I had never heard of Bas Jan Ader, the Netherlands artist (1942-1975), until I saw Rene Daalder’s fascinating documentary, Here is Always Somewhere Else (2007). Even though Ader has attained a huge – and still growing – cult following since the early 1990s when his work began to enjoy a major reappraisal in art circles, one has to wonder if the rising popularity of his work as a conceptual/performance artist, photographer and filmmaker is partly due to his mysterious disappearance and not necessarily his surviving accomplishments. To die for your art is one thing but to vanish without a trace while you are beginning to receive critical and public recognition almost guarantees than an artist who is young, handsome and enigmatic will achieve some degree of deification.
It is the handful of clips and excerpts from Ader’s films featured in Here is Always Somewhere Else that reveal a strikingly modern sensibility that combines the deadpan slapstick of a Buster Keaton comedy short with the austere bleakness of a Samuel Beckett play.
Ader’s career – and presumably his life – came to an end sometime after July 9th, 1975 when he departed from Cape Cod, armed with a tape recorder and camera in the Ocean Wave, a sail boat barely more than twelve feet in length. Ader was intent on sailing to Europe and setting the world record for the smallest transatlantic crossing ever attempted by one person. The voyage was planned as the centerpiece of a triptych entitled “In Search of the Miraculous;” the first part was a nocturnal photographic study of Los Angeles descending from the hills down to the sea and the final piece was to be a nighttime walk through Amsterdam that would utilize the same approach as the L.A. documentation.
The grand vision was never realized. After three weeks at sea, radio contact with Ader ceased. Ten months later, his partially submerged boat was found floating off the coast of Ireland but Ader’s body was never found. Was he washed overboard by a rogue wave? Did he commit suicide? Was it all an elaborate prank that went awry? Daalder’s film offers some speculation about what might have happened but what is most intriguing about Here is Always Somewhere Else is not Ader’s fateful final voyage but the portrait of the artist that emerges.
Interweaving portions of Ader’s biography with his own, Daalder, a fellow Dutchman, provides a number of surprising parallels between the two of them, focusing on their move to Los Angeles where their real careers began – Ader as an artist, Daalder as a filmmaker. They never met each other but their paths could have crossed several times. At one point the two men lived in the same neighborhood, just a few blocks apart.
In Holland while attending film school, Daalder had been part of the 1,2,3 group which included Jan de Bont and Frans Bromet. Like Daalder, de Bont also made the move to Hollywood and achieved overnight fame with his directorial debut Speed  and such big budget follow-ups as Twister  and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life . But he was much more prolific as a cinematographer, lensing such movies as Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man , Die Hard  and Basic Instinct . Bromet also became a cinematographer (Marleen Gorris’s A Question of Silence  and Jos Stelling’s The Pointsman  are among his credits).
Daalder, of course, went on to create a cult sensation with his exploitation thriller Massacre at Central High (1976), which was not typical drive-in fare. It took the revenge drama prototype and subverted it, turning the movie into a cautionary tale about the fine line between order and Fascism. Daalder also wrote an unproduced screenplay for Russ Meyer in 1974 called Hollywood Tower but in recent years has moved into “virtual reality filmmaking,” gaming, the internet (see the website SpaceCollective.org), and writing about “The Future of Everything.”
As for Bas Jan Ader, he was no child prodigy or early bloomer. He was born Bastiaan Johan Christiaan Ader and grew up in the grim shadow of World War II. His father, a Calvinist minister, was arrested by the Nazis for hiding Jews and executed while Ader was still an infant. At school, Ader proved to be a poor student, unmotivated or unable to excel at anything, a pattern that persisted through high school. In desperation, his mother sent him (at the age of 17) on a cultural exchange program with a Christian school in Washington, D.C. in 1960 where he found almost immediate fame. He sold a sketch to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and won the honor of having a one man show at D.C.’s Galerie Realite. Upon his return to Holland, however, he fell back into old patterns and it wasn’t until he emigrated to Los Angeles in the sixties, that he began to establish himself as a conceptual artist with a distinctive personal style.
Conceptual art not your bag? I run hot and cold on it but there is something pure and organic about Ader’s films that struck me instantly. The simplicity of the execution is disarming and also a hint that Ader was a prankster at heart. After all, he had been exposed to and influenced by the Fluxus art movement of the early sixties which used an often playful approach to execution and content as a direct reaction to the rigid, high culture view of art embraced by most institutions.
This is one of the other aspects of Here is Always Somewhere Else that is so informative; Daalder chronicles the various art happenings he experienced in his youth, including a Dutch movement in the mid-sixties which produced Wim Van der Linden’s Tulips (1966). In this work, a static still life of flowers in a bowl achieves a climatic dramatic moment (accompanied by a full orchestra on the soundtrack) as a solo petal falls to the table.
In contrast, Adler’s work is in a class of its own. To see him seated in a chair on his rooftop and slowly topple off it to the ground in slow motion may seem at first to be a dumb college stunt but the images resonate and stay with you. As you see more of Ader’s work you begin to realize he is using himself as an object in his own compositions, testing himself against his surroundings, inserting himself into the natural world. This is also something British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy occasionally does in his work as evidenced in the 2017 documentary, Leaning into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy.
The coinage “gravity films” is an easy label for such works as Fall (I Los Angeles) (1970) and Untitled (Teaparty) (1972) but that’s what they are with Ader suspending himself from a tree limb and dropping into a creek bed or having tea under a crate supported by a tree limb that collapses or by a riding his bicycle directly into a canal or leaning over until he topples into the underbrush by a garden path. Ader’s attempt to cross the Atlantic was just another variation on this same concept, which to quote Richard Dorment of the Telegraph, “was another way to lose control, to place himself at the mercy of a force greater than himself.”
While you may arrive at a better understanding of Ader’s art by watching Here is Always Somewhere Else, the artist himself remains inscrutable. Even his own brother in an interview admits that Bas Jan “was unwilling to verbalize his art” or even attempt to promote his career like his peers. He completely ignored the necessity to sell or market himself, which I find completely in tune with the persona he fashioned for himself.
Still, one feels great empathy for his wife, Mary Sue Andersen, who, in the brief interview bits Daalder provides, still appears to be in a state of emotional limbo since his disappearance and who wouldn’t be under the circumstances? Without actual proof of his death, how can she ever find closure?
The massive amount of personal articles Bas Jan left behind and are still housed in huge piles in her home (clothes, correspondence, books, etc.) is some kind of decaying, mouse-infested shrine to his memory and her own grief. You have to wonder what their relationship was like. In their wedding photos from Las Vegas we see him on crutches, which he brought for the occasion – a private joke? Another art happening?
The truth is evasive, obscured by the legend. And the legend looms large. Witness the amazing and exhilarating footage from the Gravity Art exhibit curated by Daalder in 2008 in Los Angeles on the Here is Always Somewhere Else DVD, featuring a wide range of video homages created by artists inspired by Ader’s work. It’s a shame he didn’t live to see it but in a way I feel that was part of his design all along.
A special 2-disc DVD of Here is Always Somewhere Else released through AgitPop Media and Cult Epics is still available for purchase from some online outlets and includes a Q&A with the Daalder at the Los Angeles Premiere at the Egyptian Theater, video documentation of the 2008 art exhibition dedicated to Ader’s legacy and various film and video works by Ader.
*This is an updated and revised version of an article that originally appeared on Movie Morlocks, the official blog of Turner Classic Movies, which is now known as Streamline.
Other websites of interest: