How much should an artist’s life affect how we look at their work? In Death Is Elsewhere, which is more akin to a literary biography than a monograph, Alexander Dumbadze dedicates as many words to relaying the details of Bas Jan Ader’s life and death as he does to describing and contextualising the artist’s work. The result is one of the most enjoyable and affecting academic studies you might hope to read.
Ader was lost at sea in 1975 while sailing the Atlantic as part of a planned multifaceted work-in-three-parts entitled In Search of the Miraculous (1972–). The tragedy, like any premature death, has tended to shroud the artist’s name in myth, unhelpfully generating retrospective symbolism within his earlier work. Dumbadze, an associate professor of art history at George Washington University, endeavours to rebalance the widespread knowledge of Ader’s death with a detailed picture of the artist’s life; his Calvinist upbringing in Holland; the death of his father, a minister, at the hands of the Nazis; his early long-haul sailing trips; his love of Los Angeles, where he studied and settled after graduation; the absurdist slapstick jokes he used to play; his simultaneous ambition and ambivalence vis-à-vis the careerist game.
But Dumbadze also engages in a more general investigation into the relationship between an artist and his practice, using Ader as the quintessential case study. And it’s here that the book gets exciting. Ader appears in many of his own early videos; in Fall 1, Los Angeles (1970) he’s seen on a chair, the legs of which straddle the apex of the roof of his suburban home. The slowed-down 16mm film shows the artist leaning slightly to his right, propelling himself forward; the chair scoots from beneath him and he begins his tumbling descent to the garden below. Just as iconic is the same year’s Fall 2, Amsterdam, where Ader deliberately veers his bike into a canal. Yet as the artist wrote in 1971, ‘I do not make body sculpture, body art or body works.’ Where, then, does the art fall in the falling works? Is the film the work? Or is the act? Ader’s statement seems to suggest that it’s certainly not the latter. Dumbadze’s proposal, too, is that the work lay within the artist himself. Ader can represent the act of falling, but never recreate it fully – the air, the fear, the thud to the ground, the cold canal – for his audience.
Three years prior to his death, Ader started to play the futures market. He only told a couple of friends about it, in passing, claiming it to be a work. If so, it was a totally undocumented one, save for a single mention in a letter from 1972 to the founders of the Amsterdam gallery Art & Project. The interiority of art – the idea that an art object is defined by the artist and not the presence of an audience – is difficult to square with the experiential nature of much of today’s performative practice and the critique surrounding it. Yet Dumbadze goes on to make a persuasive case, bringing a wide variety of artists into his discussion. Duchamp’s issuing of promissory notes to fund his roulette habit (having all but abandoned making ‘conventional’ works) is given as a precursor to Ader’s futures project. The people who lent Duchamp money did so knowing that a signed slip of paper was worth more than the amount they were giving the father of Conceptualism to gamble with. Yet whether it was an art project or not, only Duchamp knew. Likewise, the author notes that it’s solely for Gilbert & George to decide ‘when they are art and when they are just ordinary individuals’, and that Rirkrit Tiravanija’s cooking and serving a meal ‘transforms the ordinary into the artistic’. It’s a convincing if brainteasing take on art in which its creator is present.
Finally the reader is left with the question of Ader’s death. It came about in the pursuit of a specific work, yet the artist’s loss at sea – his boat found capsized south of Ireland on 18 April 1976, his body never recovered – was not the project’s intended outcome. To follow Dumbadze’s excellently researched argument, the answer to the question of whether we should treat In Search of the Miraculous as being a finished or unfinished work went, sadly, to Ader’s watery grave.
This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue