The short career of Bas Jan Ader as an artist still fascinates and engages the art world, decades after his disappearance. Perhaps it was his tragic and sudden death, his courageous and illogical attempt at fulfilling a sailor’s dream, or maybe it was his 90’s Dior model good looks that provided a heart throb for the art world. His work and story could belong in various sections in a movie rental store: fantasy, sex, drama, romance, comedy and mystery. But it is not his deliverance of entertainment that causes the recurring investigation of his work, but it is the complexity hidden in a simple gesture and the contradictions within the framework of conceptual art, defining a kind of romantic existentialism.
Sixties and seventies conceptual art aimed to remain cool and emotionless in its strict executions. Subjectivity and emotion were to be avoided like the plague, perhaps because it might reveal something about the artist, or that it was of upmost importance to do anything that would piss of Clement Greenberg. Of course we must limit the conversation to that of the aforementioned decades, as the nineties “Identity” artists and Young British Artist’s surely made the point of including subjectivity and “life” into conceptual discourse.
Ader’s work both defines and defies the “rules” of conceptual art, often times in a single work. In 1967 Sol Lewitt wrote in his ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’: “It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually would want it to become emotionally dry.” By this sentence alone, In Search of the Miraculous stimulates both the right and left brain myth. Ader uses exactly those methods that Lewitt defines as essentially conceptual: he follows his thoughts through “absolutely and logically’ by realizing his works according to pre-set plans. For example, a systemic walk through Los Angeles at night, crossing the ocean alone, crying on camera, and falling are as rationally executed as a grocery shopping list or a “to do checklist.”
The way he pursues his pre-planned acts does not allow for the spontanaeity and ever fleeting nature of emotions. Does he stop walking after he realizes he is cold and scared? Does he ask his horrible wife to give him a hug after he is making himself vulnerable? Does he even flinch before he falls into a polluted river with his bicycle? Does he realize that he is all alone in the middle of the ocean and ask for a ship to save him? The answer to all these questions is in all likelihood no, but that begs the question; Did he feel protected because he was making a work of art or was his skin thickened by the distastefulness of, well the very taste that conceptual art was to dismiss entirely. In some ways, conceptual art provided a suit of armor that masked the grand emotions hidden in his romantic center. Ader adopted much of Conceptualism’s orthodoxy, particularly its evidentiary treatment of the art object, he often chose subjects: flowers, sunsets, tears which engaged the sort of vulgar sentimentality that was antithetical to the prevailing empirical ethos. Perhaps he, before anyone else saw the reward in the double consciousness of the expressionists that preceded him whilst maintaining a loyalty to the conceptual and minimalist artists that were his peers.
Ader’s work lies somewhere between emotional contemplation, sentimentality, conceptual manifestation and existential philosophy. Although freed from the weight of tradition, his work brings together a depiction of classical Romanticism and literary existentialism, moving from the sublime to the banal. He dismantles verbose conceptual rhetoric and turns it into an ordinary experience, so that when he seeks to depict Romantic emotions he does not resort to interpretation, but he truly experiences them. Anti-subjective, even iconoclastic, Ader’s work nevertheless demonstrates how much conceptual art owes to the aesthetic of the sublime, to the idea of experiencing emotion rather than depicting it.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s works are considered fundamental to the existentialist movement as they focused on human experience, rather than the objective truths of mathematics and science. The opposition of abstract rationalism in pursuit of the reality of ordinary existence is also prevalent in Ader’s works. His meditations on falling are not examinations of gravity but the truth in the action carried out conceptually reveals itself as being existentialist. The fact that he himself assume the role of the protaganist, the person who carries out the action, adds to the existential nature of his work. But at the same time, another paradoxal reversal occurs in the kind of apotheosis of Romanticism, another reaction against scientific rationalization, the emphasis on emotion as a sort of aesthetic experience.
This sort of romantic existentialism exits within that encounter with vast, open nature, where the comparatively small human is but a speck in an unfathomable mass. Aligned with the Romantic movement of the 18th century, which confronted the sublimity of untamed nature, In Search of the Miraculous functioned as full immersion into the infinite. Where once Ader must struggle to compete and prove himself on land, the sea’s quiet but powerful abyss provides an escape. Before this work, he walked through Los Angeles at night, “Searchin” for something unrevealed to the viewer, where the lyrics to this pop song allude to the quest for true love. Perhaps he did not find what he was looking for in the modern urban landscape, and this existential excersize was carried out again in the ocean.
Another work that reads like an exercise is “I’m Too Sad To Tell You” where Ader approaches the work like an actor at an audition, proving he could cry on cue. Despite the clenching of his teeth and the trembling of his eyelids, the tears that flow down his cheeks, we are aware that this is not a sudden emotional outburst. There is no dramatic build up or narrative to reference. All we see is a fixed state of existence, that of grief. The title alludes to the weight of the infinite and like the ocean, his sadness is so vast that it obstructs Ader from being able to express his emotional burden. The intensity of watching him cry prompts me to take on the role of a contemporary psychiatrist who cannot fathom the immeasurable scope of his misery, and in an attempt to cure him immediately would resort to a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor like Prozac to treat his major depression. But Jan Verwoert reassures me by saying, “By exhibiting it as a state or condition without a story, Ader isolates sadness as an idea. By concentrating his performance on facial expressions and a few gestures he presents the signs of sadness as a visual language. By doing the crying for real he stages sadness as a fact. The piece invites interpretation not on a psychological level, but rather on a conceptual, rhetorical and existential one.” So perhaps, Prozac is not what he needs, and obviously he is not reaching out to the viewer so that we can provide him with something, but that he is expressing the existential truth of emotions lies in the reality of their expression. Not only do we see and feel, but emotions can be understood like Verwoert says, at the same time conceptually, rhetorically and existentially.