It's no secret that the Czech Republic is one of the more euro-skeptic members of the European Union. The country's president, Vaclav Klaus -- who, as it happens, is the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency -- called in 2005 for the bloc to be "scrapped" and was a vocal opponent of the Lisbon Treaty, which was rejected by Irish voters in 2008 before the Czech Republic had a chance could torpedo it.
Still, a new art project commissioned by Prague in honor of its six-month stint at the head of the 27-member bloc has caused the Czechs to blush with embarrassment. Called "Entropa," the piece is a €373,000 over-sized mosaic map of Europe that relies on stereotypes to depict each country. And a number of countries are furious about it.
"It is preposterous, a disgrace," Betina Joteva, press officer for Bulgaria's permanent representation in Brussels told the euobserver Web site. "It is a humiliation for the Bulgarian nation and an offence to national dignity."
Joteva has, perhaps, reason to be upset. Her country is depicted in the eight-ton sculpture as a Turkish toilet. Many speculated that the reference might be to the centuries Bulgaria spent under Turkish rule.
But in a conversation with SPIEGEL ONLINE, the artist responsible for the sculpture, David Cerny, said it was intended to point to one of the things that is most obviously different for people who travel to Bulgaria. "No other country in Europe has those kinds of toilets," he said, before adding that he had officially apologized to Bulgaria for offending them.
Bulgaria's depiction, though, wasn't the only part of the sculpture that created controversy. Germany is shown as being criss-crossed by autobahns -- and some thought they recognized a slightly deformed swastika in the resulting design.
Cerny was categorical in his denial. "It has nothing to do with the swastika," he said. It is about highways and Germany's obsession with cars. Nothing else." Cerny said that the autobahn belts on the sculpture will move once turned on, meaning that the pieces had to be straight, thus leading to the misunderstanding.
Still, other depictions make it clear that flattery was not one of Cerny's goals. Romania is shown as a Dracula theme park; Spain is merely a slab of concrete, in reference to its recently burst real-estate bubble; Holland is shown as being flooded over with only a few minarets poking out above the waves; Luxembourg is a gold nugget with a huge "For Sale" sign sticking out of it; and France is covered with a large sign reading "strike," an allusion to that country's frequent labor battles.
The Czech government commissioned the work in the belief that it would be completed by artists from the 27 EU member-states. That, at least, is what Czech artist David Cerny promised in his project application. Instead, Cerny made up the names of the European artists supposedly participating in the project and put it together with a couple of friends.
"We were hoping that it wouldn't be taken with the kind of seriousness that it has been and that it would be fun," Cerny said. "It wasn't about insulting anyone. I am shocked that certain states don't have a sense of humor."
The piece was unveiled on Tuesday after having been carted to Brussels in three trailer trucks. But it is unclear how much longer it will remain on display. Bulgaria has demanded that it be removed from the sculpture and Czech Republic Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra said his government would be deciding on Thursday how to proceed. "The full responsibility for violating this assignment lies with David Cerny," he said.
Not all countries are angered by the piece. Sweden is depicted by an IKEA cardboard box and Belgium is a box of chocolates, both references to popular exports from those countries.
Responses from Great Britain, Cerny reports, have likewise been quite positive. The historically euro-skeptic country was left off the sculpture altogether.