Monday, April 4, 2011

Bas Jan Ader : In Search of the Miraculous : Jan Verwoert : Afterall 2006

Bas Jan Ader is probably my favorite artist, if such a question can ever be answered. He was Dutch and lived in California, and was a quote unquote conceptual artist whose work was based on an extremely un-conceptual thing, feelings. He is wonderfully tragic in that he died (presumably) while attempting a work entitled In Search of the Miraculous (Songs for the North Atlantic: July 1975-). Jan Verwoert’s very slim but thoughtful book traces this piece and those that proceed it as well as framing Ader’s artistic practice within trends of the times and its revelation of basic human impulse.

I was only just recently introduced to Jan Verwoert via a mock-projection-lecture but his affirmative tone and complete security of his thoughts and articulations of them impressed me. He is German, writes for art magazines, and is just about everywhere now that I recognize his name. He is impish and his mouth a smirk, he is probably smarter then you (me for sure) but that’s okay because his thing is about anti-authority, I love those types. From what little I have read and listened of him, he thinks authority; be it intellectual, political, material, philosophical etc, should be re-framed and then re-used to create something different, better. He does this with sharp tongued, catty, pop-culture aplomb. His confidence is fierce and although I would love to talk to him in person I fear I would be too intimidated to say anything of consequence except maybe something like, “Joseph Beuys, what’s up with all that?” Anyways enough on Jan, I thought it necessary to go on a bit about him as the below will just be about my total love for Bas Jan Ader. (Anything in quotes below is from to Verwoert’s book.)

In Search of the Miraculous was a work that contained parts, there was the part where Ader walked from dusk till dawn from Hollywood Hills to the Pacific Ocean in 1973; he took photographs of himself silhouetted in the deserted streets. Each image has lyrics from a Coaster’s song Searchin’ that talks of a man who is searching for his girl. Then there are is the projection of his UC Irvine students singing the sea shanty, A Life on the Ocean Wave. Then there are the posters and cards, one showing Ader as a blurry figure on a sailboat. Then there is the morning of July 9, 1975 when Ader sets sail from Cape Cod in a one man-yacht in quest to cross the Atlantic to the Netherlands. His boat was found ten months later on the coast of Ireland, no body was found.

Even though the ending of In Search of the Miraculous creates an aura of romantic tragic figure that we all love to have, it is only just a part. Ader’s work is not made more “authentic” because of his death. His work was based on formula, rationality, and direct evidence of the basics of human emotions. The work that drew me to him originally was I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1970-71). This is a black and white film of Ader’s face, close up at points, crying, there is no beginning or end, it just this. “Despite its intensity, however, the crying does not seem like a sudden emotional outburst. There is no dramatic build-up or climactic moment of release. Ader just cries. What he displays is not a momentary stir of emotion, but an elementary emotional state of grief.” In all of Ader’s works he is just a stand in. It is not about him, or anything specific it is about the thing that is being done. The before and after are only relative to what you want them to be. “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. As it isolated the idea of the sadness for no reason I’m Too Sad to Tell You can be read as an allegory of melancholy. Ader singles out a sentiment, which, in the history of ides, is as closely connected to the formation of modern subjectivity as the yearning for the sublime…” Verwoert then gives a quite interesting synopsis of conceptions on melancholia throughout time.

This gesture can also be seen in Ader’s Please Don’t Leave Me (1969), which is a photograph of a white wall that has the title’s text hand painted in black, it is spot lit. The words conjure an emotion that is featured as a presentation. It is speaking, begging this idea to you. “According to the way that Ader represents them, emotions are not motivated by other forces but are motivating forces in themselves. Rather than being products of subconscious causes, they are productive themselves in that they seek to trigger relations and analogous feelings.”

The book goes on to detailing and re-linking other performances and projects by Ader, there were unfortunately not very many, but all of these works speak to Ader’s unique approach to art making and very specifically in terms of conceptual art. Verwoert concisely references Sol Le Whitt’s 1967 Paragraphs on Conceptual Art to define the settings of this intellectual time and also to show how Ader was successful within this. Sol Le Whitt writes, “Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions.” This artistic stance was in reaction to the predominance of abstract expressionism, which was very much about the internal, heroic gesture. Le Whitt gives guidelines to making work, “To work with a plan that is pre-set is one way of avoiding subjectivity…The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Ader used this system to a T, he used a set of instructive actions to express an idea. The difference with him was that the idea/the concept was about; sadness, heroic journey, transcendence of gravity and of love. Ader followed all of the rules of conceptual art but gave it a pulse and made it something that does what any good art should do. Go to the core of something, just to take you there.

Anyone who has an interest in Ader should read this book and why there aren’t many more I have no clue. There is no doubt that Ader’s much too youthful death, he was only 33, does create the halo affect of cult magnetism, but there is much more to Ader then just him having to happened to die. He is, I think, a major influence, if not the major influence, of artists working today that are situating their artistic practices from a conceptual linage. The rigorousness of the form and the act of carrying out a formula is not enough today. There is the need for self-analysis, of the personal, not in a diary way but in a source material way. Being able to combine the two is a tool that is severely needed and used in contemporary art practices because now it isn’t just about revolting against the movement that just was or what is too popular because there is no movement. Post-post-post-Post Modernism, you did it, you won, thumbs up, we feel nothing. What Ader’s method lets us do is find a way to take this nothing and trace it, record it, systematize it and then realize that hey we may still feel something.