Contemporary performance art has given us so many controversial stories that one must see them to believe them. We’ve seen artists enduring all sorts of torture, in the name of art, to expose their own emotions, deep thoughts, as well as perceptions of social problems. Although much could be said about the artistic quality of this popular and polemic form of art, there’s one thing we could all agree on, and that’s the commitment of its performers to their message. We have artists allowing their audience to do anything they want on them with objects displayed on a table (including knives and a gun), a woman recording and projecting her own hymenoplasty, or the artist who nailed his testicles to the pavement of the Red Square to protest against Putin’s authoritarianism. The list of stories is vast, but can you imagine an artist planning his own death as part of a performance?
This is the question many have asked regarding the tragic disappearance of Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader who, in 1975, boarded his little ship and attempted to become the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the smallest boat possible. His “Ocean Wave” was a four-meter boat that even the best sailing expert would not dare to sail, thinking it is an insane idea. Actually, no one will ever know what he was thinking, and more importantly, what really happened to him in the middle of the ocean. The only thing we know is that three weeks after the expedition started, his radio lost its signal, so it was impossible to track him. His small boat was found some miles away from the Irish coast, but that was it. Forty-two years have passed since the incident, and it seems we’ll never know what happened to Bas Jan.
But why do people assume it might have been Ader himself the one who planned that ending? To answer that we must first take a look at his life. Born in 1942 in the Netherlands, he was the son of a Calvinist priest who helped hide Jewish people from persecution during the war. However, his method wasn’t very effective and only two years after the birth of his son he was arrested and executed. His mother continued in charge of the church but was also found and forced to abandon her house with her children. Ader started his artistic formation in Amsterdam during his adolescence and soon moved to California to pursue a professional career in art.
Among his most famous works are his performance films in which, as it’s often described, he makes of gravity the essence of his artistic vision. In these you can see him hanging from a thin branch of a tree and fall into the water, riding his bike directly into a river, or even falling from the roof of his house. Although it would seem that his art is only another example of those random conceptual works, according to Richard Dorment’s article for The Telegraph, his works project all the tragedies in his life. For instance, the photo series where we see him in the middle of the forest just falling into the ground is a reenactment of his father’s execution. The ones showing clothes seemingly thrown out the window resemble the moment his mother was forced to abandon their home.
His art evokes sorrow. It makes you feel and relate to what was inside him, showing us his emotions and struggle against depression. Perhaps that connection between his life and his work is what makes many think that his voyage through the Atlantic was nothing else but a suicide attempt turned into art. While we’ll never know what he felt, his disappearance could be interpreted as a man’s wish to personify his craft, or even a cry for losing himself in the immensity of life, making the vast sea his last abode.
There’s something about conceptual and performative art that strikes us because it doesn't seem to have a clear purpose, or just because it takes us out of our comfort zone. Those that are made with quality and an artistic foundation can make us meditate on our own role in this life and push us to discover things about us we didn’t know existed. Others simply make us realize all those things that are wrong with this world in a more obvious way. And there are those that only seem to be art when they’re not. That’s why this form of art can become such a problematic discipline.
If you’re interested in this particular branch of art, we recommend these: