a short essay on bas jan ader

*Please note the work “Nightfall” in the video below is incomplete. The full version can be viewed here under “Selected works”.

Bas Jan Ader: Selected works 1970-71

Edith Rothwell

“Bas Jan had a great enthusiasm for philosophy, and he wanted to create an art that had no artifice, an art that was based on absolute and irrefutable truths like those of mathematics. He had ‘no truck’ as he would say, with a lie that told the truth. His work however arrived at something quite opposite of this absolute. He arrived at poetic recognition of the Sisyphean struggle entailed in achieving such a goal. I think his despair over this inevitability drove him to solipsistic works wherein he asserted irrefutably ideas like ‘All my clothes’ or ‘I’m too sad to tell you.’”

“As well as his desire for concrete truth, he had a corresponding attraction to the imperfect, the broken, the mistaken, and the misunderstood. That his father died a martyred hero in WW II had something to do with this. His father was the absolute ideal that existed powerfully in his imagination, but there was however, no balancing image of a fallible human being by which he could gauge himself, and he therefore could only participate with a handicap in the natural process of the son striving to surpass the father. In what I think is one of his best works, ‘The boy who fell over Niagara Falls,’ he reads the story of this mishap as it is printed in a popular magazine, while he himself drinks a glass of water slowly, sip by sip. To me he is saying that only through distanced words and gentle action can he evoke the poignancy of this lack, and that his relationship to heroism must be metaphoric.” – Bill Leavitt

Bas Jan Ader’s work is characterised by a series of deliberate failures and disappearances leading to the final, permanent one. His films seem to open a series of voids, to expose fissures between experience and observation. There is no context or explanation; he tells us nothing. The images remain obscure and uninterpreted; the situations within withdraw from us, erase themselves as we watch.

I’m too sad to tell you (1971) consists of one static shot of the artist weeping before a white background. He cries in a fairly introverted but total manner. We see nothing beside his head and shoulders and occasionally a hand. His face registers nothing but grief. His despair has obliterated everything else; the rest of the world has ceased to exist. The reason for his sadness remains unknown – as the title points out, the fact of it renders the cause incommunicable. It too has been destroyed. Without context, his sorrow is almost meaningless. It has no edges, no form we can grip, no possible end. It is at once void and totality, in the manner of Yves Klein’s cobalt-blue colour field paintings. There is no way to address or interpret it. For the period of the film we experience only his all-encompassing, overwhelming grief. Perhaps the lack of a reason is necessary – with no way to rationalise or limit his sorrow, we can only experience it totally.

In Fall II (1970) Ader deliberately rides his bike into a canal. The film ends abruptly as bike, man and water meet and disappear. Fall I, from the same year, opens with the artist seated on a chair on the roof of his house. He loses balance and he and the chair fall together. He lands out of view behind a bush, but the chair gets stuck and never hits the ground. The subject of the film is his fall and disappearance. There is never any explanation of the initial setup of a man on a chair on a roof, only the collapse of this arrangement and a partial return to a normal situation (the man ends up on the ground, although the chair remains on the edge of the roof). The marks left by the filmed event – the chair testifying to his loss and failure much as his sailing boat would later testify to his real disappearance.

In Broken Fall (Geometric) (1971) the artist sways in space like a jerky pendulum. His movement echoes the trees blowing in the wind on either side of him, but awkwardly, arhythmically, unnaturally. Eventually he overbalances and collapses to his right, toppling over a trestle. This event takes on a path leading to some kind of monument. The space of the shot recedes away from us, but the action all takes place on a contradictory perpendicular plane, across the width of the screen. When he and the trestle fall the longitudinal space of the shot reasserts itself and the confusing, impenetrable structure of the shot collapses. The void caused by our inability to understand or explain this structure (almost mechanical with its swaying motion and angular form) snaps shut. In Broken Fall (Organic), again from 1971, he undergoes a true downward fall through space. We see him falling under gravity but as he is falling he doesn’t himself experience it. This paradox forms another manifestation of loss: for us to understand what he is experiencing, he must himself cease to experience it.

Nightfall (1971) takes place in what appears to be a garage lit by two lightbulbs on the floor. Ader stands behind a large rock. He tries to lift it above his head; he fails and it crushes one of the bulbs. He half-disappears in the darkness. He tries again, and again drops it, crushing the other bulb. The whole process appears as one of self-erasure. All of his actions lead to the creation of a void that unifies him, the rock, the space of the garage and the camera.

The series of abstracted, inexplicable events in Ader’s work force us to experience them without a protective screen of rationalisation. He resists meaning and narrative and perhaps also language itself as an obstruction – once you can condense an event into a coherent story, you experience it at one remove. He confronts us with an absence of narrative, a void of total experience – an insistence that occurrence and void, existence and disappearance, are one and the same.


Ader, Bas Jan. Selected works, 1970-71. Available at http://www.basjanader.com/ under “Selected Works”.

van Calmthout, Martijn. To fall is to understand the universe. Article from de Volksrant [date unknown]. http://www.basjanader.com/dp/Calmthout.pdf

Dean, Tacita. And he fell into the sea. [date unknown]. http://www.basjanader.com/dp/Dean.pdf

Heiser, Jörg. Emotional Rescue. Article from Frieze Magazine Issue 71, 2002. http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/emotional_rescue/

Horvitz, David. Rarely Seen Bas Jan Ader Film. 2006. Available at http://www.basjanader.com/ under “Selected Works”, “Homages”.

Leavitt, Bill and Ader, Bas Jan. Quotations of Bas Jan Ader. [date unknown]. http://www.basjanader.com/dp/Leavitt.pdf


Marchant, Steven. Nothing counts: shot and event in Werckmeister Harmonies. Article from New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film Volume 7 Number 2, 2009. http://content.ebscohost.com.lcproxy.shu.ac.uk/ContentServer.asp?T=P&P=AN&K=45088468&S=R&D=f3h&EbscoContent=dGJyMMvl7ESeqK44zdnyOLCmr0yep7BSsKa4S66WxWXS&ContentCustomer=dGJyMPGtt0qxrbRIuePfgeyx44Dt6fIA

Spence, Brad. The Case of Bas Jan Ader. [date unknown]. http://www.basjanader.com/dp/Spence.pdf