Monday, September 01, 2008

Here Is Always Somewhere Else

DVD review for Cameraworks Fall/Winter Issue 2008

Here is Always Somewhere Else is a documentary film by Rene Daalden which pieces together the brief life of the enigmatic artist Bas Jan Ader (1942-1975) who was lost at sea during the creation of his final performance, In Search of the Miraculous. In 1975, Ader attempted to cross the North Atlantic in a twelve foot six inch sailboat named “Ocean Wave” from Massachusetts to Ireland, but only his vessel reached the Irish coast some six months later. For an artist whose films, photos, and performances were often framed around profound failure—images of the artist falling, colliding, crying—this final gesture seemed prophetic and staged, but continues to be a mystery for even those closest to him.

Thirty years later and upon the urging of Ader’s widow, Mary Sue Anderson, Rene Daalden began retracing Bas Jan Ader’s footsteps, which were often parallel to Daalden’s own—from Calvinist families in a small city in Holland to the no religion manmade landscape of Los Angeles. The two figures became aliens in both their assumed hometown and their actual homeland, or as Daalden states “home is never the same as you remember” for emigrants. While Ader took the path of conceptual art, Daalden became a feature film director, and his expertise in a more traditional movie realm serves this nearly impossible-to-recreate story well. Through the hazy lens of three decades past, Daalden successfully makes sense of Ader’s journey from failed artist in his lifetime to one of the most mythical and influential artists of today, using testimonies and excerpts of related works by contemporary artists like Charles Ray, Richard Serra, Tacita Dean, Marcel Broodthaers, Ger van Elk, Pipilotti Rist, and Rodney Graham, peppered throughout his story. In this way, Here is Always Somewhere Else is also a rare and engaging survey of contemporary art film and video.

Daalden begins the film by asserting how difficult it is to really know another human being, demonstrated by a visit to Ader’s widow’s home in Claremont, California, which only serves to heighten the mystery. Even the artist’s wife is bewildered by Ader’s intentions, and keeps the residue of his work—postcards for exhibitions, photographs, and notes--buried under a chaotic pile of junk, complete with scurrying rodents and shades of Grey Gardens happy madness. Mary Sue makes a suggestion to Daalden to use his own intuition to trace Bas Jan Ader’s journey, and this becomes the device for Daalden’s exploration of both his journey and Ader’s. Through archival images of Ader’s art films and Daalden’s feature films, the director discovers the overlapping themes of gravity, pilgrimages, and the search for one’s destiny—heavy subjects that Ader approached with comic self-deprecation and Daalden with camp. Interviews with Ader’s relatives and peers prove less revealing, and serve only to underscore the confusion that surrounded his brief life. Amazingly, the most profound statements come from the people who never knew Ader, namely the sailor Henk De Velde, who has circum-navigated the globe five times, and states with acuteness awareness that Ader was searching for the in-between moments--after the fall but before the impact--when you let go of this world for a instant.

With snippets of films of the artist falling from a tree into a stream, riding his bicycle into a canal, rolling off of his rooftop, and forcing himself to cry on camera, the documentary depicts a hopeless romantic, whose sentimentality was cultural and deep-rooted in a tragic family history, but ill-matched for the time, which favored Fluxus and irony. The real clue to Ader’s work comes from the story of his parents, resistance heroes who hid Jews in their home during World War II, leading to the execution of his father, when Ader was only a toddler. Their heroic gestures and constant search for divine meaning, left an impression on Ader that he could only express through trying to always be somewhere else, to become part of the cosmos or an ocean wave.

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