Monday, January 19, 2009

Sculpted Stereotypes

I thought the only person who could antagonize most of Europe at once was George Bush. Now a Czech artist has given it a try.

In Brussels where the European Union is headquartered, it's the Czech Republic's turn to take over the presidency of the EU. To mark the occasion, the Czech government commissioned homeboy artist David Cerny to collaborate on a work of art with artists from the other 26 EU countries.

Even before the formal unveiling of the 172-square-foot sculpture inside an EU building, Cerny had proved he'd taken the concept of a free society to heart and then some.

The brochure he presented to his government describing all 27 artists was as fraudulent as the Hitler Diaries. Cerny and a few friends had actually created the entire sculpture.

"We knew the truth would come out," Cerny told the BBC. "But before that we wanted to find out if Europe is able to laugh at itself."

There's a lot to laugh at. Called "Entropa," the satirical sculpture looks like an unassembled plastic modeling kit, with pieces shaped like the EU nations, all 27 of which receive a lampooning.

Belgium is depicted as a half-full box of partially eaten chocolates, while a strike banner covers France. Entropa presents Romania as a Dracula theme park. Germany is a network of highways somewhat resembling a swastika, according to some observers, and England isn't even present, a nod to its aloofness toward integrating with Europe.

Bulgaria is represented by a series of connected squat toilets. Bulgaria is not happy about this. The government summoned the Czech ambassador to register its official disapproval. I bet government officials spitefully wouldn't let the ambassador use their facilities.

And then there's Poland. In Entropa, Poland is presented as a group of Catholic priests hoisting the rainbow flag Iwo-Jima style.

I'll just let you absorb that image for a minute.

Yup, clergy raising the gay flag in deeply Catholic Poland. I wonder what the late Pope John Paul II, a native Pole, would have to say about that.

In the recent past Poland has been anything but gay-supportive. Polish President Lech Kaczynski has been the leading light of homophobia, forbidding Pride marches when he was mayor of Warsaw and last March railing on national TV against the EU's proposed new charter of fundamental rights because it could—insert the Polish word for gasp here—lead to same-sex marriage in Poland.

When casting about for some national characteristic to make fun of, Cerny chose this for Poland, the overheated relationship between the nation, Catholic Church, and gays. I imagine Czech diplomats took one look at that piece of the sculpture and braced themselves for a rant from Warsaw. Or Rome.

At this writing, neither has happened. More surprisingly, the Polish people don't seem offended. Wikipedia cites an online poll of Poles in which 64% said Poland's portrayal was "spot on," and just 13% decreed it "an insult to Polish people." Perhaps they're just glad they escaped Bulgaria's toilet treatment.

There's another group that could be offended: American veterans. Some wouldn't like the iconic image showing up in satire; others would be specifically irked that it's the gay flag being raised. But since Americans generally don't pay much attention to goings-on abroad, Czech diplomats probably need not lose sleep over an angry reaction from the American Legion.

Last fall the Lithuanian foreign minister admitted that EU critics are correct in calling Lithuania the most homophobic country in Europe. But in Cerny's sculpture, Lithuania consists of figures peeing on their eastern neighbors.

Very educational, this sculpture. If Americans should want to start learning more about Europe, this might be the place to start.