An art installation commissioned by the Czech Republic to mark its EU presidency has caused a scandal for lampooning national stereotypes and embarrassed Prague by turning out to be a hoax by a Czech artist.
The eight-tonne mosaic is held together by snap-out plastic parts
It was supposed to be an artistic take on the Czech Republic's aim to break barriers during the country's half-year at the helm of the European Union.
But the artwork, which pokes fun at national stereotypes, turned out to be a fraud that cements a cliché about Czechs as irresponsible pranksters.
On Monday, Czech officials unveiled an eight-ton jigsaw, resembling a plastic scale model of an EU map, at a Brussels building where EU summits take place.
Germany is shown as a network of motorways vaguely resembling a swastika
The artwork titled Entropa, which was commissioned and partially paid for by the Czech government, depicts Bulgaria as a toilet. The Netherlands is a flooded land dotted with minarets, France is on strike and Britain is portrayed an empty space.
An accompanying glossy brochure says the piece is a work by 27 artists representing all EU member states. Yet reporters could not locate any of them.
After being pressed, the work's chief author, conceptual artist David Cerny, admitted that he invented his collaborators and concocted the artwork with two friends. The trio apologized to the government.
Bulgaria not amused by toilet portrayal
"It was a surprise. Respectively a shock," Czech vice-premier for European affairs Alexandr Vondra told the Lidove Noviny daily.
The revelation sparked a scandal in Brussels. Instead of EU members making fun of themselves, it turned out the Czechs mocked everyone else.
Cerny, who made his name through provocation, explained that the work lampoons socially-engaged art for public space that is toothless yet pretends to be controversial.
David Cerny said he wanted to see whether Europe could laugh at itself
"We knew that the truth would come out. Prior to that, we wanted to find out whether Europe is capable of making fun of itself," the artist said in a statement.
Bulgaria did not find the work funny. The Balkan nation is offended by being depicted as a country of Turkish squat toilets.
"It represents our country as a toilet, a place people piss on," Bulgarian member of the European Parliament Dimitar Stoyanov told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa. "If it is not removed we will remove it ourselves."
Cerny defended himself, saying the work was in line with a long-running Czech cultural tradition of art hoax and self-mockery.
A prank or outright fraud?
Czechs would have voted fictional hero, Jara Cimrman, the Greatest Czech in a 2005 television contest, were he not disqualified for never having lived.
Czech filmmakers once lured discount-hungry crowds to the opening of a fake supermarket and a secretive group of guerrilla artists was last year tried in court on scaremongering charges for sneaking images of a fake atomic mushroom cloud onto live television.
But even those who have engaged in the prank tradition on Wednesday saw Cerny as having crossed the line.
"What he did is a regular fraud. It is no longer a hoax," said Ladislav Smoljak, a co-author of the loser-genius Cimrman.
What the Czech government plans to do next should be clear on Thursday when the artwork's sound, light and motion elements are to be switched on.
Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek's stoic comment suggests that the Czechs are not considering removing or altering the piece.
"I hope that when I will arrive in Brussels I will find Entropa and have a look at what made people laugh and roused them so much," he said while visiting the EU parliament.
Special Czech brand of humor
In the end, Cerny's work backfired on Prague's EU presidency, which employed subversive Czech humor in its own campaign.
The presidency's television advertisement ends in a punch line, in which Czechs vow to "make it sweet for Europe." The idiom has a double meaning: sweetening, but also to give someone a hard time.
"It's fashion here and the government placed its bets on it," said National Gallery director and artist Milan Knizak. "But it is a bad marketing move. It does not work."
Czech humor can be incomprehensible abroad owing to complex wordplays and cultural references. At home, the recent abundance of artistic pranks raises questions whether it is not verging on the banal.
"I find it boring, of course. And I am trying to relay it to my students," Knizak said.