Punking Brussels

by Henry Farrell on January 15, 2009

A few years ago, I “wrote that”:https://crookedtimber.org/2004/09/17/acquis-fiction/

Nearly every corridor in every building of the Commission, Council and Parliament has two or three examples [of EU official art] along its walls – spectacularly bland and uninteresting prints and photographs, always with the twelve stars on a blue flag in there somewhere. The art is contentless and affectless because any strong statement, or even conveyed sense of geographic location, would probably offend somebody in one or another of the member states. There’s something about the EU that seems completely inimical to lively cultural expression.

Now a Czech art-prankster has “put this theory to its test”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f9eb2dae-e2a4-11dd-b1dd-0000779fd2ac.html, and found that member states are indeed liable to get offended.

Sited prominently in the headquarters of the EU Council in Brussels, a flagship work of art – which was designed to demolish national stereotypes by mocking them – has caused diplomatic outrage. Not only that, the piece turns out to be the work of a single Czech artist despite having been billed as the collaborative effort of all 27 member states. … As countries digested depictions of their character, such as a Dracula-inspired theme park (Romania), a rudimentary lavatory (Bulgaria) and a flooded land with minarets poking through (the Netherlands), the Czech presidency was forced into a public apology. … Other national depictions in the artwork include: Luxembourg as a lump of gold on sale to the highest bidder; France emblazoned with the word grève , or strike; Denmark made of Lego; and Sweden lying within an Ikea flatpack. Britain is simply missing – supposedly a reference to its euro-scepticism. But some diplomats appear in little doubt of what action they would like to see, namely the removal of the eight-tonne “modern art installation” from the bleak and lofty but all-too prominent atrium of the council’s main building.

In fairness, the artist seems to have gone out of his way to prod national sore spots – other depictions include Germany (autobahns making up a rather thinly disguised swastika) and Poland (a group of monks erecting the Rainbow flag). Pictures below.





Keith 01.15.09 at 7:45 pm

This is great stuff. Playful and fun and a poke int the eye to self-important beurocrats.

I can only hope we get something this fun out of Obama’s Secretary of the Arts.


virgil xenophon 01.15.09 at 7:59 pm

And LOVING it……..


Steve LaBonne 01.15.09 at 8:08 pm

How wonderful to know that the spirit of Svejk lives on in the Czech lands.


sg 01.15.09 at 8:38 pm

This is my chance to put a link to a classic similar moment at the “English Russia” website:



tadhgin 01.15.09 at 8:47 pm

I love “beurocrats” becase if there is one thing the Fonctionaires aren’t it’s ethnicly diverse!


anonymous37 01.15.09 at 9:15 pm

(autobahns making up a rather thinly disguised swastika)

It was thick enough to completely throw me. I would be curious to see if anyone who saw the above picture thought it was a disguised swastika.


Mrs Tilton 01.15.09 at 9:23 pm

Feckin brilliant. Czechs: great brewers, great animators, and now great shitstirrers conceptual artists. What more can one ask from a nation?


for me, the Hakenkreuz fairly leapt off the page; it was the Autobahn I needed a moment to see.


matt m 01.15.09 at 9:28 pm

This is not unexpected, given that it’s David Cerny. He’s always up for a bit of fun — his babies on the TV tower in Prague are a nice touch as well.


novakant 01.15.09 at 9:36 pm

how lame


sg 01.15.09 at 9:40 pm

I’m actually kind of with Novakant on this one… the art seems funny and maybe it’s ironic, but it also seems to be of a piece with a certain sort of poorly thought out, poorly defended “radicalism” which really just presents cliches as if they were novel just because they were placed in a serious setting. I don’t like it when artists repackage a well-worn cliche or copy a well-known idea, and because its “art” or it’s in a slightly more serious or unusual setting we all have to act like it’s radical. Particularly when its just rebranded stereotypes.


sg 01.15.09 at 9:41 pm

and punk it definitely ain’t.


notsneaky 01.15.09 at 10:23 pm

Here’s some of the actual pics: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/howaboutthat/4239911/Map-of-Europe-sculpture-in-Brussels-is-revealed-to-be-a-fake.html?image=2

And my run down:
Bulgaria – not funny, pretty stupid actually and I can see how it’s offensive. (and the only place I’ve seen these kinds of toilets was actually in Italy).
Spain – slightly amusing but surely the Spaniard can make better humor fodder?
Netherlands – slightly amusing and slightly offensive
Poland – pretty funny, though not sure what Iwo Jima’s got to do it. Maybe it’s an additional layer of humor
Italy – Yawn. Not very creative.
Romania – Eh. Problems are a combination of those for Spain and Italy.
Hungary – Honestly I don’t get it. The caption’s funny though
Denmark – Innocently funny. He should’ve been more mean spirited here but otherwise it’s fine.
Germany – moderately funny and I like the fact that the little cars actually move
Luxembourg – barely funny but how funny can you get about Luxembourg?
France – pretty damn funny.

