FA(I)LLING | miguel leal

Miguel Leal

Try again. Fail again. Better Again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.
Samuel Beckett

In the morning of the 18th of April of 1976, while sailing 100 miles south of the Irish cost, a Galician fishing boat spotted the semi-submerged hull of a small sail-boat that didn't reach to 4 meters long. Adrift in the open sea and with no signs of recent occupation, the boat was found at vertical position, with the bow underwater and the stern out of water. In the interior, amongst many other objects, a passport in the name of Baastian Johan Christiaan Ader was found. It was indeed the Ocean Wave, the boat in which, in July 9th of 1975, the Dutch origin artist Bas Jan Ader had left from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, having has final destination the port of Falmouth in Great-Britain. It wasn't the first time that Ader crossed the Atlantic in a sail boat. Back in 1963, being 20 years old, after travelling by hitch-hiking through France and Spain, he embarked in a sail-boat in Morocco that would take him in a long and troubled 11-month journey to San Diego, California, with passages in Martinique and the Panama Canal. Established since then in Los Angeles, to Bas Jan Ader the Ocean Wave journey was a sort of more or less romantic return to the place from where he first took off, years before. Yet, when he planned to face by himself the Atlantic Ocean in a risky adventure – and never tried before under such circumstances –, Ader had the objective of concluding his project In Search of the Miraculous and we can say, by that, that is constituted above all a radical aesthetic experiment. Although there were some adaptations, the chosen boat, a Guppy 13 Pocket Cruiser, a small pleasure sail-boat very popular at the time in California, didn't seemed the most appropriate for the trip.

Challenging the Atlantic alone in a nutshell was to Ader just another way to rehearse the hard crossing between tragedy and farce, ultimate attempt to push to the limit the confrontation with the ideas of risk, fall, fail or disappearance that seem to dominate is work.

In Search of the Miraculous was then the radical gesture demanded to an artist that experimented in a very particular way the so claimed fusion between life and work that marked the 60's and 70's decades. Actually, Ader integrated the first generation of conceptual artists from the East Cost but since early on his work showed a poetic dimension that approached him to the long tradition of Romanticism. There is, even though, an absurd and tragic-comic side that also allows to establish a relation his work with the specific burlesque mechanics. Let us see, for instance, how Ader faces gravity in two 1970 short films – Fall I and Fall II.

In the first, we see him seated on a chair at the top of a roof from where he finally falls down, suddenly and helpless; in the second, he's cycling along a canal and then suddenly falls into water. With no evident explanation, the two falls are absurd and are maybe closer to the Buster Keaton's slapstick comedy than to the great romantic tragedy. For that same reason, tha way Ader combine that tragic-comic dimension with the melancholy present in his lonely figure, in movies like I'm Too Sad to Tell You, 1971, in which he cries compulsively in front of the camera, or in Broken Fall (Organic), same year, in which he pathetically swings from a tall tree until he leaves himself fall into the water, transform his work in a singular variant of conceptual art and, at the same time, has someone claimed, in an uncommon synthesis between Europe and America.
The first part of the project In Search of the Miraculous was presented at Los Angeles few time before from the Ocean Wave departure and its second moment should have resulted from the solitary Ader's trip, to which he was planning, already, amongst others, an exhibition at the Groningen Museum in Holland. Well, Ader ended to disappear somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, in a weirdly topographic way to define the idea of interruption e maybe the only one that could in good will complete a project that intended taking to the limit the central ideas of his work. When the Ocean's Wave stern was found, 10 months after departure, is was already covered with algae and molluscs and therefore, it was estimated that it was adrift for several months. It is just known that radio contact was lost three weeks after Ader left and it seems that something happened after already had passed Azores. The signs found at the boat were not sufficient to reconstitute what happened. The Ocean Wave was brought by the Galician Fishing Boat to La Coruña port but it would mysteriously disappear a second time, not long time after, and now for good. From the Ocean Wave it remained not much more than some pictures, helping to intensify the mystery in turn of the Bas Jan Ader last trip.

