In Search of the Vacuous
May 12, 2017
by Melanie Shi, Columbia University
Originally published in the 2017 edition.
On July 9, 1975, Dutch-Californian conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader set sail from Massachusetts on a solo voyage across the North Atlantic as part of a performance piece entitled In Search of the Miraculous. During the expedition, Ader disappeared, his body never to be recovered, although his boat would be found nine months later on the shores of Ireland. Today, we cannot know for certain whether Ader died by pure accident or artistic suicide. Yet as critical and popular interest in this mythic artist figure grows, the prevailing discourse has increasingly narrativized his death as the intentional apotheosis of a lifelong avant-garde project to do away with the boundary between art and life.1 Art historian Alexander Dumbadze, who situates Ader’s work within the dematerializing tendencies of 1960s and 70s conceptual art, writes, “Ader’s sail was not a performance. There was nothing staged… Ader stressed life instead of the represented work of art. In Search of the Miraculous… leaves nothing to be depicted.2 Tacita Dean, a member of the Young British Artists movement, uses the terms of sublime culmination to make higher meaning of Ader’s death:
He had sailed there as… a romantic equation and obvious apotheosis… His fall was wretched, unimagined, unannounced, and wholly practical. But for Bas Jan Ader to fall was to make a work of art. Whatever we believe or whatever we imagine, on a deep deep level, not to have fallen would have meant failure.3
To understand this dominant critical interpretation, I will look at Ader’s earlier works in which “to fall was to make a work of art.” For him, falls suggested the triumph of physicality, and eventually, the potential for truth that lies outside of mediation; but when criticism reads even his death as part of a lifelong conceptual project about the relation between art and life, it circumscribes its possible meaning.
“Because gravity made itself master over me”: Fall works, 1970-1971
Between 1970 and 1971, Ader made a series of film works that dealt with the triumph of gravity over the human body, grouping them under the theme of “falling.” The first of these, Fall I (Los Angeles), is a 24-second short that depicts the artist falling off a chair on the roof of his house and rolling down its slope. One of his shoes falls off midway, interrupting the action, and he clings to the edge of the roof for a minute, but the plot is straightforward: Ader drops off the roof and out of our sight. Filmed later that year, Fall II (Amsterdam) repeats this uncomplicated storyline—we see the artist cycling down an Amsterdam street, heading smoothly toward us until, with a twist of the wheel, he splashes into the canal. Likewise, Broken Fall (Organic), issued as both film and photograph, depicts Ader hanging from a tree branch, oscillating back and forth, before suddenly letting go and landing in a thin ditch. Each of these works is jarring for its anti-climactic quality—their simultaneous absurdity and poignancy lie in the fact that they anti-dramatically depict a man, powerless against the pull of the earth, falling limply to the ground. As a series, the falls begin to form a claim about the triumph of gravity over human agency by reiterating the irresistible downward effect of the force on Ader’s body. Commenting on Fall I and II, Ader confirms that he is concerned with the relinquishment of free will: “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.”
Importantly, Ader’s Fall films only register the physicality of falling, and none of the potential romantic sublimity that the feeling of falling might connote. Addressing the notion that Ader is a neo-romanticist—an interpretation grounded in his use of suspense in the 1971 film Nightfall, Joke Brasser at Utrecht University clarifies:
[After Ader drops two bricks on two lights,] there is only darkness, and the film ends. When the lights have gone out, there is nothing…Ader pushes into play the material causes for the sublime… but without converting the image of darkness into a positive symbol of a transcendental absolute.4
Although the film builds a feeling of danger and foregrounds the possibility of the romantic sublime, it denies it in a stark, affectless ending that forbids further allegorization. In this aspect, Nightfall extends the literalness of the physical falls in Fall I (LA), Fall II (Amsterdam), and Broken Fall (Organic)—the darkness at its close denies anything but darkness, just as the Fall series portrays the physical fact of Ader falling and the falling alone. This is why Brad Spence, who curated a Bas Jan Ader retrospective at the University of California, Riverside in 1999, finds that both the gravitational Fall and Nightfall films “end with the irrevocable logic of consciousness extinguished,” leaving a “void of meaning” in which there is nothing but “the blunt finality of another’s death.”5 Brasser and Spence’s writings on the denial of transcendence and the fact of mortality affirm the matter-of-fact subservience of the statement “gravity made itself master over me.” Falling, in its physical enactment and in the metaphysical parallel of darkness, overpowers the human body while denying the potential to symbolize anything.
