I love the fact that it's a children's game, I love childhood and its naivety, these are elements that play a major role in my work. Moreover, I see my whole career as a kind of game. I play a little with the world around me, with my expectations from myself, or with others expectations of me - in relation to the difference that seems to need to exist between art and design. When I created the clocks I defined them as works of art because they were produced in limited editions, which are expensive, and they found their way to museums(1).
Like a child who plays with our prejudices regarding design and art, who cannot separate a precious object from a simple one, Baas tramples history, disparages holy cows and chuckles. He tricks us a bit and his face looks out at us and reappears continuously throughout the exhibition, a fact which makes us forgive him for his actions. Baas questions the aura of stylized Baroque furniture and dares to claim that the iconic Memphis dresser might be more valuable when burnt and charred. Baas is a designer of squiggly furniture, who works against all rules of proportion but stabilizes them against reason and sculpts furniture out of clay like a child who has just discovered the sense of touch.
This same boy, Baas, who reflects what we tend to think of exhibitions or exhibits almost immediately, invites us, through the installation "Baas is in town!", to his circus. This is an ostensibly innocent circus whose purpose is to entertain and amuse us with music and a happy atmosphere, but is also filled with hidden and overt symbols and contains additional layers of meaning that must be exposed.
Maarten Baas, Baas is in town!, 2014. As presented in the exhibition "Hide & Seek - Maarten Baas" at the Design Museum Holon.
Photo: Shai Ben Efraim
The pattern of an amusement park, carnival or circus is used in visual culture as an allegory that presents the viewers' with their habits, views, or beliefs while allowing these to be reflected in their own actions. This is a suitable setting in which a softening of an often severe criticism can take place. This criticism can sometimes be well disguised and require deciphering and at other times, is quickly exposes and arouses discomfort.
In the 1960s, Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term "Carnaval" to describe a situation flooded with ambivalent symbols. The carnival was perceived by Bakhtin as a negative of reality in which the most important element is laughter. But this laughter is not ironic, satirical, or parodic. It stems from a certain break in reality, from the ambivalence of human cognition and perception. In the carnival, the balance of power shifts, as it constitutes an antithesis to dreary daily reality. The carnival holds a break of the conventional hierarchies, the blurring of boundaries between the performance and actors and the spectators. The laughter here is directed at all of the participants, who are laughing being laughed at at the same time. (2)
Baas originally created the "Baas is in Town!" instillation in 2014 as part of his criticism of Milan's annual design fair, thus expressing his love-hate relationship with the concept. Though Baas's eyes, it seems that at the fair and the new products or ideas presented in it do not matter, but only the image that will receive the highest number of Facebook or Instegram likes.
During an entertaining solo performance about the circus, Baas chose to appear as a ring master while using and directing the captive audience, laughing with them but also at them, and challenging design conventions, rational arguments, fears and aesthetic judgment based on predetermined criteria. By altering the conventional power structure and hierarchy, Baas mocks prevailing ideas of creativity, design, discrimination and value.
The flickering lights, the dizzying turnstile set in the middle of the room, the distorted mirrors, the cheap neon signs and the video through which we glimpse the sad and lonely life of the mythical red nosed clown, are all borrowed from the world of childhood and function as tools that soften any kind of criticism. Thus, it is possible to turn visitors, who are not aware or prepared, into active participants who benefit from the experience and thereby demonstrate the artist's point.
The original installation "Baas is in Town" as it was first presented at the Milan Design fair, 2014
Banksy, the British street artist, used this multi-level ambivalence as well in 2015 when he took over an abandoned amusement park in the south of England and gathered dozens of installations and exhibits within it - some created by him and others by other artists. In Banksy's "Dismaland," which unlike the Baas's circus, expresses dimness even in its name and logo (which is a burned variation of Disney's familiar logo), bizarre, disturbing and frightening situations are directed using the existing elements under the guise of conventional amusement park activities.
From the security guards at the entrance, through the facility operators to the new and tragic faces of the beloved Disney characters, this project allowed Banksy to laugh at the viewers with their help, as if to trick them into a plot, thus expressly shattering all illusions and innocence associated with childhood experiences of this kind. At Banksy's amusement park, the visitors are confronted with topics that are hard to digest, such as refugees, institutional blindness, voyeurism, snooping and ridicule of the concept of the "classic" bourgeois family in Western culture - two white parents, a son, a daughter and a pedigree golden retriever - the same family that seems to be the main audience in such parks.
Dismaland, Banksy, 2015
True, Baas does not criticize us harshly for our indifference to the horrors of the world, in a manner reserved for horror films, but as an artist who uses design to convey a message, as he puts it, he tricks with us with great elegance and confidence, while carefully aestheticizing the criticism. Baas clearly presents themes that designers or other artists avoid dealing with directly when it comes to their work. One of these themes is the void created between projects, which is usually not represented in various retrospective exhibitions. Baas represents this void in his work in a series of videos in which he plays various roles but in all of them is in a state of waiting.
Like StefanSagmeister and Jaime Hayon (whose exhibitions were previously held at the museum), Baas belongs to a generation of actor-designers who communicate with us as viewers and accompany us while we are touring the exhibition. He makes use of his acting abilities and expresses them not only in his actual works, which reveal his theatrical imprint, one that contradicts the unwritten laws of good design, but also implants his seemingly graceful and naive image, which looks out at us, in observation, from among the exhibits.
Maarten Baas, Baas is in Town!, 2014, From the exhibition "Hide and Seek" at the Design Museum Holon.
Photo: Shai Ben Efraim
(1) Maarten Baas, from an interview made by the auther and Shira kimmel, 2018.
(2) Bakhtin, Mikhail (1941). Rabelais and his world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Baas is in Town!
Shira Kimmel and Adi Hamer
In a conversation held during his visit to Design Museum Holon in preparation for the exhibition
Hide and Seek – Maarten Baas, the Dutch designer spoke of whether he defines himself as a designer or an artist and about his vision for the exhibition in Israel. Now Six months later, did we manage to fulfill his vision?
A solo exhibition of the work of Dutch designer Maarten Baas, who is considered one of the most influential young designers of our time. His theatrical, playful, and radical style moves in some of his work between surrealism and primitivism, and zigzags between design and art.