Culture | A lesson in gravity

A Dutch artist’s experiments with the fine art of falling

At one point or another we have all tried to spit in the face of gravity, whether by jumping off the stairs attached to a pair of cardboard wings, or simply leaving the house without a bra. This courageous – or foolish – struggle against the earth’s pull is the subject of a series of short films by Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, composed in the 1970s, in which he portrays himself in various acts of falling. Ader is nearly as well-known for his tragic demise as he is for his life’s work: he was lost at sea while attempting to cross the Atlantic in a tiny sailboat. It has even been said that his fall off the face of the earth was a dramatic final performance. Six of his films are currently being shown at the Dazibao Centre de Photographies Actuelles, in an exhibit aptly titled Gravité.

The films play silently on three white walls of the small, bare gallery space, inviting viewers to quietly contemplate the artist’s flirtations with disaster. In Fall 2, we watch as Ader, cycling down the streets of Amsterdam, suddenly and deliberately steers his bicycle into a nearby canal. In Broken Fall (Organic), the drop is more drawn-out: he moves further and further out onto the branch of a tall tree, eventually dropping into a stream below. Also included in an adjoining room is the famed I’m Too Sad To Tell You, a close-up of the artist’s face as he struggles to convey a difficult piece of news. Sitting in pitch-darkness across from Ader’s life-sized image on a television screen, as he vacillates between pained sobs and attempts at self-composure, we feel ourselves to be part of an intimate conversation. In all four films, the viewer is invited to engage directly with Ader in a sympathy that is heightened by complete silence.

In a somewhat convoluted press release for the exhibition, France Choinière claims that Ader’s work “sets out to render a generic depiction of Romantic emotions through the conceptual experience of staging them.” The emotions she is referring to are the terrible awe and trepidation that one experiences when confronted with the sublime, that quality of sheer magnitude and power usually ascribed to forces of nature. The Romantics believed that a bewildering confrontation with the sublime led one to a state of enlightenment crucial to the creative process. But Ader’s art, rather than a creative product of awe and terror, is a depiction of the artist actually experiencing these feelings. Setting himself up for a fall, he portrays himself being literally overcome by the sublime forces of gravity. I’m Too Sad To Tell You, while ostensibly of a different nature than the other films, shows the artist similarly conquered by another force – that of overpowering grief.

In each of the Fall films, Ader’s demise results from a curious mixture of his own action and superior forces – he is thus the hero of a sort of highly literal miniature tragedy. In Fall 1, for example, though he sits himself in a rickety chair on the roof of a two-story home, it is decidedly gravity that pulls him down into the shrubbery. As spectators, we are helpless to prevent the tragic climax, and can only cringe as our hero surrenders to the inevitable. Despite this, the atmosphere of the films is far from somber. Ader performs his stunts with a slapstick theatricality that recalls the silent comedy of Charlie Chaplin; in Broken Fall (Geometric), he leans precariously to the side repeatedly before toppling onto a wooden sign, as we knew he eventually would. By toying with viewers’ expectations, Ader forms a relationship between hero and spectator that prevents the conceptual aspect of his work from being isolating.

It is this element of human connection that makes the films oddly compelling, intellectual considerations aside. Ader’s silent falls, unmistakably deliberate, suggest the ways in which human beings are both fearful of and responsible for their own acts of falling – falling in love, falling out of love, falling from grace. Like Ader, after plummeting, we can do nothing but brace ourselves against the impact.