Sunday, February 24, 2008

Wagstaff, Ader

I made it out to only two of the 12 artist documentaries that were featured in Canadian Art's Reel Artist Film Festival this weekend. The first, Black White + Grey: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff by James Crump, was a fairly pedestrian look at the curator, collector, and one-time love of Robert Mapplethorpe. The film's premise - that Wagstaff has disappeared into obscurity since his death in '87 despite his enormous achievements in the field of photography - might very well be accurate (I can't find a Wikipedia entry for him, for example) but the film suffers from two many talking heads repeating the same thing, too little insight, and an overly conventional structure. It evens managed to make Mapplethorpe seem dull.

Here is Always Somewhere Else, Rene Daalder's documentary about Bas Jan Ader, the Dutch artist who disappeared at sea in 1975, fared much better. I initially feared that, being commissioned by Ader's widow Mary Sue Anderson, the film would aim to further the myth surrounding the artist, not debunk it. It does present their relationship as a charmed and tragic romance (she describes their first meeting: Ader lifted up his shirt and announced "I’ve got one of the five most beautiful belly buttons in the world") but does not attempt to whitewash over the artist's extra-marital affairs or middle-class existence. And if Anderson was overly involved in the editing one would assume that a scene involving a rat living inside a dresser drawer in her home wouldn't have made the final cut.

The death of the artist is also handled sensitively - mysterious, yes, but not a conspiracy. Anderson recounts that the first thirty-six months that he was missing were particularly difficult; because the artist had joked he might stage his death and not return for three years. But despite his body never being recovered and his boat (found a year later off the coast of Ireland) being stolen before it could be returned, no one interviewed supports the more outrageous theories that have cropped up since his disappearance (such as reported sightings of he artist, alive and well and living in Barcelona).

The film reveals lesser known aspects of Ader's life such as the fact that Jacqueline Kennedy purchased one of his works when he was in art school, that he had planned to shoot himself as an artwork until Chris Burden beat him to it, and that a negative review of one of his best known works (I'm too Sad to Tell You) led the artist to never discuss it again. The filmmaker provides context for Ader's practice and presents a large number of present-day artists that count him as an influence.

Daalder also provides substantial information about Ader's family. His father, a church pastor was a member of the Dutch resistance who helped a number of Jews escapes the Nazis. He was executed in the woods by German troops in November 1944, when Bas Jan was two years old. His mother wrote a book about her experiences during the war, and it contains several passages that seem like obvious precursors to some of the artist’s titles and text pieces. She also tells the story of being given fifteen minutes by German soldiers to pack up her belongings and leave the family home. She rushed through the house, throwing the family's clothes out of the windows into the garden, likely resembling the artist’s work All My Clothes, where he photographed his wardrobe scattered on the roof of his California home.

These revelatory finds may have made it impossible to resist the urge to read many of the artist’s works as reaching out to his mother, or grief-stricken cries for his father.As a simplification, though, I prefer it to the Afterall book The Search for the Miraculous by Jan Verwoert, which argued that Ader's work should be read as a detached investigation into romanticism, instead of a practice intrinsically wrapped up in it.

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