On 15 January 2009 an exhibition opened on the premises of the European Council in Brussels to mark the beginning of the Czech Republic's six-month presidency of the European Union. The authors were, until the day of the launch, believed to be twenty-seven artists from each of the EU's member-states, but media attention and political turmoil in Bulgaria forced the true - and single - author to declare his hoax on 13 January. It turned out to be the well known Czech conceptual artist, David Cerny.Dessy Gavrilova is founder-director of The Red House - Center for Culture and Debate in Sofia, Bulgaria
The citizens of Bulgaria have long forgotten that art could be a political force. It used to be under communism, but lost its importance since the change of 1989 and after. Now, at the beginning of 2009, art again matters in this country.
The installation-work Entropa aimed to provoke via an artistic depiction of cliches about the various European countries. David Cerny, while taking responsibility for the Czech contribution to the imagined collective, had to invent the identities of twenty-six "European artists" from the other states - and did well enough to mislead media and politicians, at least in my country, Bulgaria.
A mirror for Europe
Entropa represents a sculpture - a puzzle composed of twenty-seven 3-D maps of the European Union's members, each of them invoking and playing with a stereotype of the respective nation.Also in openDemocracy on Bulgaria and Europe:
Ilija Trojanow, "Bulgaria's red mafia on Europe's trail" (19 January 2006)
Ilija Trojanow, "Bulgaria: the mafia's dance to Europe" (16 August 2006)
Ivan Krastev, " Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)
Irina Novakova, " Georgi Markov: the truth that killed" (10 September 2008)
Poland, for example, is represented by Catholic priests raising aloft a gay-rights flag; the Netherlands by a flooded landscape, with only mosque towers poking above the waters; Romania as a Dracula theme-park; France as a banner announcing a strike; while detached Britain is....a blank space.
Bulgaria, meanwhile, was depicted as a "Turkish toilet" - an image that major Bulgarian institutions and media alike found deeply insulting. At this point the real action started.
The Bulgarian ministry of foreign affairs asked the Czech ambassador to explain the artistic insult; he went on to ask that the Bulgarian part of the sculpture be removed from the composition before the opening. The affair escalated: the Bulgarian representative to the EU issued an official protest-note; Bulgarian deputies in the European parliament from the nationalist Ataka party warned that they would remove the shameful work with their bare hands; and leading Bulgarian media outlets screamed on their front-pages that the author was "a Czech crook" and "fraudster", his work "scandalous" and "insulting".
This small-minded and disproportionate reaction reveals much about the mindset of Bulgaria's institutions and the complexes of its media: their latent nationalism, lack of a sense of humour - and profound ignorance about contemporary art. At the same time, the vehement Bulgarian denunciation backfired, in that it had it had the instant effect of making David Cerny's project one of the most successful conceptual art works of recent years. Insofar as the main aim of this type of art is to provoke debate, to attract controversy, to make the viewer revisit the obvious - then it has succeeded on this occasion in securing a victory for art and imagination over politics and reductiveness.
The Bulgarian political, institutional and media over-reaction has been far in excess of any of the other countries portrayed. In this it reveals instincts that have something uncomfortably in common with the ones that led the response of some Muslims (in Europe and beyond) after the publication in Denmark in 2005 of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. The furore is not something that honours a country that is - or aspires to be - European in spirit. It is also telling of the profound political and cultural insecurity that accompanies Bulgaria's now two-year-old European Union membership.
In the approach to Bulgaria's (and Romania's) accession to the EU on 1 January 2007, many European voices argued that the southeast European neighbours' entry was premature on the grounds of their murky institutional performance in certain areas. Since then, the new member-states have been busy providing further proof that such fears were not groundless - to the extent that the union has suspended €350 million ($450m) of the pre-accession funds pledged to Bulgaria.
Bulgaria thus carries a double burden - labelled by Brussels the most corrupt EU member-state as well as being the poorest. In response to these rough actions and accusations, the temptation of Bulgarian officialdom has been to react less by improving the dubious practices than by fighting the "wrong and unjust perceptions" with public-relations tools.
Moreover, the current socialist-led coalition government in Sofia - discredited, unpopular, and facing in June 2009 the challenge of a national election - is constantly looking for scandals (especially "anti-national" ones) it too could exploit in the interests of an appeal to the patriotic majority of voters.
It is into this context that the Entropa affair fell - making it unsurprising that it was seized on as just the latest episode in the EU's grand anti-Bulgarian conspiracy. The entire Bulgarian government machine, against the background of a media chorus, sought to mobilise the always-latent sentiments of offended patriotism and radical provincialism to give content and shape to their outrage.
A tale of two scandals
An interesting counterpoint to the peculiar Bulgarian dimension of this European story - without which it might have deserved and received less attention here - is another public scandal provoked in the country in 2007.
The trigger on that occasion was a scholarly work co-written by a young Bulgarian art historian and a German historian whose subject was an Ottoman-era massacre during the Bulgarian uprising of 1876 in the town of Batak as portrayed sixteen years later in a painting by the Polish artist, Antoni Piotrowski (1853-1924)
The Myth of Batak traced how Piotrowski's painting has shaped Bulgarian's perception of the 1876 events; and more broadly, how an artistic representation that twists and exaggerates historical facts can also powerfully influence a nation's memory.
The response of Bulgaria's leading institutions to Martina Baleva and Ulf Brunnbauer's book was telling. The president, the ministry of culture, the national history museum, the academy of sciences, and a majority of the media cursed the Bulgarian historian (resident in Germany) as a Turkish agent and a traitor to the nation. Bulgarian nationalist groups issued death-threats against her, and for more than a year exerted psychological pressure on her parents in Sofia.
The "Batak case" demonstrated how traumatised, full of complexes, and trapped in nationalistic and provincial attitudes most Bulgarian institutions are (a condition shared by a big proportion of Bulgarian citizens). Amid the spasm of hysteria, liberal voices were a distinct and weak minority. From the inside - and especially from that liberal corner - all of this made the then-brand-new European Union member-state feel deeply depressing.
In this, the Batak affair of 2007 looks as if it prefigures the Entropa one of 2009. But there are two differences. The first is in the dominant reaction of contributors on Bulgaria's internet forums. Over Batak, they almost unanimously joined the nationalistic-xenophobic tide; over Entropa they have predominantly laughed at the "Turkish toilet" metaphor (while only wondering why the toilet was depicted as so clean...) and congratulated the non-existent Bulgarian artist Elena Jelebova for her daring work.
The second difference is that since Elena Jelebova is a fiction, the consequences for her and her family are less alarming than they were for Martina Baleva. Bulgarian nationalists have no one to threaten, and the Bulgarian police do not have to waste resources in ensuring anyone's personal security. The latter point is especially important these days, when the police have been mobilising all their forces to subdue a three-day protest on 14-16 January against government mismanagement by students, eco-activists, doctors, teachers, agricultural workers, and pensioners in front of the parliament building in Sofia.
Gas-less, humourless, cold, chaotic... Bulgaria has definitely stepped into the new year and the Czech Republic's EU presidency with its wrong foot. Artists alone have some reason to cheer - because art has proved to be still capable of inspiring political action and debate.