I want to do a piece where I go to the Alps and talk to a mountain. The mountain will talk of things which are necessary and always true, and I shall talk of things which are sometimes, accidentally true.
(Bas Jan Ader, Dutch performance and conceptual artist)
Ader’s body of work is not large in volume – a few photographs, a handful of short films – but to many in the artistic community his work is considered profound, especially when one looks at his personal story and his deep grief around the death of his father, who was executed by the Nazis for harbouring Jews when Ader was a very young child.
When Ader was 33 years old, he packed a tiny sailing boat with a few supplies and set out to sail solo from Cape Cod to the other side of the Atlantic. Ten months later his yacht was found drifting, but his body was never recovered, leading to speculation: did he fall victim to his own harebrained scheme, was he literally on a suicide mission, or did he simply expect to probably fail, thus turning his final voyage into his ultimate piece of performance art?
I thought of Ader when I was watching German Wanderlust, a BBC2 documentary by Julia Bradbury. In it, she visits one of Ludwig II’s hunting lodges near Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. The proprietor of the place, which stands in the shadow of a great mountain, owns a number of old photographs of the lodge taken in the time of Ludwig. Showing her one, he says, with typically Teutonic dryness, ‘This is the house - you’ve seen it [as you were] coming up. It’s quite different now, because the roof is very different.’ Then he points at the mountain in the photograph. ‘[But this] is the same mountain, because mountains don’t change every two hundred years.”
The natural world isn’t permanent – we know this all too well. But some aspects of it change more slowly than others. Under most circumstances, a snowflake is far more delicate than a tree. Glaciers are slow but measurable, the ocean permanent but far from still. But significant geological formations like mountains are perhaps more permanent – more solid, if you like – than pretty much anything else in the natural physical world.
To Ader, the Alps offered solid emotional and philosophical grounding that spoke of permanence. He needed to hear that, to be reminded that there are truths beyond what we understand. His contribution to this conversation would be one of subjectivity, humility and accidental enlightenment.