Bas Jan Ader: Quicksilver and Gone

We are media saturated and mired in a surfeit of images. Representation abounds. We encounter and are faced with one another and the details of lives too hasty and spliced onto fleeting activity to cohere into meaning. We want to see and be aware of everything—archiving or stockpiling pictures and information for some other, later time and a different place well beyond here when its stuff, its matter, might be essential. More is always wanted, more is produced, looked at and consumed with a focus akin to the surface entrapment of a Mobius strip, engaged in endless self-examination.

Still, a place and an object beyond the near and attainable is where contemporary culture’s desire is also directed. Seeking implies an unattainable goal but to colour the search as pure avidity is to overlook the sustaining quality of hope. Even if the goal is ineffable, if there is seeking, there is hope in achievement. Hope is vulnerable and tender; it flickers and could easily be extinguished. It is human and sustaining.

Between 1999 and 2007 there was at least one solo show every year, and in 2010, two major museum exhibitions about the work and life of Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch American artist born in 1942 in Winschoten, Holland. He emigrated to the United States in 1960, travelled, studied and then graduated with a BFA in 1965 from Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, a city he loved for its sprawling geography, its proximity to the grand-scale vagaries of natural forces and the possible magic of American dream culture. In 1967 he received his Master of Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate University. His art production in volume was small, the period brief. He disappeared at sea in 1975 while engaged in making part 2 of a three-part artwork titled “In Search of the Miraculous,” its potential impact, his future achievements, unmeasurable. The vastness of possibilities, what he might have done, is a sea whose horizon is over there.

In Search of the Miraculous

“What the sense of the ineffable perceives is something objective which cannot be conceived by the mind nor captured by the imagination or feeling, something real which, by its very essence is beyond the reach of thought and feeling,” philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (Farrar Strauss and Geroux/New York, 1951). I think he speaks to the desired achievement of Bas Jan Ader, although this book was published when Ader would have been nine years old and living in the Netherlands, and while Ader later studied philosophy I don’t think, given the philosophers whose writings were associated with Ader, that Heschel would have been among them. Cohesion in life and work is what Ader sought, allowing only a sliver between them, if even that, a sliver that couldn’t have been pared or further parsed, so that the gap between life and art, between art and its apprehension was imperceptible, so that it was annealed and sealed into the truth.

What an unlikely hero Ader is for the 21st-century art world in his pursuit of Heschel’s ineffable, residing in a place beyond the horizon where the world rounds and traces slip away. The proliferation of exhibitions, books and films on Ader, however, is tribute to the tenacity and commitment of the devoted and to our abiding desire for something more, something immaterial and mysterious. Think about the titles of recent productions on Ader. From 2006, a major exhibition and catalogue for the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam titled “Bas Jan Ader, Please Don’t Leave Me”; in 2008, Here Is Always Somewhere Else: The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader, a film running 103 minutes; and in 2013, a biography that is a seamless recounting of his life and work as I expect Ader would have wished them to be read, titled Bas Jan Ader, Death Is Elsewhere. Elusive and unavailable, quicksilver and gone. Still, as much as it’s the myth that has engaged a following, Bas Jan Ader did produce work of real and lasting significance, resonant of the period and place in which it was made as well as the biography that drove it and was its source.

Alexander Dumbadze, the author of Bas Jan Ader, Death Is Elsewhere (University of Chicago Press, 2013), works through the production of Ader’s art pieces, incorporating them chronologically and thematically into the dailiness of Ader’s short life, acknowledging in his methodology Ader’s desired intention to work and live with no screen mediating between. This was a pursuit, Dumbadze writes, of concrete truths and the elimination of artifice, a seeking after authenticity. “At stake,” he writes, “was a reorientation of the art: the way it functioned, the way it looked, the way it interacted with its public.” That goal was accomplished, he concluded, but only at the expense of his life. “His death—so sudden, so dramatic, without art historical precedent—necessitates talking about his life alongside his art.”

A series of works—short films, performances and installations—focusing on the theme of falling was produced over two years, beginning in 1970. But falling—the doing or the being done to—and the fall, with its originary, biblical associations resonated like a tuning fork inside his own history. His father was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, a duty his mother assumed after his father’s death. The Fall was a familiar concept, although for Bas Jan Ader a more significant component was the exercise of will. There was another fall, I suspect even more shaping than the one associated with grace or sin. This was the Second World War, and Ader’s father was an organizer in the resistance movement, active in saving Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps. He was arrested, taken in 1944 with other prisoners into a forest and shot, where he fell among the trees. Bas Jan Ader’s piece Untitled (Swedish Fall), 1971, is two colour photographs set beside each other, both showing a pine forest. In the photograph on the left Ader stands among the trees. In the photo on the right he lies face down, felled, with a number of trees also downed, beside him.

Volition, will and predestiny—a force that can’t be resisted, like gravity—failure in being unable, and in the physical insult of losing your balance and tripping up, or the slapstick humour and indignity of the pratfall, were all contained within these works. And questions of passivity and how much resistance. The absurd entered the questioning as well. Ader read Camus, among other philosophers. Dumbadze looks at Camus’s essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” in following Ader’s search and notes the philosopher’s question about the ability to function in an increasingly alien world. Freedom is achieved in recognizing what is foreordained or unavoidable. It’s his naming this state of absurdity in which your determination is only how to live the life you’ve been assigned, your choice being the manner in which you do this—and the example, always with Ader, of the way in which his father chose to conduct his life and the truly heroic way in which he lived his last moments.