Ok, now where’s Greece, Czech Rep and that other country? And Finland? In the picture of the whole thing you can sort of see Greece and Finland but none of the news stories actually link to the other countries. That’s more annoying than funny.


Anthony 01.15.09 at 10:49 pm

Notsneaky – how long ago were those toilets? I remember them as the *standard* railroad station toilet (men’s room) in Italy, but that was in 1984. However, those toilets are still a major part of my impression of Italy.

Der Spiegel’s caption of Bulgaria is particularly amusing: “…recalling that Bulgaria spent centuries under the Turkish yoke”.


stostosto 01.15.09 at 11:27 pm

I agree with Novakant and sg.

Btw, it was reported in my newspaper here that the Legos in Denmark form one of the Mohammad cartoons – the one with the bomb in the turban. I don’t see it.


jacob 01.15.09 at 11:49 pm

I confess to be disappointed that I see neither the swastika in Germany nor the Mohammad cartoon in Denmark. And the absence of Finland, Czech Republic, et al., means that the BBC’s description of the UK as absent to depict euroskepticism is nonsense. (Also, I too don’t get the Hungary one.)


sg 01.15.09 at 11:51 pm

I see both. You can see the turban on the top part of Denmark, and the green blocks in the middle are just around the mouth, I think. The swastika in Germany is just slightly twisted, but I think it’s there if you’re looking. Just more evidence of sensationalism for the sake of it. I also thought that the Bulgarian Minister made a good statement to show why objections to this sort of art aren’t actually just stuffy bureaucratism. She said “I can’t stand to see a toilet in a map of my country”, which seems fair enough to me.


Righteous Bubba 01.16.09 at 12:22 am

If anyone cares Google has relatively recently added Czech to their translatable languages and you’ll find a more comprehensive gallery and a bunch of articles at the link that are pretty easy to read, considering. Borat is invoked in one.

Also Finland is there and gets off easy.


P O'Neill 01.16.09 at 12:23 am

He also punked Prague. They apparently never bothered to verify that what was installed was what they had asked for, or had passed around in the glossy brochure.


Righteous Bubba 01.16.09 at 12:26 am

a more comprehensive gallery and a bunch of articles at the link

Clicking the picture itself instead of the “next” button’ll get you captions.

IMO someone funnier should have done it.


Cryptic ned 01.16.09 at 12:44 am

Just go to the Wikipedia page for Entropa, it describes each country’s part of the installation.


# The Czech Republic’s own piece is an LED display, which flashes controversial quotations by Czech President Václav Klaus
# Finland is depicted as a wooden floor and an [apparently drunk] male with a rifle, imagining various animals [11]
# Hungary features an Atomium made of its common agricultural products melons and Hungarian sausages, based on a floor of peppers
# Latvia is shown as covered with mountains, in contrast to its actual flat landscape
# Lithuania a series of dressed Manneken Pis-style figures urinating on its eastern neighbours; the streams of urine are presented by a yellow lighting glass fibers
# Malta is a tiny island with its prehistoric dwarf elephant as its only decoration; there’s a magnifying glass in front of the elephant
# Portugal is shown as a wooden cutting board with three pieces of meat in the shape of its former colonies of Brazil, Angola, and Mozambique
# Slovakia is depicted as a Hungarian sausage (or a human body tightened by Hungarian tricolour)
# Slovenia is shown as a rock engraved with the words first tourists came here 1213


eric 01.16.09 at 1:56 am

@Anthony (10:49)
The squat-toilets were still standard at Italian RR stations as recently as 2000 when I was last there.


MH 01.16.09 at 2:10 am

It doesn’t matter if some of the jokes missed the mark, it is getting the EU to put it up that makes the funny. Making bureaucrats look pointless and inattentive is pretty much always fun.


Righteous Bubba 01.16.09 at 2:24 am

It doesn’t matter if some of the jokes missed the mark, it is getting the EU to put it up that makes the funny.

Yeah, I support the effort.


Kenny Easwaran 01.16.09 at 2:49 am

Why are the monks putting up a rainbow flag? Was JPII often said to be gay?


notsneaky 01.16.09 at 4:05 am

“Notsneaky – how long ago were those toilets?”

This summer. It was at a train station in a town on the Franco-Italian border. The worst thing was actually that we were stuck there for eight hours and they only opened up those bathrooms for like ten minutes during this time, herded everybody in, herded them out and closed them up again. It was a bit surreal.

