Practicing Falling: Bas Jan Ader at Metro Pictures
Bas Jan Ader at Metro Pictures Gallery
June 21 to August 5, 2016
519 West 24th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 206 7100
In 1975, Bas Jan Ader disappeared while sailing the Atlantic. This sail was the second part of his trilogy In Search of the Miraculous. Part one is comprised of 18 black-and-white photographs of the artist walking through various parts of Los Angeles at night. The third part never happened. Metro Pictures’ exhibition includes several photographs, two wall-drawing installation pieces, and two short films and reveals that Ader’s work is still relevant, pointed, droll, and strange — perhaps more so now than in 1970s California. The mysterious details of his disappearance create an added allure, even over 40 years after his death. However, it’s not necessary (and perhaps impossible) to separate the details of his death from his life and work, as his work is a confluence of autobiography and conceptualism wherein the viewer follows the artist while he walks, searches, and falls. While I was in the gallery, I overheard someone ask the attendant: “So what do you think, is he dead or not?” I couldn’t make out the response.
Ader’s work edges action and inaction. He illustrates what happens when gravity takes over: the elements get free and the body falls. This might be why his work feels so natural: it feels more like a practice than a performance. In the understated photographs of documented falls, I feel as if I’m watching a person practice falling. Another way of saying this might be: I’m watching a person decide to let gravity take over. Or, finally: I’m watching a person practice dying . It’s funny. Ader’s body is lean and tree-like, making the falls comical and graceful. He falls off of a roof, off of a bridge and into water (one frame depicts only the aftermath, a splash), and he falls from a standing position to a lying down position with no middle information. We never see him get up from the fall. Instead, the photographs end at the bodiless frame — all gravity.
These understated photographs line the walls leading to Please don’t leave me (1969). In this first installation, light bulbs and wire highlight the title’s words, painted on the wall. This politely sad command reminds me that Ader is the subject of his work and he is never not alone. And it’s not only the artist who falls, it’s everything. In Untitled (Tea Party) (1972), six color photographs are aligned vertically. In this first image, Ader sits outside under a cardboard box. The box is propped up by a stick and Ader sips from a teacup. The sequence shows the box’s fall after the stick’s removal. The final photograph depicts a box in the field. The artist is presumably under the box. He makes a situation and then allows for its undoing. He sets himself up as the subject and then leaves.
The gallery’s passageway holds a monitor, which plays a short color video, Primary Time (1974). The frame holds the middle section of Ader’s body. The artist is dressed in all black, arranging a set of flowers in a vase. The flowers are red save for a few yellow and one blue. This repetitive action creates a bridge to the second installation piece, Thoughts unsaid, then forgotten (1973), where a tripod, a vase filled with flowers, and a clamp-on lamp sit around the title words. The work is melancholic but is not weighted with gravitas. Untitled (The Elements) (1971/2003), depicts a large seascape with a cliff at sunset. Ader’s body stands in the approximate middle. He faces the camera and holds a sign reading “Fire.” He is pointing to the only element not present in the photograph.
The show toggles between revealing and hiding, searching and giving up. Hollywood tropes mix with Ader’s absurdist gestures. In thinking about the aftermaths of these practices — a big splash (Ader’s body is out of the frame, in the river) or an empty roof (Ader’s body is out of the frame, on the ground) or a cardboard box (Ader’s body is inside the box), I return to the idea of practicing falling — practicing leaving — the Earth. This is maybe the most useful practice one can engage in.