Three short films, Fall 1, Los Angeles, 1970, Fall 2, Amsterdam, 1971 and Broken Fall (Organic), Amsterdamse Bos, Holland, 1971, embody in the actual sense all of Ader’s issues regarding the voluntary or unavoidable act of falling. While he is present in each of them as the actor who is falling, he pointedly distinguishes his work from that of his contemporaries. In an interview with artist and writer Willoughby Sharp published in Avalanche in 1971, Ader said, “I do not make body sculptures, body art or body works. When I fell off the roof of my house, or into a canal, it was because gravity made itself master over me.” Art may have been the medium and a gallery the venue in which the short films were shown but the subject was an engagement in the tragic and sometimes tragicomic inevitability of life.

In Fall 1 he rolls off the edge and disappears into the shrubs. The film ends but doesn’t conclude. Ader had yielded to the unavoidable force of gravity, and vanished.

Fall 2, Amsterdam_, 1971

In Fall 2, Amsterdam, Ader is on a bicycle, peddling beside a canal on an Amsterdam street, when he swerves toward the water. The black and white film is only 19 seconds long. The water is opaque and closes over him. The pull here between an outside force, like gravity, and the will or impulsion of the actor shifts, and the tone has coloured will a sombre shade of dark. In the next “Fall” film, Broken Fall (Organic), the slender figure of Ader edges along a narrowing branch of a tree overhanging a shallow ditch. He hangs 15 or 20 feet above the water. He is still and then his grip begins to loosen, his legs sway, he stills himself once more, evidencing his control over the situation, looks down, releases one hand and then the other and drops into the shallow canal below. He made the choice evident but also evident was that real choice is a brief illusion.

In the years between 1970 and his disappearance in 1975 he made other works. A silent black and white film at three and one-half minutes titled I’m Too Sad to Tell You, 1971, shows Ader sitting at ease on a straight-backed chair, his hands in his lap. He begins to weep and the tears run unabated down his cheeks, dripping from his chin, the flowing without cease, his sorrow quietly and totally absorbing. The grief is inherent and Ader becomes its vessel, drawing viewers in to the clearly felt pathos and unnamed tragedy to which he and we are helpless not to respond.

Beginning in 1972 and continuing for about a year Ader was engrossed in an activity he identified as an artwork. This was commodity trading. Done privately, and conducted in a sector entirely apart from the art world, he researched and executed, with varying degrees of success, a practice of futures trading. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were artists he admired, and humour and wit and a high degree of self-awareness were present in all his work. While irony didn’t appear to inflect his apprehension of the world or the manner of his engagement, both his own puckish inclination and his history, which we now know, made futures trading an interestingly pointed choice. His own future has become the source of much speculation, and its outcome far from secure.

In 1973 he produced a series of photographs shown as either 14 or 18 images in a precisely orchestrated gallery exhibition. The work was titled In Search of the Miraculous (One Night in Los Angeles), which when exhibited was part 1 of the planned trilogy, “In Search of the Miraculous.” Part 2 would have been a record of Ader’s solo crossings of the Atlantic in the smallest craft to have completed the voyage and part 3 could have been the bookend installation of the photo series similar to works shown at the Clare Copley Gallery in Los Angeles in April 1975. More spectacle than was customary for Ader, the Copley exhibition included a student choir singing sea shanties, which were recorded at the opening and then played for the duration. The words of the songs were mounted on one wall and Ader’s 14 photographs on another, images documenting his travels on foot though one night in LA, and taken by his wife.

Broken Fall (Organic), 1971

The photographs are shadowy, dark and illuminated only by brief flares of light from Ader’s own flashlight, the city lights beyond, or haze and halos of light reflected by mist or smog. Ader himself is barley visible. We know the transit is his but not because we see his face. The final photograph sets itself in the painterly tradition of the solitary figure, Caspar David Friedrich’s Rückenfigur facing away and set against a vast and untraversable distance. Ader stands at the furthermost edge of the shore. The tide moves toward him, the ocean stretches beyond. The city’s lights, a connection to the populated world, are a faint glimmer on his left, insignificant against the countering space elsewhere.

It was Ader’s plan to make the crossings in his 13-foot sailboat in two or three months. On July 9, 1975 he set sail. On April 18, 1976 his boat, Ocean Wave, was found almost submerged but upright, off the coast of Ireland.

This searching for the miraculous is a cohesive act of art making in the living, an acknowledgement of Duchamp’s question—what is art?—his answer lying in the doing and the designation. Through Duchamp’s agency a porcelain urinal became “Fountain” and the sail across the Atlantic an artwork pure, finally, in the way Ader had sought because it was simply not amenable or available to representation. He had removed himself and any possible mediation. He would have known this when he set out.

Like it was for his father who in 1937 declared he must travel by bicycle to Jerusalem—as metaphoric and unattainable a destination hovering in its own haze of rose and golden light—so it was the shimmering horizon at which Bas Jan Ader pointed his small boat. His father’s solipsistic, singular odyssey was completed. Bas Jan Ader’s may well have been, too.

Volume 32, Number 3: Dimensions: 2 & 3

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #127, published August 2013.

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