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March 26, 2007
It is often said that performance artists - performers, in the field of conceptual art - get lost in their artistic performance. Usually, that's a kind of a positive, reassuring metaphorical statement about the depth and seriousness of the artist and his work. Not the case of Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch performance artist of the early 1970s, who has a body of work making him unequivocally the most qualified artist to be featured in the LAS arts section. Ader, you see, was literally lost at sea during his final performance, a 1975 project entitled In Search of the Miraculous II in which he attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a small sailing boat. Having departed from North America, Ader never reached Europe; only his half-submerged boat was found six months later off the coast of Ireland.

Who was Bas Jan Ader?
Born in the Netherlands in 1942, Ader studied art at the Dutch Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs, and later, after various adventurous sailing trips, moved to the United States in 1963. There he studied philosophy in California, later attending the Academy of Art in Los Angeles and ultimately becoming a member of the UC Irvine Art Faculty. Although he contributed heavily to Southern California's fledgling performance art community from 1969 until 1975, today he is an under-represented figure in the history of conceptual art.

Bas Jan Ader's Work
Bas Jan Ader's artistic experimentation encompasses the convergent mediums of photography, video, live performance, and, some may say, his own life. Throughout his artistic career, Ader was interested in the artistic persona and the concept of boundaries between art and life. Along with philosophers like Georg Hegel, Ader's work was largely inspired by the practices of conceptual and performance artists, such as the Process Art Movement, that were emerging as he began his career. The pieces he produced thus often bore the trademark of these influences, focusing on the body.

Like many of his contemporaries, Ader used photography to document his performances. His first serious piece of work came in 1969 with a photographic self-portrait of himself crying, with the title I'm Too Sad to Tell You. Ader was fascinated by moments of transition, those points in which the subject loses physical or emotional control over himself. In his films and pictures, Ader portrays situations - in which he himself is the main character - in which that loss of control takes on existential dimensions. I'm Too Sad to Tell You was his earliest attempt at documenting those moments when, rather than grasping life, we are helpless in the clutches of existence. From then on, his work became increasingly more complex, focusing mainly on his own falling body. Ader is known for a series of Fall Pieces in which he photographed and filmed his own body falling interchangeably from a tree in a meadow, the roof of his 1920s-style California bungalow, or the bank of an Amsterdam canal. Art critic Anna Tilroe (Volkskrant, a Dutch Newspaper, 16-07-93) calls Ader's art "a metaphor of falling."

Different versions of I'm Too Sad to Tell You exist. While the filmed version gives an idea of emotions in passing time, the sadness in the photography is concentrated into a heartbreaking close-up. Despite the intimacy of the picture, every trace of personal anecdote is lacking. Even the title speaks distance: the words I'm Too Sad to Tell You emphasize the amount of sadness but withhold the reasons for it, showing the surface but failing to scratch it and expose what lies beneath. Betty van Garrel (1972, in the NRC-Handelsblad) seized on this in an early criticism of Ader, saying "Ader is een sentimentele looser, een romantische softie, een problemgeval en daarin niet bijster origineel." Little translation is needed: Ader is a sentimental looser, a romantic softie, a problem case and not even original in that.

Contrarily, credit is given to Ader by Brad Spence, Acting Director of the Art Gallery at UC Irvine: "Ader was unique among his contemporaries for emphasizing existentially-based pathos and melodrama in a Conceptual Art."

Although he might have been unique among his contemporaries, he was thought by these contemporary artist colleagues to feel a certain rivalry for the body-performer Chris Burden, who, among other endeavors, shot himself in the arm as part of an artistic performance (which, I guess, also entitles him to a place on the List Of Artists To Be Feature In The Lost At Sea Art Section).

Lost at Sea - In Search of the Miraculous II
After establishing himself as an artist in California, Ader imagined a leap back to Europe, but in a form in keeping with the theme of isolated, stranded nomadicism: a solo voyage across the Atlantic, from Falmouth, Massachusetts to Falmouth, Cornwall in England in the thirteen-foot sail boat "Ocean Wave."

