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First Solo Show in Spain Devoted to Bas Jan Ader's Work Opens
Documentary of the project by Bas Jan Ader "In Search of the Miraculous", 1975, Courtesy Bas Jan Ader Estate y Patrick Painter Editions. Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons Collection, New York.

By: Pedro de Llano

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA.- The exhibition In Search of the Miraculous: Thirty Years Later is the first solo show in Spain devoted to Bas Jan Ader’s work. Ader was born in The Netherlands in 1942 and disappeared somewhere in the Atlantic in 1975 while attempting to complete the second part of his project In Search of the Miraculous, which consisted in crossing the ocean from the United States to Europe in a thirteen- feet sailboat.

Ader had lived in California since he was 21 years old and formed part of the first generation of conceptual artists which arose in Los Angeles in the mid-sixties. He was one of the authors who explored most intensively the relationship between European and North American culture in the postwar era; the clash between Romanticism and existentialism on the one hand, and Hollywood, mass culture and consumerism on the other. Together with figures such as John Baldessari, Allen Ruppersberg or William Leavitt among others, Ader is one of the most notable artists of a city which in the past few years has become a main centre of cultural attention in the United States. His work reflects an experience in which fascination with the spaces and symbols of the Californian metropolis and an unmistakable feeling of isolation and desolation come together.

Through a critical and analytical attitude to his field and from a poetic vision of art as an uncertain path of discovery, Ader used himself as the protagonist of each of his works and explored the emotional intensity of danger in many of his experiences, documenting them subsequently through photographs, texts and black-and-white films. Concepts such us risk, falling, failure and disappearance were constant features in his artistic career. The artist, through the coherent unity maintained between his life experience and his creative action, merely intended to clear the path towards the knowledge of very different sensations without shying away from risk of any kind… If he managed to transmit these feelings, causing in his addressees a clear emotional reaction, he had achieved his aim. It is without a doubt this radical and pioneering artistic position which has caused the admiration that his oeuvre has awoken in numerous artists of subsequent generations.

The project "In Search of the Miraculous: Thirty Years Later" is centred around the last episode in a creative life that was marked by adventure and by a constant and personal challenge to natural and cultural limits. With a minuscule sporting boat he faced alone the insurmountable energy of the ocean with the aim of experiencing sensations and perceptions which led to unknown territory, both physical and psychological. Unfortunately, the result was his disappearance. But the Ocean Wave, the boat in which the artist set out in July 1975 to challenge nature to its ultimate consequences in his posthumous work, was found months later, capsized, in the Irish Box fishing grounds by the Spanish trawler Eduardo Pondal whose base was the port of Corunna.

This event was essential to the understanding of the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, and constitutes the focus of the exhibition proposal. In it, starting from a collection of material gathered together after a period of research which began in 2005, the process which led to one of his most symbolic works is documented. Elements such as the report from the marine command, in which the story of the boat’s discovery is accounted for, the last photographs of the boat in the port of Corunna, manuscripts, a short documentary film with direct testimonials from the people who participated in the rescue, navigation charts, books about ocean crossings and other unpublished material, all help to reconstruct the memory of this tragic event and the end of one of the most attractive contributions to the conceptual art of the time.

The exhibition begins with a news item from the Los Angeles Times newspaper, published on the 6th of January 1963, which tells of Ader’s arrival in the United States aboard the Felicidad sailing boat, after a crossing which took him from Morocco to San Diego, with stops at Martinique and the Panama Canal. This voyage lasted eleven months and concluded when the sailboat in which the artist was travelling together with its Los Angeles owner, Neil Tucker, was found—wrecked and almost devoid of food and water—and towed to the coast of California by the US Marine destroyer Blaine.

As well as this kind of documentary material, which contributes to the definition of Bas Jan Ader’s life and the influence that it had on his work, the exhibition is completed with a large selection of pieces which emphasise the main themes which Bas Jan Ader developed throughout his brief career, as a precedent to his last project. On the one hand, there will be a group of works —created between 1967 and 1974— dealing with subjects such as falling, failure, adventure or disappearance, and offering some clues to understanding the reasons why the artist took such an extreme risk in his search for the miraculous.

In this sense, one of the most convincing of Ader’s works, and in which the idea of falling is most explicitly represented, was The Boy who Fell over Niagara Falls (1972). In this piece, the artist is sitting on a chair close to a table on which a small lamp and a glass of water are placed. Without looking at the camera, Ader reads an article from the Reader’s Digest about a child who survived after falling down the Niagara Falls. He reads the story slowly, making brief pauses between sentences to have a drink of water. When the story comes to a conclusion and the glass of water is finished, he gets up and moves off-screen. This work contains the elements which were important to Ader in the last phase of his work: the fall, water, time and the risk of death.

Later, the artist tried to take this logic of fatality and disappearance to its very last consequences in his posthumous work, In Search of the Miraculous, the first phase of which, exhibited at the Claire Copley Gallery of Los Angeles in 1975, will be reconstructed in its entirely at the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea. This show constitutes the second part of the exhibition and precedes the presentation of the documents which relate Ader to Galicia.

All these works, as well as a collection of documents from different American, Dutch and Spanish archives (letters, texts, photographs, newspaper clippings, etc.), make up an exhibition proposal which aims to contextualise and provide access to his artistic project and his incredible life, marked by fatality from the beginning, due his father’s execution during the Second World War for helping Jews flee from the Nazis. Among this set of works and documents, previously unseen and particularly symbolic elements will be presented, such as the last photographs of the Ocean Wave in Corunna—before it mysteriously disappeared, for a second time, from the port itself—and one of the few objects which were rescued from the shipwreck; the sextant which Ader kept in the sailboat in order to get his bearings.

It is not therefore a conventional retrospective, but the presentation of an unknown and singular perspective, through the account which is centred around the In Search of the Miraculous project and tells the story in a different manner from the way it has been previously done. A story which, curiously, begins and ends in San Diego—the Californian city and the port in Corunna of the same name—and which speaks indirectly of Galicia in 1976: of the Atlantic ocean, work at sea, the Irish Box, of the fishermen who found Ader’s boat and of a very specific social moment of transition from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy.

All these ingredients make the figure of Bas Jan Ader widely transcend the art world to the point of becoming a legend—enigmatic, contradictory and paradoxical—of contemporary culture, which is projected and developed in time outside of his own existence. The approach of the exhibition takes on this ambiguous reality. Thus, the presentation of a series of objective facts—such as his works, the documents about his life and the pieces of evidence about the fatal outcome of his journey—do not avoid the irremediable association of the mystery and the circumstances which still surround his disappearance with the spirit with which legends, tales and other popular narratives are composed, nor the bringing to mind of the plots of classical tragedies, such as Sisyphus—masterfully told by his admired Albert Camus—, in which the absurdity and futility of life are the main storyline.

Ader closely followed the Pindar’s verse which precedes the French writer’s text while he tried to reach Land’s End in England: “Oh my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.”

The Dutch journalist Erik Beenker suggests at the end of an article that he devoted to Ader that “perhaps”, on his last journey, the artist “discovered that the Earth is flat after all, and simply fell over the edge.” Beenker thus summarised the central themes of Ader’s work: falling, as an inevitable physical phenomenon, and failure, as a metaphor for life.

It is probably from this uncertain territory, halfway between reality and fiction, that Bas Jan Ader’s work stimulates, even today, imagination.

The exhibition will be on view through September 5, 2010 at Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea

Santiago de Compostela | "In Search of the Miraculous" | Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea | Bas Jan Ader |

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