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Awesome Men Throughout History: Bas Jan Ader

This week’s Awesome Men Throughout History column is one of those situations where you deserve a high-five if you’ve ever heard of the subject, because Bas Jan Ader isn’t a name that gets thrown around mainstream media a lot. Or ever, really. I only found out who he was because a friend of mine wrote a poem about him a couple years back (note: I have weird friends). But Bas Jan Ader is one of those artists whose work deserves a chance at gaining a wider audience. If nothing else, he was one of the few installation artists who was a genuine oddball and not just a pretentious hipster.

The great Bas

And his name is fun to say. Go on, say it out loud. Bas Jan Ader. See, you can’t help but smile.

Anyway, Bas Jan Ader was born in Holland, in 1942. Two years later, his father was literally taken into the woods and shot by the Nazis for harboring Jewish refugees. Bas never got over it, which is understandable, and a lot of his short films and installation pieces could be seen as expressions of loss and grief.

As a young man, he attended art school at the Rietveld Academy and promptly flunked out because  he only used one sheet of paper the entire time he was there, completing and then erasing his assignments. From there, he hitchhiked to Morocco and worked as a deckhand on a yacht headed to America, which shipwrecked off the coast of California. Bas stayed there for the rest of his life, enrolling at the Otis Art Institute and marrying the daughter of the school’s director.

As 1970 rolled around, Bas (who looked like he could have played bass for the Rolling Stones at that point) made a number of short, silent, black-and-white films of himself falling. In one of them, he tumbles off the roof of his house. In another, he hangs from a tree branch until his arms give out. In a third, he bikes into a canal. The Telegraph’s Richard Dorment said that “Ader sets himself up for failure in these works, presenting himself as hopelessly incompetent, unable to hold on, to keep his balance, or to stand upright,” and calls him “the artistic heir to Buster Keaton.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but his Falling series is weirdly funny, because watching people fall down is funny. America’s Funniest Home Videos made a lot of money exploiting that basic truth, and it’s just as true in Bas’ work.

Bas also dabbled in photography; in his eighteen photograph Searchin’ series, he documented himself documenting Los Angeles’ suburban landscape on foot. Each photographs has lyrics from the “Searchin’ ” scrawled across it in white letters. This project was a kind of sarcastic response to artists who thought the romantic idea of pastoral American landscapes was dishonest because most people spent their time in suburbs, freeways, and parking lots. Hard to tell who’s being more smug there, but I’ll cut Bas some slack because I can’t picture those other guys taking pratfalls for the sake of conceptual art.

Besides, Bas didn’t stick around all that long. In 1975, he attempted to sail across the Atlantic in a 12½ foot sailboat and disappeared. His boat was eventually found, half-submerged off the coast of Ireland, but there was no sign of Bas. It’s assumed that he drowned out there, unless he stumbled upon some kind of Atlantis-like underwater metropolis and moved in with Amelia Earhart or something.

It’s sad when really weird, creative people die without seeing their work catch on, and it’s somehow sadder when they disappear. Like his father, Bas went out into the wilds and never returned. But he did leave some cool, challenging art behind for us to enjoy. I’ll leave you with his falling-off-the-roof video and let you find the rest.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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