Bas Jan Ader


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Dutch artist. He is sometimes described as a Conceptual artist, but the term seems especially inappropriate to one for whom the physical acting out of the idea was so vital. He was born in Winschoten; his parents were both pastors. In 1944 his father was executed by the Nazis for harbouring Jews, a dramatic circumstance which has sometimes been related to some of the self-destructive elements of his later career. Leaving his studies at the Rietveld Academy unfinished, he arrived in California in 1963, after the yacht on which he had been serving as a deckhand was shipwrecked, In California he studied art and philosophy. In 1970 he made his first film, Fall 1. This shows him perched on the roof of his house, seated on a chair. He leans to one side, falls off the chair and rolls off the roof. Falling and gravity were a theme of subsequent films. Broken Fall (Organic) (1971) was filmed in a park in Amsterdam. The tall, gangly figure of the artist is seen hanging from a branch that overhangs a stream. He sways from side to side. At the end he lets go, either deliberately or because he can hang no longer. The movement of the figure in the water becomes less significant than the ripples in the stream or the bouncing of the branch. Richard Dorment has suggested that the fate of his father, who was shot in the woods, was a point of reference. His best-known film is the ten-minute long I'm too sad to tell you, in which he is seen in close-up, weeping. As with the films about falling, questions are raised as to how far we are seeing a calculated act and how far something out of the artist's control. Ader's final work was entitled In Search of the Miraculous. It followed a piece in which he had been recorded walking, dangerously and illegally, along the freeways of southern California. Ader undertook a solo trans-Atlantic crossing in what would have been the smallest craft ever to achieve such a voyage. The night before his departure there was a performance of sea shanties at the gallery of his Los Angeles dealer. A similar performance was planned for his arrival in Falmouth, which he had calculated would be anything between sixty and ninety days later. After thirty days radio contact was lost. The boat eventually turned up half-sunk and empty. The exact circumstances of Ader's death are unknown.

Further Reading

R. Dorment, ‘The artist who sailed to oblivion’, The Daily Telegraph (9 May 2006)

Subjects: Art.

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