On Monday, January 12, Czech artist David Černý unveiled his newest creation, Entropa, to the European community. Less than a day later, authorities began discussing its removal.
Entropa was a gift from the Czech Republic as they took their seat at the head of the Council of the European Union; it was meant to be a symbol of the interconnected continent. The Czech government elected Černý, one of the country’s most famous artists, to take charge of the project. He was supposed to contract artists from each of the 27 nations of the EU to depict what their respective nations meant to them. The end product should have been a colorful mosaic harboring images of what makes each country so unique. It should have promoted international understanding and washed away negative stereotypes.
Instead, Černý fabricated the identities and portfolios of the artists allegedly contributing to the piece and did the whole thing himself.
The artwork hanging in Brussels is now a laughable insult to every European country: Bulgaria is a network of plumbing and toilets, Germany is a labyrinth of autobahn lanes that bear an uncanny resemblance to a swastika, Sweden is packed in an Ikea box, and Slovakia is wrapped in a piece of cloth like a dead baby (I don’t really know what this is about).
So much for unbiased understanding.
To be honest, I don’t know what the Czech Republic expected after hiring Černý to do the job. According to The New York Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Černý has a reputation for controversial artwork. In the ’90s he painted a national war monument pink and his work Shark, a sculpture of Saddam Hussein suspended in a glass box filled with formaldehyde, has been censored in many countries.
Since reading this news, I’ve been trying to come to terms with how I should feel about the whole situation. This installation symbolizes many of the problems I’ve been fighting against as an American living beyond my shores.
Teaching non-Americans on a daily basis, I spend a large portion of my in-class time trying to reformat my students’ mental hard drives. My message: don’t believe what you read and hear until you experience it for yourself.
The American media is infiltrating the European airwaves on a grandiose scale. With the United States exporting little more than the worst aspects of its contemporary culture, the idea that American TV does not reflect American reality has been an important lesson to drill into my students’ heads.
Although the U.S. itself has a massive portfolio of legitimate films, TV series, and musical acts, we somehow only manage to export the filth. Instead of The Sopranos, Little Miss Sunshine, and Bon Iver, Europe gets MTV’s Next, Angelina Jolie’s film Wanted, and Dashboard Confessional.
Because we export so much garbage, European society has come to understand America as a group of frat boys, Hollywood-mongering philistines, and bad Emo trash.
In the lessons I taught before Christmas, my students and I spoke about the different ways we celebrate Christmas. At the words, “Do you guys know what we do for Christmas in America?” my classes broke out in laughter.
“You have zeez hauses wiss zee too many colored lamps and many plastic sings in zee yard,” one student proclaimed. “Like in zee film wiss zee Grisvalds.”
Who would have thought Clark Griswald from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation would become the international ambassador of American Christmas?
It’s unfair to judge a nation from the outside. Unless you have been to a country, walked its streets, and met its people, you really don’t know anything about it.
But this is exactly what Černý’s piece perpetuates. It encourages us to keep believing what we always believed without ever really experiencing.
All my hard work makes me feel as though I should be offended by Entropa, but when I saw the depictions of France “on strike” and Italy as a big soccer field, I laughed.
As this installation perpetuates negative stereotypes, it encourages self-reflection. It is a mirror for each country, meant to characterize exactly how outsiders see them—a mirror which, I would argue, is not held up often enough.
I used to do an activity with my classes where we discussed national stereotypes. How would you describe a culture? What is country X like as opposed to country Y?
A portion of the activity was a joke: In heaven, the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian, and it’s all organized by the Swiss. In Hell the police are German, the cooks are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it’s all organized by the Italians.
When discussing this joke with my students, many of them could not understand why the Germans were the police in Hell.
“The German police are very good. They are very honest. They will not just stop you without breaking the rules.”
Most of them didn’t find it funny at all. They just found it incomprehensible.
While I understand that Germans want to move past their infamous history, they must also be aware that few see them as more than a group of overly organized, rule-abiding Nazis. Most Americans I know still liken the sound of the German language to angry screaming, and my experiences have shown me that most non-German Europeans are still quite intent on remembering exactly what the Germans did 60 years ago. They don’t want to forget, nor will they.
In all fairness, many of the Eastern European countries are still trying to rebuild after being invaded by Nazi and Communist regimes. They haven’t moved past the idea of Germans-as-Nazis because, in many ways, the events of this time period still hinder their ability to develop.
It’s important to remember these things. It’s important to take the time to reflect on our own national shortcomings. Granted, it never feels that great to be criticized, but I think Černý’s Entropa should be embraced rather than disregarded. We have to be realistic about how others see us before we can really be world players. If we refuse to do so, we will forever be stuck in our own ignorant bliss.
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