The Sensation of the Sea: In honour of Bas Jan Ader is a group exhibition hosted by The Mesdag Collection, a museum built by the artists and collectors Hendrik Willem and Sientje Mesdag in 1887 next to their home. They were clearly very generous artists, successful in their own right (Hendrik being a highly celebrated marine painter) and engaged with the local community whilst simultaneously supporting and collecting the work of their contemporaries. In their final act of giving they left their collection to the nation. More recently the collection has teamed up with the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and completed a refurbishment in 2011. If that wasn’t enough the collection has invited Joanna De Vos to curate a show of contemporary artists responding to the collection, the first time this has happened in this particular collection. The show addresses ideas about the power and beauty of the sea and pays homage to one of the Netherlands most beloved and missed artists, Bas Jan Ader.
It is worth noting that inserting contemporary works into a very specific collection such as this can be quite a tight fit, not least for those who find their favourite work moved or suddenly in storage. However, when done well (as it is here) it can be more of a revelation, benefitting both the museum pieces / building, and of course the visiting works. New and unexpected dialogues spring up around every corner as one is simultaneously trying to take in the sumptuous 19th century collection, including artist such as Antonio Mancini and Jules Dupré, whilst encountering the more modern work. On top of this there are dual themes of the sea/ocean; its power and mystery and ability to embody emotion, as well as a prolonged homage to Bas Jan Ader. That is not to say it is overwhelming, it is abley and sensitively curated, with most rooms housing a single contemporary work, one is taken on a journey through the collection with the show as a worthy guide, inspiration and companion.
One of the key questions that the exhibition poses is how does one honor his or her heros? How does one mourn loss and celebrate a life or an artistic career? Most in the arts know the story of Jas Ban Ader, a life cut short, perhaps even sacrificed to his chosen discipline, having literally sailed off “in search of the miraculous”, never to be seen again: a knowing pilgrimage into the void and possible or probable death. In the show there are no less that six direct homages (made between 1975 and today) to this work and by extension, his life. Some humorous, all thought provoking, and all made with the same spirit of his practice. It is as if this act has turned him into some kind of modern day saint. ‘Guppy 13 vs Ocean Wave’ is a work by Ahmet Ogut in which he recreates Ader’s experience of going in search of the miraculous, but in a contemporary twist; rather than discover anything the boat was stolen (a police report is on display) and sublimated into its own bureaucratic void rather than an existential one.
In Punishment #6 2011, Julius von Bismark chooses to ‘punish’ the ocean; on a especially stormy day he is seen from the beach wading deep and whipping the sea. The act of course is pure, and an understood folly, the water repeatedly pushing him back to the shore, mouthing him sparingly as if in the jaws of a mothering beast.
In ‘Movistar’ 1999 by Lonnie Van Brummelm, we witness the artist swimming in an azure sea, she is however performing an act of ‘lifesaving’ desperately trying to drag a weighty classical sculpture (Hermes, the god of travellers) which is, in turn, partially dragging her down into the depths itself. Not for the first time I found myself gasping for air on behalf of the person in the work.
David Horvitz’s piece is also a homage to Jas Ban Ader. In his film ‘A rarely seen Ban Yan Ader film’ he cycles directly into the sea from the beach, and again there is a knowing inevitability in the action, one laced with pathos and perhaps a slight sense of self destruction? Horvitz uploaded the work to YouTube (at the time a new medium in itself) where is has been watched many thousands of times, perhaps becoming an actual work by Ader in its own right - and pointing towards a sense of missed potential?
Jan Fabre’s small maquettes are mischievously dotted around the collection, some in collectors cabinets for example. A couple are raft-like in appearance, although rather top heavy to offer any chance of sailing without sinking if they were scaled up. Rather they are, in my eyes, mini talismans, contemporary offerings to the sea to grant safe passage to those who submit themselves to its timeless and unforgiving power.