Bastokalypse by M.S. Bastian and Isabelle L.

Is context everything? Maybe not, but it means a lot…

Simply put Bastokalypse is a book depicting genocide and war. So far so good (or not, of course… nothing is simple, as Sempé would put it…), the problem is that the authors, M. S. Bastian and Isabelle L., use the derisive ironic expression typical of comical comics as transformed by the Gary Panter, Mark Beyer ratty line aesthetic school (aka Art Brut).

What’s the difference between Bastokalypse and Zbigniew Libera’s Lego Concentration Camp art piece, then? (The comparison is not mine: being a orihon, concertina bound book – see below -, Bastokalypse has a long drawn strip on one side and an essay about the iconography of violence by Konrad Tobler on the other; Libera’s toys are part of a long list of references summoned by Tobler; more about this later.)

Bastokalypse by M. S. Bastian and Isabelle L., Verlag Scheidegger & Spies, 2010.

 From left to right: Goch Museum director Stephan Mann, Isabelle L., M. S. Bastian, 2010 (Bastokalypse is on display in the background). (See also here.)

 Zbigniew Libera’s Correcting Device: Lego Concentration Camp (1996).

As a gallery comic Bastokalypse is a continuous sequence of black-and-white paintings: 32 canvases (3 ½ x 5 ½ feet each), forming a continuous 168 feet long drawn strip. The book has 32 action packed double-page spreads in baroque, claustrophobiac, horror vacui, nightmarish, compositions. Numerous cultural references  collapse the difference between high and low: from Ronald McDonald to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, from Gary Panter’s Valise to Jacques Callot’s La Pendaison (The Hanging Tree) and Otto Dix’s Der Krieg (The War)…

Pablo Picasso, Mark Beyer, Ghost Face, Jack…

Picasso again, José Guadalupe Posada, 9/11.

On the other hand, here’s how Stephen C. Feinstein described Zbigniew Libera’s Correcting Device: Lego Concentration Camp:

Each unit of the seven-box set contained a different aspect of a concentration camp. The larger boxes showed the entire concentration camp, with buildings, gallows (one showing an inmate being hanged), and inmates behind barbed wire or marching in line in and out of the camp. An entry gate similar to the stylized “Arbeit Macht Frei” entry point at Oswiecim is included, although without the German inscription. The guards, in black shiny uniforms, came from the regular LEGO police sets. The inmates came from LEGO medical or hospital sets. A second box showed a crematoria belching smoke from three chimneys, with sonnderkammando [sic] or other inmates carrying a corpse from the gassing room. The smaller boxes depict a guard bludgeoning an inmate, medical experiments, another hanging, and a commandant, reminiscent of something more from the Soviet Gulag than the Nazi concentration camp system, as he is bedecked with medals and wears a red hat. Some faces on both inmates and guards are slightly manipulated with paint, to make mouth expressions turn down into sadness for the inmates, and upwards in some form of glee for the guards. The last box is one full of possessions, the type of debris painted by other artists and inspired by the vast array of loots collected by the S.S. in the Kanada warehouses at Birkenau.

Libera calls his Pop cum Conceptual Art projects (i. e.: toys) “Correcting Devices” because he supposedly wants to correct the wrong info given to children about the world. José Cardoso did a brilliant analysis (in Portuguese, though) of this particular Libera work. He did it using as theoretical framework the visual rhetoric findings of the Belgian mu group. He basically concludes that, with a few changes (the suppression of the vivid colors, typical of the Lego construction toys, for instance) Libera’s Lego Concentration Camp functions in the interpenetration rhetorical mode: two distant spaces meet in a third space where both may co-exist at the same time. This third space is constructed by the viewers according to their interpretation. Said rhetorical mode is often used to provoke laughter, for instance, in Monty Python’s famous Greek vs. German philosophers soccer match.

Interpenetration in Bastokalypse exists between all the aforementioned serious historical and cultural references and a tradition of comical caricature dating back to newspaper comics and animation during the first half of the 20th century.  This tradition was revived and transformed during the second half of the same century by the underground and alternative movements.

The way in which we represent the Shoah has been a matter of debate for decades, of course. Libera’s Correcting Device: Lego Concentration Camp was, as expected, polemical from the beginning. Stephen C. Feinstein:

During May 1997, Libera was invited to display his other pop art pieces in the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but was asked by Jan Stanislaw Wojciechowski, the curator, not to bring Lego. […]  He wound up withdrawing from the exhibition.

I don’t know the reasons why people found the Lego concentration camp offensive. Maybe they associate a toy with children’s puerile pleasure trivializing (and, in a way, mocking) the Holocaust? Anyway, nothing seems to shock people much these days. In more recent times a set was purchased by the Jewish Museum in New York and  the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw acquired Libera’s concentration camp from a Norwegian art collector for $71,800. The consensus seems to be that Libera’s piece is a criticism of the manipulation of young people by educative systems. Also, the Lego connection is a criticism of corporate culture.

I’ll bring to the table another decisive factor, in my humble opinion, of course: Libera’s work is part of a high art tradition that legitimizes it and narrows the set of possible interpretations. In other words: it brings with it all the weight of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called cultural capital.

Does Bastokalypse share the same privilege? The publishers and curators who support Isabelle L. and M. S. Bastian’s work surely try: galleries in Switzerland (Labo and Papier Gras) specialized in the exhibition and support of the comics avant-garde and graphic art in general function like other more mainstream gallery venues.  Konrad Tobler’s essay tries to give the work a theoretical frame that includes it among many illustrious and not so illustrious (in a post-modern mish-mash) forefathers.

Do they succeed? I’m not so sure. I, for one, view Bastokalypse as an interesting and impressive effort (ten years in the making), but also as a message that’s undermined by its own expression collapsing in the process. Is M. S. Bastian’s and Isabelle L.’s irony completely intended? If not, they delude themselves, if it is I can’t accept it. Call me square if you will or whatever, but I will say it just the same: in the name of the victims.  Comparing Bastokalypse with Francisco de Goya’s Los desastres de la guerra (The Disasters of War) or even with Jacques Tardi’s C’était la guerre de tranchées (It Was the War of the Trenches) doesn’t save it from being inconsistent (the comparison with Art Spiegelman’s Maus is more apt though: both books come from the same place; the difference is that Maus’ (in)expression is a lot more distanced). To end this post in a positive note: I don’t exactly dislike the Posadesque, dance of death, carnivalesque, derisive feel of it all. In the end we’re nothing: Bastokalypse blows up our feelings of self-importance. I may not exactly like it, but, with a few exceptions, that’s what comics have done best for decades…


Adolph Hitler, Mark Beyer, a mutant Mickey Mouse, and one of Charles Burns’ goons (M. S. Bastian and Isabelle L. avoided the controversial depiction of the Shoah).

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