On 9 July 1975, Dutch/Californian artist Bas Jan Ader set sail in a four metre sailboat on a solo trans-Atlantic crossing from Cape Cod, USA. Conceptually, the voyage was conceived as the second act in a trilogy of works entitled ‘In Search of the Miraculous’. It was his intention to arrive at the destination of Falmouth, Cornwall within ten weeks. However, tragically, the boat was found submerged off the coast of Ireland nine months later. His body was never recovered.
The mysterious circumstances of the disappearance and the apparent failure of the expedition contribute to the enduring enigma of Bas Jan Ader, whose concise body of work is underpinned by an interrogation of the creative process of failure and the vulnerability of man in the wake of Nature’s power.
Throughout his work, failure is manifested in the action of falling, which takes precedent in many of the films featured in his current, posthumous exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery. In the artist’s own words – ‘I have always been fascinated by the tragic … that is also contained in the act of falling; the fall is failure’. In each of his films, the artist orchestrates situations that allow for the relinquishment of control, where gravity becomes an unwitting collaborator.
In the 16mm projection ‘Fall I, Los Angeles’, the artist sits on a chair on the rooftop of his home in Claremont. As he gently sways in the seat, the precarity of the situation unravels and he topples forward, rolling down the roof.
With ‘Fall II, Amsterdam’, a static camera captures the performative gesture of the fall. The action is comprehended as deliberate, as the artist appears on a bicycle from the middle distance approaching the Reguliersgracht canal, Amsterdam. He cycles with intent, steering the handlebars in the direction of the canal and plunges into the water.
In another work, ‘Broken Fall (organic) Amsterdamse Bos, Holland’, we witness the artist hanging from the limb of a tree, dangling over the ditch of a canal. Incrementally, his body succumbs to the weight of gravity and he falls, again, into the canal water. The profound simplicity of the works is imbued with an element of slapstick, reminiscent of the 1920s silent comedy of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. Yet, the aspiration here seems not for humour, but to provoke a philosophical contemplation of the pivotal moment when all artistic control is lost and the force of gravity determines the outcome.
In the downstairs gallery, a large-scale, silent projection of the seminal work ‘I’m Too Sad to Tell You’ is shown. The black and white footage captures the artist overwhelmed in grief, as tears roll down his face. The sole accompaniment to the poignant imagery is the gentle whir of the 16mm projector. The audience can only speculate as to the cause of such woe, but what is revealed, is an intimate portrait of an artist whose belief in the sublime forces of Nature led him on the ultimate quest into the unknown.