Europe's Black Stain
Or how Bulgaria managed to censor the European Presidency
At the end of January, I was in Brussels, Belgium, for a couple of days. Of course, I used my first spare minute to rush to the exhibit that stirred a storm of controversy across Europe - the infamous "Entropa".
Entropa, supposedly, presented the stereotypes about each of the EU member states. Romania is a Dracula theme-park; France is covered with the inscription "Strike!"; Sweden looks like an IKEA box; the Netherlands are series of minarets submerged by flood; Germany, with its network of motorways, resembles a swastika; Spain is buried under concrete; Italy is a giant football stadium; Slovakia - a sausage wrapped with a string with the colors of the Hungarian flag; Denmark is composed of Lego blocks, which seen from afar remind of the Mohamed caricatures that fired up the Arab World in 2006, and the Finish are a bunch of dinosaurs, sitting on barren land.
And, of course, the most outrageous of it all: Bulgaria. As a squad toilet...
The shock waves even reached across the Atlantic. The New York Times dedicated an entire article to the exhibit that "united Europe in displeasure."
"Why didn't anyone realize right away that there was something seriously weird about the new piece of art in Brussels?", the New York Times asked.
"The piece ... was meant to symbolize the glory of a unified Europe by reflecting something special about each country in the European Union... It was proudly commissioned by the Czech Republic to mark the start of its six-month presidency of the EU. But the Czechs made the mistake of hiring the artist David Cerny to put together the project," the author Sarah Lyall pointed out.
"It is preposterous, a disgrace. It is a humiliation for the Bulgarian nation and an offense to our national dignity", the Bulgarian permanent representative to the EU said while the Bulgarian government, "the one whose country is shown as a bunch of toilets", summoned the Czech Ambassador in Sofia to lodge an official protest.
"Cerny says he knew the truth would eventually come out but adds: "We believe that the environment of Brussels is capable of ironic self-reflection, we believe in the sense of humor of European nations and their representatives. Try telling that to Bulgaria," CNN commented
"There has already been an angry reaction to the piece from Bulgaria, which has summoned the Czech ambassador to Sofia to explain," BBC reported.
"It is unlikely that the EU will appreciate the joke, but Cerny's installation, its crude humor, the elaborate biographies of the invented artists and the media storm now brewing all constitute a work of art", The Guardian pointed out.
Yes, "Entropa" made many patriotic feeling Bulgarians fuming. The piece stirred controversial and angry reactions in Bulgaria. The country's permanent Representation at the European Institutions issued an official objection to the work being displayed at the European Council building in Brussels. The Bulgarian Culture Ministry declared they had nothing to do with the display, and had not selected the artist to participate in it while the Czech Ambassador to Sofia, Martin Klepetko, was summoned at the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry to explain the gaffe. Klepetko even received a real toilet as a gift, bestowed to His Excellency by the Discussion Club for Social and Local Policy, a youth organization of the Bulgarian Socialist Party.
So, in the midst of this "perfect storm," I rushed into the lobby of the European Council building and there it was! "Entropa!" It looked like a giant plastic child toy, with colorful snap-out parts, sounds and lights.
"Entropa" is provocative, funny, witty, ingenious, I thought. Then I saw Bulgaria. No, not the squat toilet that triggered the heated debates. The toilet was gone, covered by a untidy, shabby looking black cloth.
I knew about the cloth; had read about it on the news. However, in the lobby of the Justus Lipsius Building, this kind of response, this running away from the facts, seemed so inadequate that it felt much more insulting than the image of the squad toilet.
At the exhibit's inauguration, Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra officially apologized to Bulgaria and offered Bulgarian diplomats to hold constructive discussions about ways to repair the damage. The talks obviously led to the black cloth.
It is true, "Entropa", which was supposed to be the prominent symbol of the Czech Presidency of the EU, caused the Czechs some embarrassment and discomfort, but they surely knew what to expect when they commissioned the work to the "l'enfant terrible" of Czech art - David Cerny. The choice, itself, speaks to their anticipation and desire to have something provocative, clever, controversial.
Let's not forget that the Czechs gave the world Yaroslav Hasek and his "Good Soldier Sveik"...
After all, Cerny is the one who painted a Soviet tank, a Second World War memorial in Prague, bright pink in the early 1990s. This, as well as his other pranks, has not been a secret to anyone.
Maybe the EU Presidency got more than what they wished for? Maybe the hoax with the made-up artists and the fake brochure got bigger than the imaginable. Maybe Cerny's own apologies for misleading his government, the promise that he would return the money, or the explanation that this was "just art", and he wanted to "see if Europe could laugh at itself" are not enough and not an excuse... But we must give him credit for seizing the opportunity to poke fun, promote his work, and avoid censorship.
Well, almost. Bulgaria, somehow, managed to censor "Entropa".
Michael Archer wrote for the British "The Guardian": "Well, I laughed. But then I'm not from Bulgaria."
It is hard for a Bulgarian in Brussels to laugh, even smile. Certainly, not just because of Entropa, the toilet and the black cloth...
Of course, being perceived as a toilet is not flattering. But the ragged black spot on the map of Europe isn't either. Instead of trying to repair the image, those in power in Bulgaria resorted to the good old censorship, embedded deeply in their minds since Communist times. It was easy then: "What we don't like must be taken away, removed, covered and it would never bother us again." They have yet to realize that the times have changed.
The European Council lobby was filled with visitors, flocking from all over to see "Entropa." People around me were pointing at the different countries, checking out maps, laughing. Even the Brits, despite the fact that their country was absent from Europe altogether. All, without any exception, asked about Bulgaria - either where the toilet was, or what was behind the black cloth. The censorship did not work.
Maybe the Mayor of the Bulgarian Black Sea town of Balchik, who wrote Cerny to tell him that art must not be construed literally, invited him to have his own art display in the town, and promised to show him that Bulgaria could be associated with much more pleasant things, was the only one with the right reaction?
Otherwise we face the choice to continue to be seen either as Europe's toilet or Europe's black stain. And what kind of a choice is that?
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