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.


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