At the 2005 Biennale di Venezia Joachim Koester presented Message from Andrée, a play in which we can find signs of his ghost hunter vocation. The starting point for Koester was the failed trip, in 1897, of the Swedish explorers Salomon A. Andrée, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel, that wanted to fly a balloon over the North Pole. The balloon, baptised with an imperial bird name – Örnen (Eagle) –, left Danskoya, near Spitsbergen, in the Arctic, at the 11th of July 1897, but, after three days, a phew hundred kilometres far from the departure point, it felt in the ice, to never rise again. Andrée, Strindberg and Frænkel roamed adrift on the implacable ice of the Arctic during several weeks until they settled, with intentions of passing the winter, in a small inhabited island – Kvitoya [White Island] –, where they ended dying in uncertain day of the month of October. The heroic disappearance of the expedition stood evolved in mystery during over thirty years, until, in 1930, it was found, almost intact, the tented camp in Kvitoya. There were the bodies of three man, their logbooks and the photographic films in which Strindberg, the photographer, methodically saved the group shenanigans. At that time, this unlikely discover had furor in and outside Sweden, having the expedition adventures reconstitution helped to feed the imaginary of many readers. Joachim Koester was not, therefore, the first to interest about the fatality and contingencies of the fate of the expedition on a balloon over the North Pole, but he did it in a very particular way. Koester's work is filled with dark matters and awkward figures, moving itself ambiguously between documentary and fiction; yet, the core of the instalation in Venezia was not so much the history of the three adventurers but a 16mm format video, a silent and almost abstract film. Of the recovered films specially prepared by Kodak to the expedition, 5 were recovered in 1930, already exposed, one of them still inside the camera. Surprisingly, after all that time, it was immediately possible to unveil almost a hundred images. Some of the films, covered by risks and stains, had stay almost illegible, but it were precisely those physical marks of its fate that retained Koester's attention. To Message from Andrée, the artist filmed, frame by frame, the inopportune stains that filled the one day immaculate white of the landscapes pictured in Nils Strindberg photos. The final result is paradoxical, silent and abstract, something that can be described like the noise that certain sound or visual spectrum are able to produce. Koester chose to concentrate in the plastic qualities of the images, in the precise sense of a plasticity that directly arises from the opening to chance and change, to accident and contingency. In the video we are confronted with that sort of plasticity autonomy of the photographic emulsion that releases the images of a documentary function and devoid of any value of indexing. So, it was more about the visionary and hallucinatory potential of those stains than the reference of the photos to a tragic past, which attracted Koester's imagination. The adrift of the three man on the loose ice plaques, with all that has of dramatic psico-geography and a game with chance, finds in the film a visual emulating of telepathic and hallucinatory character. From the desolate landscapes of the Arctic, pictured by Nils Stindberg, remain the unshaped stains that chance produced, and it is precisely that noise, that chance music many times interpreted as a mistake or uncomfortable failure, that constitutes the substance of Koester's intervention. There's an unconscious that hides in the old and used films found at Kvitoya, an unconscious without which those images would not be what they are and in those that appear in Venezia as an abstract and silent narrative, simple homage not only to the disgraced adventure on the Arctic ice but also to the self-poetic and imaginative potential of things, in particular those stains that gained own life and re-appeared at surface as the ultimate message from Andrée. (1)

Beckett's shadow and the circularity implied of the syncopated beat of the Worstward Ho (1983) – Try again, Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again... – pursues me for several years as a possible mark of an ontology of the artistic practice. It is not something from which you can write directly about and so I recurred to a dislocation effect in which the reference to the Örnen fall and to the stains of Koester's film are like a metonymy that allows me to keep talking about suspension and the apparent failure of the Bas Jan Ader journey. With this method I hope to allow the discovery that none of the trips truly failed because what matters is try again to fail again, just fail better, once and for all still worse again...(1)

This text was in part motivated by the exhibition In Search of the Miraculous: Thirty Years Later, presented between May and September of 2010, at the Galician Centre for Contemporary Art, in Santiago de Compostela. With Pedro de Llano as curator, the exhibition departed from the random link of the story of the Ocean Wave to Galicia to offer a broad reading of the rarefied work of Bas Jan Ader. Note that the Örnen adventure has had already in the 1930's the book Med Örden mot Polen, based in Andrée, Strindberg and Frænkel journals and illustrated with some recovered pictures in Kvitoya, even they are retouched, immediately published with success in other countries (check the american version destined to a juvenil audience: Andrée's Story: From the diaries and Journals of S.A.Andrée, Nils Strindberg, and K. Frænkel, found on White Island in the Summer of 1930 and edited by the Swedish Society for Antrophology and Geography, New York, Blue Ribbon Books, 1930). More details on the play by Joachim Koester at Venezia see the catalogue: Joachim Koester: Message from Andrée, Copenhagen, The Danish Art Agency, 2005. 

(1) In Portuguese in the original text. [TRANSLATOR NOTE]   

1. Bas Jan Ader in the Ocean Wave (CGAC, 2010)
2. The remains of the Ocean Wave (CGAC, 2010)
3. The Örnen Station
4. The Örnen immediately after de forced landing at 14th of July 1897.

Miguel Leal (Porto, 1967)
Artist. Lives and works at Porto. Founding member of VIROSE, an interdisciplinary structure dedicated to media and the study of the relations between art and technology. Professor at Faculdade de Belas Artes de Universidade do Porto, where he guides atelier work and lectures art and contemporary cultures courses. http://ml.virose.pt

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