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Colin Marshall

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12. Bas Jan Ader's Selected Works (1970-71)
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Bas Jan Ader intrigues me. A man of many pursuits -- a conceptual artist, performance artist, photographer and filmmaker according to The Wikipedia alone -- he was in 1975 lost at sea and presumed dead while attempting a solo east-west Atlantic crossing. The journey was itself part of a performance piece entitled In Search of the Miraculous. I realize this sounds like a fate you'd actively avoid, but at least it was something, and as the years have passed, somethingness has become all I care about.

The first evident quality of this compilation is that there's something wrong with the sound. A reedy static blankets everything, rendering the films silent by forcing me to hit mute. Though I don't think this was intentional, it's unclear which link in the chain failed. Bad production audio? Glitchy film-to-video transfer? Faulty video export? I should e-mail Ubuweb about this, but probably won't. Maybe they already know. Maybe it is intentional.

Thus silenced, Ader comes off in these films as something of a conceptual Buster Keaton, his wiry, distant frame subjected to several stripes of physical turmoil. In 1970's Fall I (Los Angeles) and Fall II (Amsterdam), he takes a couple spills, the former in slow-motion off a roof, the latter on a bicycle straight into one of those urban rivers they're supposed have in the Netherlands. In Broken Fall (Geometric), Ader teeters for a while in a striking down-the-road shot before collapsing into something stting on a tripod. In Broken Fall (Organic), he hangs from the limb of a tree, wriggling and wriggling until ultimately accepting his fate: that of dropping into the river below.

In the middle comes I'm Too Sad to Tell You, Ader's most famous piece. Despite its renown, I can summon sadly little to say about it. He cries on camera for a while -- too sad to tell us anything, presumably -- which, I can already tell, was a popular artistic endeavor back in the 70s. It actually took me back to those old days of Acconci.

I found Nighfall, which ends the collection, considerably more interesting. It at first appears to be an Abu Ghraibish tableau, with Ader perched on a block as wires run across the ground. But on closer inspection, it's nothing of the sort. Ader was simply one of those unbelievably tall-and-skinny 70s art guys, and he's standing behind the block, not on it. The wires lead to two lightbulbs on the floor, which provide the barn's (or garage's) only illumination. He considers lifting the block, slowly hoists it, then manages to let it drop right onto one of the bulbs, leaving his surroundings half in shadow. It's a surprising, intriguing visual effect.

Though I enjoyed these small films and would watch them again, I get the feeling that they provide only a small, unrepresentative glimpse into what seems to have been the wholly artistic life of Bas Jan Ader. To the library!

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