Bas Jan Ader

Bas Jan Ader

Work from his oeuvre.

“…Much of Ader’s work centered on the simple act of falling. Fall I (Los Angeles), 1970, documented in black and white, Conceptual-style photographs, finds the artist sitting in a chair atop the roof of his California bungalow. In the sequence that follows, he inexplicably loses his poise, awkwardly rolls down the roof and plummets into the bushes below. Similar pieces find the artist biking into a canal, Fall II (Amsterdam), 1970 and loosing his grip on a tree branch, Broken Fall (Organic), 1971. By removing these perilous moments of action from any motivating context, Ader invites two almost mutually exclusive possibilities for interpretation. The first focused on the irreducible physicality of his performance; the artist, in experiencing the corporeal threat of a particular situation, offers his body as the finite producer and bearer of meaning. That is, in the Modernist- Materialist tradition of “it is what it is,” the body becomes the ultimate interpretive measure. Although Ader was unusually guarded in speaking about his work, he pointedly denied this perspective as his sole intent: “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.” Thus Ader opens his work to a second group of more literary possibilities: metaphor, allegory, irony and the corresponding narratives of the self. His falls make themselves available as symbols ranging from subjective failure and dissolution to that of a theological order.

Ader repeatedly enacts the Cartesian contradictions between the experience of bodily pain and the intersubjective production of consciousness. In his essay, “On the Essence of Laughter,” French poet Charles Baudelaire discusses the comedic convention of falling in terms of this experience of fragmentation: “The man who trips would be the last to laugh at his own fall, unless he happens to be a philosopher, one who had acquired by habit, a power of rapid self-division, and thus of assisting as a disinterested spectator at the phenomenon of his own ego.” Thus for Baudelaire, falling can engender a sense of doubling. A person who has tripped and is falling is losing the self-possession of consciousness and becoming an object. To laugh during a fall is not merely to imagine yourself as another spectator, that is in another subjective state, but to recognize the smug folly of consciousness in facing its own material constitution.

In some sense, falling, as a forced union of mind and matter, could be seen as a rehearsal for the more immutable event of dying. This analogy is palpable in Ader’s short film Nightfall, 1971. Shot in his garage-studio, the camera records the artist painstakingly hoisting a large brick over his head. His figure is harshly lit by two tangles of light bulbs. He suddenly loses control of the brick,crushing one strand of lights. As he again lifts the brick, allowing tension and dread to accrue, the climax seems inevitablethe brick will (and does) fall and terminate the camera’s remaining illumination. Here the film abruptly ends with the irrevocable logic of consciousness extinguished. This simple cause and effect sequence performs a narrative that is startlingly incongruous with its conclusion. The brick is witnessed demolishing the lights, but that seems to be an insufficient explanation for the void of meaning it leaves in the wake of the film’s endingthe blunt finality of another’s death, by implication, creates a similar scramble to find language for a disturbing rupture…” – Brad Spence

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