After a successful show at the Claire Copland Gallery in Los Angeles, Ader was offered an Exhibition by the Amsterdam Galerie Art & Project in September of 1975, in the Groninger Museum. To contribute a special piece, Ader wanted to realize a second version of an earlier work, In Search of the Miraculous, which stands for Bas Jan Ader's main subject - the artistic search. The first version of this piece consisted of 16 black and white photos, the last of which shows Ader standing along the Pacific coast at night, illuminating the water with a flashlight, representing the artist in search of the immaterial powers of the muse

In Search of the Miraculous II was imagined as a piece in three parts: departure, crossing, and arrival. Untaken with every expectation of success, Ader had arranged for the show at the Groninger Museum in Amsterdam to document the feat of his crossing, and planned to exploit the success of the sixty-day crossing with further exhibitions of material - diaries, film, photography - generated by the piece.

Ader prepared himself carefully, going so far as to have his appendix removed three months before the departure, so as to rule out the chance of appendicitis en route. In the summer of 1975, precautions taken, he set sail from Falmouth, on Massachusetts' Cape Cod, slipping his boat into the water on July 9th. On April 9th the following spring, exactly nine months after his departure, the "Ocean Wave" was found half-submerged off the coast of Ireland by a Spanish fishing trawler, hauled aboard, and then turned over to the marine authorities in La Coruņa.

The official police report speculated that an explosion on board, as the result of propane gas leak from Ader's cooking equipment, caused a fatal explosion on board the craft. The main door, which Ader enforced with extra polyester for stronger support, was completely gone. It was to that door that Ader was, at all times of his journey, connected by a life-line, which would safe him from getting separated from his boat in the very likely case of being thrown overboard during rough seas.

Eric Ader, Bas Jan's brother and the Netherlands' current ambassador in Hanoi, himself an ardent sport sailor, has continually expressed doubts about the idea of Bas Jan blowing himself to smithereens while preparing a meal. However, he has never seen the remains of the boat himself - they disappeared from the docks two days before he and Bas Jan's wife arrived in La Coruņa. "Theft, corruption or diplomatic secret" are Eric Ader's explanations for his brother's untimely death. The fishermen, the Guardia Civil - or Interpol. It could have been any of them. "Bas Jan was a good sailor. The story about the explosion is not true - he used kerosene or paraffin to cook, not gas," he has been quoted as saying.

Neither Eric Ader, nor Mary Sue Andersen, Ader's widow, believe that Bas Jan wanted to disappear himself - in the event that he did not arrive on schedule, he specifically instructed his wife to refrain from starting a search for three months. Come hell or high water, Bas Jan expected to deliver his latest performance piece to the museum in Amsterdam.

A certain affinity of artistic performance and disappearance, however, cannot be denied: In the field of conceptual artists, disappearance as a part of artistic work has become, if not a standard, then at least a possibility: Chris Burden, the aforementioned body-performer, while paddling against the current in the Gulf of Mexico, went missing for a week. Burden's performance, ironically, was in homage to the surrealist Arthur Cravan, who set out to paddle the Gulf in the 1920s, never to return.

Bas Jan Ader Retrospective
A retrospective of the photography, collages, and films of Bas Jan Ader opens on September 29th at the University of California at Riverside's Sweeney Art Gallery. The Gallery will present a comprehensive look at the art and life of Ader, a project proposing the first traveling retrospective of Ader's work in response to the theme "Art is history, art is memory." This Exhibition was organized by UC Irvine, where Ader was teaching at the time of his death.

The exhibition runs from September 29th until December 12th, 1999, in the Main Gallery of the Sweeney Art facility. The opening reception and panel discussion will take place on Thursday, October 7th, at 5pm. Panelists include Brad Spence, exhibition curator; Jan Tumlir, art critic and essay contributor; and Mary Sue Andersen, Ader's widow and Art Department Chairperson at San Bernardino Valley College. The events at the Sweeney Gallery are free and open to the public.

SEE ALSO: www.basjanader.com

Samuel Klaus
Samuel Klaus, a native of Zurich, Switzerland, is a legal expert and a contributor-at-large for LAS magazine.

See other articles by Samuel Klaus.



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