Agree with all comments by Righteous Bubba.

Estonia one doesn’t make sense. It might have been funny if it had been done 18 years ago.

“Why are the monks putting up a rainbow flag? Was JPII often said to be gay?”

No, but a number of politicians who are outspoken proponents of Catholicism are unabashedly homophobic. At one point a “Catholic” conservative, openly homophobic party, the League of Polish Families, actually got enough seats in the Parliament to be included in the government for a short spell – that’s the parliamentary system for you though, thank god for the electoral college (I know, US politics as exemplified by the Republican party are not much better in this regard. Think how much worse it would be if there was no filter on the crazies and their crazy votes). Because of them Poland (or its politicians) actually tried to get some kind of “defense of marriage” type stuff into the EU constitution or law or something. That’s probably what it’s mocking.


Justin 01.16.09 at 4:37 am

ÄŒerný’s explanation of the exhibit is delightful, even if it doesn’t really make sense. “[It] 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”.


gl nelson 01.16.09 at 5:32 am

The Bulgarians can’t laugh at a little bathroom humor. Poles can’t laugh at a little gay priest humor. Germans can’t laugh at some not-too-subtle Holocaust humor. How thin the tender, unhealed scab that separates the clever from the unfunny or merely disgusting.


Doug 01.16.09 at 9:30 am

12: “Honestly I don’t get it. The caption’s funny though”

This is as good a one-line description of Hungary as I am ever likely to read.


ajay 01.16.09 at 9:45 am

INNOVATIVE, TABOO-BREAKING ARTIST DAVID CERNY: You see, French folks be driving like this [gestures] and Czech folks be driving like this [gestures differently]

EU COMMISSIONER HOMER-CLAUDE SIMPSON: Hee hee! He’s right! We’re so lame!


novakant 01.16.09 at 10:01 am

that’s the parliamentary system for you though, thank god for the electoral college (I know, US politics as exemplified by the Republican party are not much better in this regard. Think how much worse it would be if there was no filter on the crazies and their crazy votes

Oh, I don’t know. In a system with proportional representation Gore could simply have formed a coalition with Nader, satisfying his vanity with some minor cabinet post, and we would have been spared 8 years of Bush’s craziness.


sg 01.16.09 at 11:02 am

Japan still has those squat toilets in every railway station in the country (except maybe Tokyo).

Which is a considerable advance on London, where there are no toilets in stations.


John M. 01.16.09 at 11:27 am

My youngest brother and I have been challenging people for quite a few years now to name any piece of public funded art that can be truly considered great. This definitely does not make the grade – I basically agree with the comment streams above that find it childish, though winding up politicians is an honourable sport. Any takers? (btw the game originated by my brother noting how unbelievably crap motorway art is)


D 01.16.09 at 11:51 am

I’m expecting somebody in this thread to dance about architecture any moment now.


JLS 01.16.09 at 12:01 pm

“I would be curious to see if anyone who saw the above picture thought it was a disguised swastika.

I see too a svastika.


Sam Dodsworth 01.16.09 at 1:57 pm

My youngest brother and I have been challenging people for quite a few years now to name any piece of public funded art that can be truly considered great.

The Parthenon.


ajay 01.16.09 at 2:14 pm

Depends how you define publicly-funded – there’s a vast amount that was commissioned by various kings and princes. Cosi fan tutte, for example.


Doug T 01.16.09 at 2:25 pm

My youngest brother and I have been challenging people for quite a few years now to name any piece of public funded art that can be truly considered great.

The first example I can think of is the Picasso sculpture in Chicago’s Daley Plaza.


If you’re willing to allow architecture in your art criteria, you could probably come up with quite a few examples.


sg 01.16.09 at 2:49 pm

There must be a piece of socialist realism somewhere in Russia which is truly great!

Also isn’t the statue of liberty publicly funded?

Nelson’s column?

The Sydney Harbour Bridge?

The Sydney Opera House?


Chris Bertram 01.16.09 at 3:01 pm


” En France, les publications écrites destinées à la jeunesse font l’objet d’un contrôle a posteriori (après publication et dépôt) qui est effectué par la Commission de surveillance et de contrôle des publications destinées à l’enfance et à l’adolescence au nom de la protection de la jeunesse.

Cette Commission, instituée par la loi du 16 juillet 1949, a un champ d’application extrêmement large.

Elle contrôle, tout d’abord, les publications françaises qui apparaissent par leur caractère, leur présentation ou leur objet, comme étant principalement destinées aux enfants et aux adolescents.

