Saturday, 17 January 2009

European stereotypes

I can still remember this postcard that I sent to many friends from Brussels over 10 years ago:

Somebody's idea of stereotypes of European nations. It was even used in one of our English course books as a cue for student discussions on the topic. Stereotypes and their existence and possible harmfulness have often come up in our international school projects, too, most recently and strongly in our last Comenius project 'Dismantling stereotypes', due to be completed this spring. No wonder then that, this week, news about the Czech art installation by David Cerny caught my attention. I was going to introduce it to our Finnish-Spanish project team for discussion, as it sounded that it tackled exactly the topic we had been working on.

This installation, called Entropa: Stereotypes are Barriers to be Demolished, was launched in the EU Council building in Brussels to mark the beginning of the 6-month Czech presidency of the EU. Initially, I though the map of Europe consisting of the different countries as unassembled pieces in a plastic modelling kit was ingenious. Also a marvellous example of European collaboration across borders, since to copy the text from the website:

Entropa is the joint work of 27 artists, each one from a different Member State. Each object depicts one Member State using common stereotypes or prejudices. The Presidency commissioned the artists without any restrictions and they were free to create any object they liked.
Naturally, I first wanted to see how my country had been portrayed - this time there was Finland as a wooden floor with an elephant, a rhino and a hippo and a hunter with a rifle. In the official booklet about the installation, the Finnish artist , Joonas Tuominen, explains: "Finland is not a country of wood; no exotic animals live in Finland. Perhaps that's the way things are, perhaps it would be beautiful." Hmm, rather cryptic... I was slightly bemused by some of the other pieces, too, for example the UK's piece missing altogether.

However, once I started searching for more background to this collaborative product, to my surprise, I found out that it had been a complete hoax, and actually been put together by David Cerny and two of his artist friends. All the other European artists listed in the booklet were nothing but the fictitious inventions of the Czech trio, who mentioned Monty Python's Flying Circus as one of their inspirations. They claimed that it would have been impossible to realize the piece as a collaboration of 27 artists with the time and financial constraints at hand, and that, in the end, they wanted to see if "Europe can laugh at itself". Obviously not, since official complaints have already been issued by some governments, followed by apologies by the artist and the Czech Prime Minister, and possibly even the removal of certain parts of the artwork that have been considered insulting. Questions about freedom of speech, democracy and censorship have also been raised. Certainly proves the powerful role of provocative art.

As for the actual content, rather than showing the self-reflection of the nationality of 27 individual artists, it now boils down to a few Czechs' view of their fellow European member states. Highly interesting as a story, but disappointingly one-sided to initiate discussions about national stereotypes.

PS. While writing this post, the information page about Entropa was deleted from the site, and only the Czech text 'Zpráva nebyla publikována.' now remains in the above link. Let's see how long the fictitious booklet will remain online.

1 comment:

André said...

Je cherche un document pour traiter du stéreotype avec mes élèves italiens et il me semble que votre image fournit des données interessantes. pourriez-vous me l'envoyer dans un format plus grand ?
merci par avance