Excerpt from Before the Miraculous: Bas Jan Ader in Claremont by Carrie Dedon
Bas Jan Ader’s short life and even shorter career are often overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding his tragic death. On July 9, 1975, Ader began what was intended to be the central component of a tri-part work entitled In Search of the Miraculous: a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Cod to England in a thirteen-foot-long sailboat. It would have been the smallest vessel ever to make that journey. Before departing, he had gone on a nighttime walk from the eastern edge of Los Angeles to the ocean. He exhibited the photographs documenting this performance, along with the printed lyrics of A Life on the Ocean Wave and a live performance of students singing sea shanties, at the Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles in 1975. He intended to repeat this night walk and mirror the pre-voyage exhibition at the Groningen Museum in the Netherlands following his safe arrival in Europe. But Ader lost radio contact three weeks into the trip, and eight months later his empty boat was discovered by Spanish fishermen off the coast of Ireland. Ader had disappeared, and what happened in the middle of the Atlantic remains a mystery.
Ader’s sudden death during his most ambitious performance retrospectively shaped the reading of his earlier work. He became understood as a tragic romantic hero, on a quest for an unobtainable and unidentifiable quality that ultimately cost him his life. As Brad Spence, the curator of Ader’s first United States retrospective (at the University of California, Irvine, in 1999), noted, “In considering the work of artist Bas Jan Ader, there is an almost irresistible temptation to lapse into speculative narratives of the sensational and popular variety. This is perfectly understandable, since his story climaxes with the artist lost at sea in a risky performance. …Responses to his work are rife with personal projections and detective-style sleuthing as to his psychological state and artistic intent.” In particular, Ader’s famous Fall pieces were reinterpreted in this vein, as the prophetic preludes of the hero’s final downfall, the desperate and self-destructive acts of a man questing for something that even he could not define. Indeed, Ader’s entire body of work became redefined as his lifelong search for whatever “the miraculous” might entail.
In 1965, Ader’s “search” brought him to Claremont, California. While he originally moved to this apparently un-miraculous location to obtain his MFA, and later an MA in philosophy, at Claremont Graduate School (CGS), it quickly became an important site for the development of his work and career. This was evident in Ader’s 1967 MFA thesis project, entitled Implosion, one of his earliest works exploring the concept of falling.
Thematically and physically, Implosion consisted of many complex components. Ader filled the exhibition space with two large, multimedia constructions containing six smaller works and a book filled with poems and lithographic drawings. Ader described the entire installation as an “environment” that was subdivided into three thematic categories: part and whole, real and illusionary, and rise and fall. This final theme, which was to become so essential to Ader’s later work, was evident in paintings, linens, films, and photographs with titles like Niagara Falls, Humpty Dumpty, and Plan for a Dangerous Journey (all three works, 1967). The poster for the project showed a photograph of Ader smoking a cigar and sitting in a chair on the roof of his Claremont home, surrounded by Pop art styled, cartoon clouds. Ader titled the poster The Artist Contemplating the Forces of Nature (1967).
In 1970 Ader gave into these forces of nature by pushing the theme of falling—and literally pushing himself—over the edge of the same house in Claremont. In his first Fall film, Fall I, Los Angeles, Ader sits in a chair on the roof of his home before falling and rolling off the roof, into the bushes below. Reminiscent of the slapstick humor of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the film hovers between the realms of the comic and the tragic, as the viewer wonders about the fate of the artist. (In fact Ader’s wife, Mary Sue Ader-Andersen, once implied that he was badly hurt in the filming of Fall I, Los Angeles.) But the viewer is not given any information about the outcome of the fall, nor told why the artist was on the roof in the first place. The beginning and end of the fall are not made significant by Ader—only the act of falling itself. The artist provides no personal narrative, nor is he the subject of the film; rather, his body becomes a passive object used to illustrate the force of gravity, and the inevitable result of succumbing to nature. Ader once famously declared, “I do not make body sculpture, 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.” It is clear that his apparent failure to maintain control over his body was not simply a premonition of his death or a tragically self-destructive quest, but a conscious exploration of the natural gravitation of any object towards the earth.