The Czech Republic's offensive EU sculpture

The Czech Republic, having only taken over the rotating European Union presidency in January, has already managed to offend its EU peers with a sculpture it installed in the atrium of the European Council headquarters in Brussels. Titled "Entropa," the sculpture makes light of European national stereotypes:

[C]ountries digested depictions of their national character as a Dracula-inspired theme park (Romania), a rudimentary toilet (Bulgaria) or a flooded land with minarets poking through (the Netherlands)...

Other national depictions in ”Entropa” include Luxembourg as a lump of gold on sale to the highest bidder, France emblazoned with the word ”Greve” (”strike”), Denmark made of Lego, and Sweden lying within an Ikea flatpack. Britain is simply missing – supposedly a reference to its deep Euroscepticism.

Worse still, the piece turns out to be an eleaborate prank. It was not the work of artists from all 27 EU member states, as had been claimed, but was created by a single Czech artist, David Cerny. (You probably want to make sure your speakers are turned off if you click on that link at work.) The Czech government has been forced to make a public apology.

Arguably, the Eurocrats should have known what they were getting into. As anyone who's read Kafka or seen a Jan Svankmajer movie can attest, Czech culture has always had a somewhat dark, surrealist edge to it. This is, after all, a country that elected an absurdist playwright as its first post-communist president. I reported on the country's strange obsession with Frank Zappa for Radio Prague in 2004. The documentary, Czech Dream, a feature-length prank in which hundreds of real Prague residents were tricked into attending a fake supermarket opening in an empty field, is another good example.

So while Cerny's sculpture might not be great diplomacy, I like that a bit of classic Czech weirdness has been injected into one of the world's stuffier organizations.

(Hat tip: Passport reader Aaron Lovell)

Update: Cerny responds to the controversy:

Grotesque hyperbole and mystification belongs among the trademarks of Czech culture and creating false identities is one of the strategies of contemporary art.  The images of individual parts of Entropa use artistic techniques often characterised by provocation. The piece thus also lampoons the socially activist art that balances on  the verge between would-be controversial attacks on national character and undisturbing decoration of an official space. We believe that the environment of Brussels is capable of  ironic self-reflection, we believe in the sense of humour of European nations and their representatives.

That belief was clearly mistaken.



The optimistic view of Somalia

Just a day after Ethiopian troops left Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union government they ousted had already retaken abandoned checkpoint posts. This morning, Islamic insurgents fired on the Presidential palace. Various insurgent groups now control all but a few bits and pieces of the country. Amid all this chaos, the transitional government who is supposedly in charge is bickering its way into irrelevance.

Ethiopian troops have held together a violent status quo for the last two years. You can't help ask the question: now as they go, what on earth is going to happen? I've written my own pessimistic prediction. So here's the unlikely upside, an idea I owe to conversations with analysts over the last few months.

In many ways, Ethiopia's presence has made Somalia worse, not better. Before the 2006 invasion, the Islamic Courts Union had some measure of control over the country. Yes, there were some unsavory characters in the government, but the moderates arguably had the upper hand.

No longer. When Ethiopia came in, sensible moderates stepped off the political stage, hoping to positions themselves well for any future transitional governments. The armed youth movement al Shabab was not so cautious and took the opportunity to impose "order" at the point of a gun all over the country. Nothing emboldens a well-armed insurgency like fighting an unpopular occupying enemy.

As Ethiopia leaves, the insurgency will lose its common enemy. Its popularity and very integrity might fracture. If al Shabab is anything like rebel groups I've reported on, their internal wars are as dramatic as their external street fighting. They often bring themselves down without any help at all. And when an official terrorist organization disintegrates, that's usually a good thing.

This scenario is what many -- particularly in the international community -- are likely praying for. But if it does go that way, there will be a long and violent intermediary period of disintegration. Well armed as al Shabab and all its factions are, they're not likely to go down before all their rounds are fired.

The temptation will be for the international community to step in, freezing the disintegration mid-way in order to save civilian lives -- not to mention combat lawless piracy on the seas. The United States has already circulated a UN Security Council resolution draft that hopes to do just that, boosting the African Union peacekeeping force to maintain the status quo. That's either a very good idea (to save lives) or a very costly way of delaying the inevitable (Somalia's various factions fighting it out). I'll leave that for you to judge.