Plus précisément, elle vérifie que ces publications ne comportent aucune illustration, aucun récit, aucune chronique, aucune rubrique, aucune insertion présentant sous un jour favorable le banditisme, le mensonge, le vol, la paresse, la lâcheté, la haine, la débauche ou tous actes qualifiés crimes ou délits ou de nature à démoraliser l’enfance ou la jeunesse, ou à inspirer ou entretenir des préjugés ethniques. Ces publications ne doivent pas non plus comporter de publicité, d’annonce pour des publications de nature à démoraliser l’enfance ou la jeunesse. Si les membres de la Commission estiment qu’un ouvrage ne respecte pas ces dispositions, ils peuvent demander l’engagement de poursuites pénales. L’éditeur poursuivi encourt un an d’emprisonnement et 3 750 € d’amende. “


Chris Bertram 01.16.09 at 3:03 pm

“… _ou à inspirer ou entretenir des préjugés ethniques.”

seems, unsurprisingly, to be a post-1949 addition, but the rest is verbatim from the 1949 law.


John M. 01.16.09 at 3:26 pm


Picasso sculpture is excellent, no argument – my ignorance in not thinking of it, especially as I have seen it in person. So that’s 1 in the whole world so far. Architecture (though I fully agree it is art) is excluded on the basis that the piece must be designed purely for artistic purpose rather than function. I know this is something that could be argued about endlessly but them’s the rules. If I was being ultra nit-picky, I’d add a rule that the piece had to be directly commissioned by state employees – the Picasso was commissioned by the architect. To belabor the point: from the Wikipedia article “One Chicago City Council alderman immediately proposed replacing it with a statue of Ernie Banks”


roac 01.16.09 at 3:56 pm

I think 38 & 39 were meant for posting on the Tintin thread.


sg 01.16.09 at 5:06 pm

How about war memorials? There are many in England and some of them are quite nice, a lot of them were commissioned by state employees methinks.

I think it’s also fair to say that the Sydney Opera House was commissioned as a work of art. I mean, it holds opera.

Also, shouldn’t the work of the poets laureate count?


ramster 01.16.09 at 5:08 pm

excellent. for some reason it reminds me of this old classic:



MH 01.16.09 at 5:34 pm

“Also, shouldn’t the work of the poets laureate count?”

No, it shouldn’t. For so many reasons.


Doug 01.16.09 at 7:05 pm

43: Best. Chart. Ever.


Matt L 01.16.09 at 7:15 pm

Sure it trades in trite nationalist stereotypes, but this art installation is hilarious! Lighten up. I mean, this rises to the same level of satire as the Daily Show… which is not a high standard, but its just not worth people getting their nose out of joint over.

Besides, the France one was spot on. Every time I visited my cousin in France either the transit workers or the school teachers were on strike. Its perfect!


Zamfir 01.16.09 at 8:48 pm

The whole point of the installation is that they are tired stereotypes, and that people really do think in these ways of other countries. For a number of the stereotypes, I found that my own images of the country were hardly more advanced than this. I really couldn’t tell a lot about Luxembourg, Romania, Lithuania or Malta besides the stereotype. In that sense I am afraid the guy really hit a sore nerve of the European union and its problems, way beyond a cheap joke.


Charlie 01.16.09 at 11:20 pm

Squat toilets are comfortable, functional, and far more sanitary than seated toilets. I wish they were permitted by north american plumbing codes, because I would certainly instal one in my house.

I find it odd that people are so divided by defecatory issues. When I was in Thailand, I must have heard hundreds of horrified westerners wax shocked over the toilets, westerners who had spent the previous night at a ‘ping pong’ show…


Keir 01.17.09 at 12:09 am

My youngest brother and I have been challenging people for quite a few years now to name any piece of public funded art that can be truly considered great.

The Oath of The Horatii; Guernica (and generally the Spanish Pavilion at the ’37 Paris Expo); Michaelangelo’s David. The Eiffel Tower. Chartres and the Cathedrals of Europe.


notsneaky 01.17.09 at 5:14 am

“Squat toilets are comfortable, functional, and far more sanitary than seated toilets”

The hell they are. That’s like this Utne reader article my exgirlfriend made me read once about how cutting grass with an old fashioned scythe was more … “spiritual” … than doing it with a regular gas lawnmower. I.e. not if you actually have to use it.

They’re very obviously NOT more comfortable, functional in the above sentence is redundant and I’m not even gonna go into the obvious reason why they’re not more sanitary.


