Bas Jan Ader

Bas Jan Ader was a Dutch Conceptual and Performance artist living in California.  His relatively small body of work consists of photographs and short films prior to his disappearance in the process of completing the second part of a trilogy called ‘In search of the Miraculous’ in 1975.  The first part of the trilogy involved him walking through Los Angeles to the sea in the night, and is documented in photographs.  The second had him sailing solo across the north Atlantic in a ridiculously small boat, and the third was to be a night walk through Amsterdam.   Three weeks into the sea crossing radio contact was lost and his boat was found nine months later but the body was never found.  I came across the name of Bas Jan Ader for the first time researching Tacita Dean who has done several works around the idea of disappearing at sea.

As I see it his work explores ramdomness, chance, the loss of control, playing with gravity, exploring the accidental and generally around loss. The films have comic and melancholic elements, and momentary fun, but he also wrote notes and statements about each piece, so that they could be re-enacted. He is not a man to whom I would lend my bicycle:

He also did a piece called ‘I am too Sad to Tell You’, in which after the introductory title the piece was of the artist crying.  Was he acting or wasn’t he.. and does it matter or not?

There was an exhibition of Aders work in London in 2006 called ‘All is Falling’ which was reviewed by Henry Dorment.  The review describes the tragic circumstances of the artists early life: he was born in 1942 in north Holland which was then occupied by Nazi Germany. His father was a Calvinist Minister and he and his wife were using their home as a refuge for Jews hiding from the Nazis.  When Ader was only a few months old his father was arrested and shot in the local woods.  His mother was subsequently given 15 minutes to leave the house, and hurriedly threw all their clothes and possession out of the windows into the garden below.  Dormont points out these experiences reoccur in much of Ader’ work, and comments that the artist was probably profoundly depressed, and highlights the questions that have always hung over his disappearance as to whether it was some form accidental death or whether it was an elaborately planned suicide.  

As often happens, knowing the personal circumstances of the artist changed how I understand the work, unhelpfully: instead of making my own sense of what I see I try to figure out the artist’s sense instead.


Jane Frere – Return of the Soul

Last summer during the festival I went to see an exhibition at Patriothall called Return of the Soul designed and organised by Jane Frere.  It was about the ethnic cleansing of Palestine which occurred in 1948, atocities committed by the new Israeli army and permitted by the British Army which should have been prevented by the British Army occupying the land under the terms of the British Mandate.   750,000 palestinians were driven from their homes, a number which has now swelled to over 4 million living in a state of limbo in refugee camps with nowhere to go.   Jane Frere spent time living as an artist in residence with Palestinian Refugees and this exhibition was made during that time.  The figures were made by the women she worked with and capture a people hanging in limbo, on the move with no where to go.


Having seen this exhibition I read Ilan Pappe’s book on the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

Tacita Dean on Donald Crowhurst

Back to Tacita Dean..again.  She has made three films inspired by Donald Crowhurst: Disappearance at Sea, Disappearance at Sea II and Teignmouth Electron, and stills for these are shown below.disappearance


The first two films explore the roles of lighthouses, and time, and their existance at the edge of land and use of time for navigation in a way that underlines the vastness and timelessness of the seas.  The second explores the sad hulk that is all that remains of the Teignmouth Electron, Donald Crowhurst’ boat washed up on a beach in the Cayman Islands.

I am interested in Donald Crowhursts story given our brief on celebrity, how he became trapped by his fame and renown leading eventually to his tragic and lonely death in the mid Atlantic.


“Donald Crowhurst was one of nine competitors in the 1968 solo Round the World Yacht Race.  He was a family man with a struggling business and no professional sailing experience, but his determination to to enter and to win set him on a path of delusion that swept up others and trapped him into leaving in an unfit boat, ill prepared and afraid.”  (Dean 2006.)  I watched a documentary about Crowhurst last year and I remember he was loaned money by a business man to build his boat, on condition that if he did not participate in the race he would have to repay the money, and Crowhurst did not have this option as it would have made him bankrupt.  There was huge publicity across Britain and he became a tremendous celebrity, even though as the departure date of the race due near he realised he was hopelessly ill-prepared and lacked the experience he required.  He left Britain on the last possible day, and then once at sea and in mortal danger devised a scheme to enable him to return home safely and avoid disgrace without going through the very dangerous passages of the race which would have surely killed him.  He intended to lurk in the south Atlantic out of harms way, filing false position reports until the other race goers had returned home and then he could slink quietly back into port.. Unfortunately all the other racers dropped out so he would have returned as the winner, his records would have been scrutinised and his deception would have been exposed.  Crowhurst struggled with fear and loneliness and desperation on his yacht, eventually becoming mentally deranged and his body was never found..nor that of the ships chronometer.

