(1942 – 1975), Netherlands

Bas Jan Ader Biography

Created over the course of a life cut tragically short, the artistic output of Dutch-Californian artist Bastiaan Johan Christiaan Ader (better known as Bas Jan Ader) is limited in volume but powerful in impact. In his work, largely comprising of performance but also including photography and other media, Ader engaged with the ways in which human nature is recorded and represented in art.

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Such interest in the performance of humanity is perhaps best exemplified in Ader's 1971 film I'm too sad to tell you. In this piece, he cries in front of a black-and-white camera for three minutes and 34 seconds, too lost in grief to explain his tears. In this work, the artist's physical response to anguish is what both propels the piece and stops it from being able to progress towards a story beyond the heartache itself.

Though I'm too sad to tell you is popular amongst admirers of the artist, Ader is perhaps best known by a broader public for his series of 16 mm 'Fall' films, in which human frailty cedes to gravity. In Fall I (1970), Ader sits on a chair on the roof of his house. He leans right, tipping the chair and rolling off the roof into the bushes below. In Fall II (1970), the setting is a road beside a canal. Ader enters the frame riding a bicycle and suddenly swerves into the canal. In both works, gravity takes hold, but only because Ader lets it. In Broken fall (organic) (1971), however, Ader hangs from a tree branch with his hands. In this case, it is his inability to hold on any longer that causes the drop into the shallow body of water below.

In the 16mm silent film Nightfall (1971), Ader stands behind a concrete slab. He lifts the slab, small but heavy, and drops it onto the two light bulbs that illuminate the room—first the bulb to his left, then to his right—plunging himself and the film into darkness. In such tragicomic works, Ader emphasises existing conditions—In Nightfall, the delicate balance between light and dark; in Broken fall (organic), gravity. In doing so, Ader situated his work within a movement of filmic practices that prioritised the documentation of a single moment over a conventional narrative arc.

Ader attended the Gerrit Rietveld Academie but did not graduate. Instead, he travelled by boat from Morocco to the United States as a crewmate. The boat shipwrecked near California and Ader decided to make Los Angeles his home. Soon after, he attended the Otis College of Art and Design (BFA) and Claremont Graduate University (MFA).

Ader's shipwrecked journey to the United States tragically parallels what became the final performance work of his life. For this work, Ader set sail in a 12.5-foot boat (it would have been the smallest to ever successfully complete the journey). The voyage formed the second third of Ader's 'In Search of the Miraculous' trilogy. Unfortunately, half a year later, Ader's boat was found capsized near Ireland; the artist was never seen again. The first part of the 'In Search of the Miraculous' trilogy comprises a set of black-and-white photographs of Ader wandering through Los Angeles. The third part of the trilogy would have been an exhibition of the photographs at his final destination. With the artist's disappearance, the trilogy was left incomplete. However, for the pieces he did leave behind, as well as for his untimely end, Ader has become part of the canon of post-Word War II art in America, and a significant influence on contemporary art worldwide.

Casey Carsel | Ocula | 2019

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