Indeed, Ader’s interest in falling is best understood as a resistance to symbolization, where semiotic fictions use symbol to divert from the real. Rene Daalder, director of a documentary on Ader, recounts that he had underlined the line “art… is still doubly a servant—to higher aims no doubt, on the one hand, but nonetheless to vacuity and frivolity on the other” in his copy of The Phenomenology of Spirit—the only book he brought with him on his final journey.6 Building on this finding, Vanina Saracino sees a dialectical resolution of the conflict between these “higher aims” and “vacuity and frivolity” in the fact that Ader “finds that truth cannot be found in any form of semiotic construction… [but] the physical experience has the conditions to achieve it.”7 Ader’s centering of physical experience—of gravity as an inevitability—routes back to his philosophical commitment to truth. His roof and canal falls depict the “truth” of gravity—the lack of human ability to defeat it—while Nightfall argues the truth of impending mortality. In each work, falling is an instantiation of the force of truth- telling that masters Ader. Accordingly, Ader’s close friend and fellow conceptual artist William Leavitt remembers him as the kind of idealist who, under the influence of Calvinist minister parents, had “a great enthusiasm for philosophy” and “a desire for concrete truth,” even for “absolute and irrefutable truths like those of mathematics.” Ader’s favorite song lyrics denied the subjectivisty of emotion and human passions—“it’s not just a feeling, it’s a philosophy.” But even Leavitt was concerned that Ader’s search for “an art that had no artifice” would prove futile.8
“An art that had no artifice”: I’m Too Sad To Tell You and performance works, 1971-1973
If Ader sought to achieve a truth that existed outside of semiotic construction, he had to move beyond the Fall works to find it. Their truthfulness was inherently called into question by the fact that these falls were mediated through film and photography. The same year that Nightfall was released, Ader himself took up this problem, using film to consider the inauthenticity of mediation. In the three-minute timeframe of I’m Too Sad To Tell You, Ader cries silently, breaking the flow of his tears only to wipe his face, grimace, and perform other gestures of distress. He does not acknowledge the viewer or contextualize the situation by explaining why he is in this state. His tears evoke empathy, and the disturbing nature of the film ends up enacting the sadness that Ader is supposedly unable to tell or share. Yet the self-denying title of the work professes a trauma too great to be mediated through language, undermining its efficacy. After all, even a representation of grief remains a representation; crying on camera never exactly equals crying in life where there is no spectator. By drawing attention to the inherent artifice of his sadness as told through film, Ader disavows the medium.
In this vein, Ader’s subsequent works took on the form of live instead of recorded performances so as to get closer to an unmediated state. For The Boy Who Fell Over Niagara Falls in 1972, Ader staged readings in a corner of Amsterdam’s Art & Project gallery of a Reader’s Digest magazine article about a boy who plunged over the waterfall. At an appointed time, Ader would calmly read the report of the boy’s death out loud, pausing intermittently to drink sips of water when he reached the line breaks he had marked in the text. With this piece, meticulously planned, fatalistic, and thematically linked to the Fall works, Ader “found a way to address both issues of the will… and the problem of mediation [via] the primary nature of the performance.” The fact that Ader read aloud a story of a fall mediated through a newspaper article contrasted with the direct, performative nature of the reading, unfiltered through any vessel of language. Thus The Boy Who Fell Over Niagara Falls carried out the themes of the earlier Fall works while moving an ostensible step nearer to the “absolute truth” that Ader theorized and did not find satisfied in his explorations of gravity through film.
