation of their values. Already, Entropa (like the European Union) exists as a sounding board for argument, ridicule, anger, humor, and fervent opinion, in which unflattering notions of national identity have to be decoded and put to the test. It's not a pretty picture. It's a giant proto-toy – an unmasking of bad "branding" – with disturbing implications.

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