A Dutch artist of Eurasian ancestry, Christiaan Bastiaans (b. 1951) makes multilayered, metaphorical works of art that investigate extremes of the human condition in a variety of mediums. Traveling to conflict areas and war zones in Asia and Africa, Bastiaans photographs and makes voice recordings of people whose lives have been altered by political and social crises. Back in the studio, he transforms the images and tragic tales into beautiful yet disturbing drawings, collages, sculptures and films. “Club Mama Gemütlich,” the artist’s first museum retrospective, presented nearly 100 of his compelling pieces from the past 20 years at the Kröller-Müller Museum, which has collected Bastiaans’s work in depth.
Designed by the artist to simulate the architectural layout of a classical Japanese Noh theater, the show was divided into 13 sections. The exhibition began with 56 works on paper that ranged from simple, surreal line drawings of rebel fighters and refugees to complex collages of transvestite warriors and fetuses with umbilical cords, layered over found battlefield photos and prints from wars past. These psychological fictions were contrasted elsewhere in the show with Bastiaans’s larger-than-life photographs of colorfully clad insurgents, piled-up supplies and cobbled-together tents, which are fetishized through his addition of threads, wires, pearls and other obsessively placed materials.
While Bastiaans’s two-dimensional works and assemblages are as fascinating as they are frightening, his textile sculptures and short film stole the show. The “Hurt Models,” which is the series title for the sculptures, are fragile figures made from printed and embroidered fabrics, papier-mâché, amulets, locks and various items collected on the artist’s journeys. Veiled and suspended on wires, they are ghostlike soldiers that ironically resemble the freakish barflies in Star Wars. Imaginative interpretations of the costumes worn by African rebels, who consider their outlandish outfits to be a protective skin, the pieces have equally fanciful titles, such as Modified Catwalk Model (In the Year of the Plague), 2001-03, and Madonna of Humility (For Trench Warfare Infantry), 1999-2002.
The final piece in the exhibition—the one that effectively contextualizes all of the preceding works—was the eponymously titled Club Mama Gemütlich (2009), Bastiaans’s recently completed, 28-minute film that stars the legendary Jeanne Moreau. The 81-year-old French actress plays La Vivre, a motherly spirit who watches over the wounded in a field hospital and warriors in a nightclub. She uses hand signals to convey her thoughts and emotions, and performs a voiceover reading of Bastiaans’s cryptic script. Screened in an army field tent, it brought viewers back to the trauma depicted in the earlier works, while providing the hope of healing for all of the suffering portrayed.
Photo: View of Christian Bastiaans’s exhibition, showing Club Mama Gemültich, 2009, film installation, 28 minutes; at the Kröller-Müller Museum.