The Fall: Bas Jan Ader at Simon Lee, London
Bas Jan Ader at Simon Lee Gallery
June 24 to August 26, 2016
12 Berkeley Street (between Stratton Street and Mayfair Place)
London W1J 8DT, +44 20 7491 0100
The distinguishing feature of Bas Jan Ader is the way he brings personal feeling and its hinterland of autobiography into a conceptual practice. That’s what makes him a “Romantic,” topped off by the mysterious manner of his death. Add the counter-intuitive combination of Modernist art history (with Piet Mondrian as focal point) and slapstick à la Buster Keaton, and you have much of Ader’s context. That dovetails with both his Dutch origins and his American residence from 1963, including the final five years which yielded his oeuvre. That consists of just 35 mature works, so it’s unsurprising that Simon Lee has not unearthed the previously overlooked — indeed, the content here is close to Camden Arts Centre’s 2006 retrospective — but the gallery does make an exemplary presentation of seminal pieces, supported by still photographs which acted as studies towards the films.
The most potent biographical interpretation takes us back to the Nazi execution of Ader’s father, who harbored Jews. I’m Too Sad To Tell You (1970–71), the film in which Ader cries, gains from the possibility — but not necessity — that he might be recalling that event and what it says about humanity. Here, the silent black-and-white image is presented on 16mm through a clattering projector with the artist’s head projected to triple life size — factors which undercut the immediacy of the emotion. We’re reminded of the gap between art and life.
Ader’s famous “falling” films are presented as a continuous loop, again on the original 16mm, allowing their similarities and differences to come to the fore. Five times a fall occurs, and in each case the artist disappears from view as a result: in Fall 1, Los Angeles (1970), he tumbles from a chair on an LA roof and into the garden’s bushes; Fall 2, Amsterdam (1970) sees him vanish beneath the water after he and his bicycle tumble into a canal; in Broken fall (geometric) (1971), he ends up in a ditch at the side of the road following the failure of what look far from determined efforts to remain upright. Broken fall (organic) (1971), opens with Ader hanging to a tree, until he loses his grip — like a leaf in autumn — and again vanishes into a canal beneath. Nightfall (1971), not only introduces a pun but applies the process to an object, a stone which Ader drops onto the scene’s lighting, so plunging him into the invisibility of darkness. Ader is often seen as relinquishing control to gravity in these films, but his agency is clear enough in the action of Nightfall, and arguably in Broken Fall (geometric) as well. Moreover, he has set up the effects of gravity in the other three films. The more consistent themes in this set of works are absurdity (again emphasising the gap between art and life) and, given the final vanishing enacted in each, the implication of death. That makes it equally feasible to read them as versions of the fall of Ader’s father, shot in the woods; as plays on the biblical fall from grace; or as existentialist commentaries inspired by Ader’s favourite author, Albert Camus, and in particular his Amsterdam-set novel The Fall (1956).
Broken Fall (geometric) also reflects on Mondrian: the road, we can see, leads to a windmill which features in several of his early paintings. And Ader’s thin form, dressed in black, makes the vertical line Mondrian would have approved — before Ader falls into the diagonal apostolically introduced by Theo van Doesberg. And Mondrian takes centre stage in the remaining works. On the road to a new Neo-Plasticism, Westkapelle, Holland (1971) also shows Ader before “Mondrian’s windmill,” but this time imitating the structure of his classic abstract compositions as he lies— playing dead, perhaps — on a blanket on the ground. In the film Primary Time (1971), we see the black-clothed Ader successively rearrange a multi-colored vase of flowers by adding and removing blooms so that exclusively red, yellow and blue bouquets remain. This, too, is somewhat absurd, and a potentially Sisyphean task is implied. Primary Time could be regarded as a painting reversed into its constituent colors to underline the clichés in the traditions of Dutch floral art, or as a claim that nature can provide a purer outcome than Mondrian’s more artificial reductions.
This grouping of work brings Beckett to mind as much as Camus: Ader performs pointless tasks and sets himself up for failure. Yet the sense is that attempting the apparently pointless is better than giving up, and when he cedes control it comes across as a strategic decision, not a lack of engagement. In his last act, he ceded considerable control to the elements by taking on the Atlantic crossing in a smaller boat than had anyone before him — not fatefully, the rest of his work suggests to me, but experimentally.
All of which is to say: Ader remains poignant and relevant. And if this show fitted a little too well with the air of gloom which descended on London following the decision to leave the European Union, perhaps Ader’s embrace of the ridiculous could be read a message of hope.