Elaborating upon The Boy Who Fell Over Niagara Falls, Dumbadze asserts that even the performance of the reading was not lifelike enough for Ader–it became compromised by its documentation and its existence exclusively within gallery spaces, a form of institutional mediation. Dumbadze’s research then unearths a previously unknown, entirely private performance piece in which Ader researched and traded commodity futures while consulting with an office in Los Angeles, keeping a careful notebook of his investments and plans. Lacking any spectators, this performance barely qualified as art, even within Ader’s conceptual milieu. The few peers keyed in to Ader’s intention doubted it could be art if Ader did not publicize it as such, and when told, some suggested that he do more to disseminate news of the work. But in Dumbadze’s analysis, the privacy of the trading was exactly Ader’s point, its private nature “the thrust of the piece.” The trades existed “only for Ader,” yet still “existed as art.” It was the very act of telling someone about the activity that would undo “that particularity” and entwine or contaminate it with the discourses of conceptual art.9 The trading piece sought to remove another barrier to the truth, the discursive mediation of the art world–or anyone but himself, for that matter–knowing of it. This instilled doubt as to whether the piece was actually art. In the name of increasing proximity to truth, Ader’s art had fallen and become almost impossible to distinguish from life.
By Dumbadze’s logic, and according to the bulk of critical discourse on the artist, Ader’s disappearance during In Search of the Miraculous finally caps off a progression of works toward the sublation of art into life. Dumbadze ends his penultimate chapter, titled “Dying,” by suggesting in an explicitly teleological phrasing that the trip is “the logical… inevitable… next step in his evolution.”10 Other voices echo Dumbadze’s– Tacita Dean calls his death an “apotheosis” and negates the possibility of Ader not disappearing as the real “failure”; Joke Brasser puts this all- the-more explicitly by linking Ader’s death with the falling motif that pervades his work–“to fail in his Ocean crossing would mean succeeding in his ultimate fall experiment”–and crowning it as “his grandest act of letting go.”11 Tiernan Morgan recently reused the term “apotheosis” in an article for Hyperallergic to assert that In Search of the Miraculous “encapsulates all of his artistic queries”–and because he actually dematerializes during it, even “his interest… in absence.”12 For all of these critics, Ader’s disappearance is the final success of his falling, his death the ultimate truth- sans-representation that becomes the apex of his work.
“The impossible condition of art itself”: In Search of the Miraculous
Besides its tendency to mythicize and valorize Ader’s death, this analysis fails on an internal contradiction. By funneling Ader’s disappearance into the overarching concept of falling, the teleological reading of Ader’s work states that Ader wants to make art that is life, and that he succeeds in doing so through the means of art. He expresses an unmediated essence–death– through a representative means. Yet the fact that he uses the means of art renders his project impossible. One cannot render something (art) not-itself (life) through itself (art). One would either invalidate art and thus fail to achieve life through art or preserve the validity of art and then negate the possibility of life (because art remains intact). Were Ader’s disappearance only an element of an aesthetic or conceptual project to reduce the difference between art and life, this project either would not be aesthetic in nature or would fail in its goal of sublating art into life.
This interpretation also assumes that Ader intends to make art no different from life; even if he intends to defeat art, this aboriginal intentionality disqualifies what he makes from being life. As Walter Benn Michaels explains in his essay “The Experience of Meaning,” the artwork’s intention to mean is what delineates it from life. By putting a frame around a thing, art renders it impossible for other things outside the frame to be art. For Benn Michaels, this distinction flows from Phil Chang’s Two Sheets of Thick Paper on Top of Two Sheets, a work with similar commitments to Ader’s. Though Two Sheets seems to be about the materiality of the photographic paper, it is only because of Chang’s intentions that we only register its “sheer materiality”:
In insisting that our experience of [the monochromes] would be inadequate if we didn’t know how they were made… [Chang] makes them into objects that have to be understood.13
And when we experience the monochromes in the manner that Chang intends us to, we also necessarily deny what they foreclose:
We see the final monochromes not only as being what they are but, more importantly, as also having a relation to what they aren’t… what we get here is a thing that in order to mean cannot simply be.14 [emphasis added]
An artwork that means anything is necessarily distinct from merely being in life; the intention of meaning immediately abstracts the artwork from the larger realm of the real, in which objects are not intended to have meaning. Thus, as soon as Ader intended to bring the frames of art and life together, he merely drew another frame around all of his art. This frame encompassed all Ader’s actions and ruled out the possibility that he could succeed in sublating art into life.