Teignmouth Council had reaped huge publicity from Crowhursts venture and was planning to give him a huge welcome and had all sorts of plans set up when the sad end of his race became clear.  A book on the Crowhurst quotes the minutes of a meeting of Teignmouth Community Council from their point of view “Despite the sad end the voyage has brought up more publicity than this Committee has managed in fifty years.  We have had this extremely cheaply, and I hope the town appreciates it”..

The fame and publicity Donald Crowhurst received at the beginning of his venture in the end became a millstone round his neck.. it was acceptable, probably enjoyable, when all was going well, but the anticipation of the public humiliation and shame of failure was not an option he could contemplate.  His story is one of great human sadness.

Yoko Ono

I went to Yoko Ono’s exhibition at the Baltic yesterday, titled Between the Sky and My Head, … BRILLIANT!

The first piece I experienced was called  A Maze; an attendant approached me before I entered and warned me some people found it disorientating, there were some dead ends and I should take it slowly and gently.


It is a strangely lovely experience finding one’s way to the centre, via various dead ends which are invisible until you reach them, to the centre where there is a sort Zen space.  And although the maze is situated in the centre of a gallery with lots of other people there, actually walking the maze I felt totally detached.  In practice the maze represents a series of choices: this way or that, one way is a dead end, the other way leads to a choice: this way or that, one way leads to a dead end, the other way leads to a choice: this way or that, one way leads to a dead end, the other way leads to a choice.. etc.  Thinking about it afterwards, the maze also brings to mind the concept of ‘glass ceilings’, a way of making physical the invisible barriers to progress apparent in so many areas of life.

The next piece work was in a small side room on its own, again with an attendant standing by.  It was called Touch Me 2008, but after being there for a while and watching how people behaved I wanted to add the subtitle (Most People Don’t.)


There is a notice advising visitors this is a participatory work, we are invited to dip our hands in the water and then touch the parts of the body displayed.  In that quiet atmosphere with just the attendant watching I did as instructed and touched her lips in the first box.. they were unexpectedly soft and life like.. it was too personal an encounter for me; erotic intimate and embarassing.  Two of the toes were missing on the right foot and the attendant explained that was why he was there, apparently this was the second foot they were on as some people were tempted to pull the toes off and they did not want any more damaged.  I had a vision of a back room at the Baltic with all these feet and other body parts of Yoko Ono lined up on shelves.

In the blurb from the Baltic about the exhibition it said ” Yoko Ono’s poetic and political approach to art is explored through sculpture, photography, film, installation and performance.  Ono often uses simple materials such as water light and the human voice to make her works, however equally integral to Ono’s work is the realisation of the works in the mind of the viewer.”  This last bit really makes sense to me, because it has been through experiencing them in practice that they have made sense to me and got my mind wandering in different unexpected directions.    There were lots of other things too: Morning Beams were a series of white nylon ropes cutting diagonally across the room from ceiling to floor and catching the sunlight.  These were inspired by seeing Jacobs ladders in her kitchen one morning, and the ropes were meant to represent the sun beams, although in practice they also looked like a though they were catching the  sun instead.  Two short films of performances of Cut Piece, in which she sat on a stage in her best dress and the audience came and cut bits off it until there was nothing left…… and lots more.

Some of Ono’s writings were on the wall:

“Among my instruction paintings, my interest is mainly in ‘painting to construct in your head’.  In your head , for instance, it is possible for a straight line to exist -etc..

Event, to me, is not an assimilation of all the other arts as Happening seems to be, but an extrication from the various sensory perceptions.  It is not ‘a get togetherness’ as most happenings are, but a dealing with oneself.  Also it has no script as happenings do, though it has something that starts it moving – the closest word for it may be a ‘wish’ or ‘hope’.”

When I got home I wrote down a list of my reactions/thoughts from the various pieces I saw there:

Involving/Sensory/Aesthetic/Challenging personal boundaries/Provocative/ Beautiful/ Violent/Revolting/Philosophical/Uplifting/ About being human/Stillness………..

which is quite a lot to take from one exhibition.