MH 01.17.09 at 5:21 am

I always wanted a squat toilet so I could see if I could get the dog to use it.


roy belmont 01.17.09 at 6:14 am

Feeling a little dyspeptic are we?
Squatting is a way more efficient and comfortable way to deliver fecal deposits.
Pooping in the woods into a scooped-out hole is the most natural and easeful way to go as well as being the most efficient, the posture the body is in while doing so is the least obstructing and most poop-facilitating.
Squat toilets echo this.
And since when you squat your butt doesn’t contact anything but the back of your own personal legs, and the only contact you have with anything already in there is at the bottom of your hopefully shod feet, viola, more sanitary.
The sanitariness of the facility itself is a function of its custodial and proprietary agencies. An ill-maintained squat toilet is squalid, but then so’s an ill-maintained sitter.
In the squat all other factors being equal germ contact from body to plumbing surface to next body is way less.
Americans have this fetishized relationship with their pee and poop, and with the gleaming white porcelain and shiny tiles of those special rooms which they call “bath” rooms even when there’s nothing in there but a toilet and a sink. And it’s really hard for lots of them to get past the subconscious nausea triggers when they contemplate other forms of eliminatory plumbing.


John M. 01.17.09 at 1:16 pm

Guernica (and generally the Spanish Pavilion at the ‘37 Paris Expo) – Yes, interesting that Picasso is still the only example so far from the 20th Century and on that point: Michelangelo’s David & The Oath of The Horatii stretch the concept of public funded somewhat but they have to be conceded. The Eiffel Tower on the other hand has come up before and is deemed too controversial – yes, it is very, very famous but it’s very, very ugly (Maupassant allegedly ate lunch there every day on the grounds that it was the only place in Paris from which he could not see it). Chartres and the Cathedrals of Europe are ruled out on the basis outlined above of not being solely artistic endeavours.


Anthony 01.17.09 at 8:17 pm

@39 Charlie, I’ve used squat toilets, and the memory of the disagreeableness of them has remained with me over the past 24 years. They were not more comfortable when I was 18, and had good knees and strong leg muscles, and I’m not interested in trying the experiment now that I’m 42 and have bad knees.


sg 01.17.09 at 9:36 pm

John M – what about the Statue of Liberty? That wasn’t designed by Picasso. Also there are public toilets in NZ by Gaudi(?), and their interior is definitely artistic.

Also, Bus stops in Russia can be quite splendid, at least according to that website that keeps a record.

I have used squat toilets extensively while I lived in Japan, and in general they stink and are difficult to clean, which is probably why american plumbing codes don’t allow them. It’s a testament to the Japanese sense of cleanliness that they don’t stink more. Also, they’re hell for old people. They also I would maintain require a childhood training to be able to use comfortably. I have seen a Japanese woman sleep while squatting (not on a toilet; at a rock concert). That’s a lifetime of training for you! One shouldn’t expect people who haven’t had such training to attempt such things!


MH 01.17.09 at 10:02 pm

Aside from everybody else’s (accurate) complaints about squat toilets, I’m pretty sure that if adopted widely in the U.S., they would kill the print media. Really, there’s only one reason I get one magazine and the Sunday paper in hard copy and no just on-line.


Tracy W 01.19.09 at 12:53 pm

After growing up with western throne-style loos and then travelling a lot in South-East Asia, when it comes to public loos I prefer squat toilets, at least in climates that are warm enough for me to just wear a skirt (as opposed to wearing a skirt with two layers of long johns underneath). Being able to go to a public toilet and only needing to touch any bit of it with the soles of my shoes is very nice. I wish they were far more widespread in the West.
I am however a Western female with all the social advantages that brings, and have reasonably strong leg muscles. I can understand that others’ mileage would vary.


ajay 01.20.09 at 11:03 am

43: memorials in general, yes. But the Sydney Opera House is definitely functional – just because it is designed for the purpose of holding art doesn’t mean it’s art itself. A TV set shows art, but the set itself isn’t art, is it?
sg: The Statue of Liberty, according to Wikipedia at least, was funded by public donations and fund-raising events, not by government money (which I think is what John M meant by public funding).

What about the vast amounts of music commissioned by various rulers and governments?


Dave 01.20.09 at 1:24 pm

Squat toilets + trousers/pants = anxiety at best, disaster at worst. So unless you plan on radically altering the mores of Euro-American male dress, good luck with your advocacy…


:o) 01.21.09 at 1:02 am

Pretty damn funny. I’m actually surprised at the lack of shrieking from Finland – perhaps, due to the low clarity of the photos, they didn’t yet “get” the fact that the armed drunk is a jab at their crazed, drugged, armed school shooters of recent months (Matti Saari and that other oaf from Youtube)…


adam 01.21.09 at 7:32 am

great public art? try the moscow metro, it’s absolutely stunning:


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