How much of that “impossible condition” is then the result of Ader’s intentions versus the supposed ontology of artistic form? Ader never stated explicitly that his sole intent was to dissolve the boundary between art and life, nor did he profess In Search of the Miraculous to be the culmination of all his Fall works. Rather, what some read as Ader’s intention to “mean” may instead be the result of their own intentions to create meaning through interpretation.
In his early film and photographic Fall works, Ader established the motif of falling as an instantiation of truth-telling through art. From 1971 to 1973, The Boy Who Fell Over Niagara and the private trading performance interpreted “falling” as removing the artifice of mediation by disavowing first the medium of film and then the gallery and art world. This progression seems to imply that Ader’s lifelong project was to gradually sublate art into life, and, by this logic, In Search of the Miraculous appears to be the apotheosis of Ader’s falls. Yet the interpretation of Ader’s disappearance as the culmination of his intentions renders it impossible for his death to be read as the dissolution of the boundary between art and life.
It is ultimately the critical attempt to make sense of Ader’s death that places it back into the frame of art that hinges on the formulation of intent. By writing a teleological account of Ader’s life, and insisting on his constant intentionality, criticism creates meaning when there is or could be none. Art could simply be, as Ader saw it– “vacuity” in service of “truth.”
1. Bas Jan Ader’s work was first shown in the United States in a three-person exhibition organized by Metro Pictures’ Helene Winer at the Pomona College of Art Museum in 1972. I became fascinated with Ader’s work at a Metro Pictures show in the summer of 2016.
2. Alexander Dumbadze, Bas Jan Ader: Death Is Elsewhere (University of Chicago Press, 2013), 144.
3. Tacita Dean, “And He Fell into the Sea,” n.d., 1–2.
4. Joke Brasser, “Bas Jan Ader’s Art in Relation to the Postmodern Sublime: Gravity – Passibility – Sublimity,” Frame: A Journal of Literary Studies, LITERATUUR EN MUZIEK, November 21, 2014, 93–94.
5. Brad Spence, “The Case of Bas Jan Ader,” n.d., 3.
6. Rene Daalder, “Bas Jan Ader in the Age of ‘Jackass,’” Contemporary Magazine, February 2004, 1.
7. Vanina Saracino, “Mirroring Gravity,” Input, October 25, 2015, 5.
8. Bill Leavitt, “Quotations of Bas Jan Ader,” n.d., 1–2.
9. Dumbadze, Bas Jan Ader, 78.
10. Dumbadze quoted in Lilly Wei, “Vanishing Artist,” Art in America 102, no. 5 (May 2014): 3.
11. Brasser, “Bas Jan Ader’s Art in Relation to the Postmodern Sublime: Gravity – Passibility – Sublimity,” 98.
12. Tiernan Morgan, “In Search of Bas Jan Ader, the Artist Who Disappeared at Sea,” Hyperallergic, November 30, 2016.
13. Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 83.
14. Ibid, 84.
Bird, Jon, and Michael Newman. Rewriting Conceptual Art. Reaktion Books, 1999.
Brasser, Joke. “Bas Jan Ader’s Art in Relation to the Postmodern Sublime: Gravity – Passibility– Sublimity.” Frame: A Journal of Literary Studies, LITERATUUR EN MUZIEK, November 21, 2014.
Daalder, Rene. “Bas Jan Ader in the Age of ‘Jackass.’” Contemporary Magazine, February 2004.
Dean, Tacita. “And He Fell into the Sea,” n.d.
Dumbadze, Alexander. Bas Jan Ader: Death Is Elsewhere. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Leavitt, Bill. “Quotations of Bas Jan Ader,” n.d.
Michaels, Walter Benn. The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy. University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Morgan, Tiernan. “In Search of Bas Jan Ader, the Artist Who Disappeared at Sea.” Hyperallergic, November 30, 2016.
Saracino, Vanina. “Mirroring Gravity.” Input, October 25, 2015.
Spence, Brad. “The Case of Bas Jan Ader,” n.d.
Verwoert, Jan. Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous. Afterall Books, 2006.
Wei, Lilly. “Vanishing Artist.” Art in America 102, no. 5 (May 2014): 57–60.