Gavin Wade, “Light Vulnerable Objects threatened by Eight Cement Bricks, 1970, After Bas Jan Ader”, 2001

detail of installation/performance



Curious about the nature of experience in canonical works of Conceptual Art, Gavin Wade, an artist-curator working in London, reconstructed a work by Bas Jan Ader entitled “Light Vulnerable Objects Threatened by Eight Cement Bricks” (‘70), and paired it with a recent video by the British artist Nathan Coley, Fourteen Churches of Münster (‘00). It’s a good issue to probe. We currently assume a lot about what Conceptual Art was, and more importantly, has done historically. We have the patter down flat, from the way it shifted the definition of the art object from something that expresses to something that explicates, to the much-touted “turn to language” that it exemplified. And yet we get this from studiously deciphering the images and descriptions of works, thinking about what theorists (like Joseph Kosuth and Benjamin Buchloh) wrote about it, and listening to arguments about its legacy today. Less often do we see it. And Bas Jan Ader was one of the less orthodox and more elusive Conceptual Artists, working outside the art-world loop in Holland and Los Angeles until his untimely death in ‘75. Wade’s desire to make Ader’s piece over again comes from a need to test the thing—itself something ontologically complicated—against what he thought he understood about it. And also to see what its relevance could actually be. In pairing Ader with Coley, Wade is also making us look at Ader outside of his place in “Art History”.

What Wade was interested in was the way both artists put themselves in a specific performative role. In the Ader work, cinder blocks are suspended with rope from the ceiling over “vulnerable” objects like a birthday cake, daisies, light bulbs, etc. They wait for the artist (in this case Wade), who comes and cuts the ropes one by one to let it collide with what is below it. This piece was accompanied by seven of Ader’s short films showing on a video monitor nearby. One of them, Nightfall (‘71) relates directly to the main piece, as it documents a performance in which Ader stood in a garage lit only by two piles of light bulbs, picked up a concrete slab, let it go, and smashed the light bulbs, darkening the room. Coley’s work is a 25-minute video taken from a helicopter over the city of Münster in which each of its churches is circled, recalling the World War II bombing of German cities as well as more Contemporary Military actions. Arguably, in both works the artist is a kind of master of the universe. In Ader’s case of course, the bricks and objects below them are metaphors for other, more serious events, and the piece functions by its resistance to fully signify its intention or meaning. In Coley’s, there’s a kind of expression of dark purpose in the thwap-thwaping of the helicopter blades against deadpan views of magnificent buildings, made all the more chilling by the recent ulterior motives of civilians flying in non-Military aircrafts. There is no speech, just this unending specular position. Inevitably, one does see the relationship between the two artists in terms of history, but this is productive. Could we consider Coley’s work as art if not for the antics of late ‘60s artists that, by sheer force of will and numbers, took over the Art Establishment and changed the relations of power between artist and curator, idea and object, exhibition space and world-at-large? And can we ever really see Ader’s work outside of the sense of looking at it as an artifact from the past? Both works are convincing, each in its own way.

These questions, however, are eclipsed by others, centering on Wade’s reconstruction of Ader’s work. He had gotten permission to remake “Light Vulnerable Objects”, but after sending someone to see the show the estate withdrew its support, asked Wade to stop showing the films and clarify that the installation was not Ader’s but Wade’s. The bottom line seems to be that Ader’s work is only ever shown in the form of original documentation: the films, videos, slide projections, audio, and photographs that Ader made during his lifetime. The confusion between Wade and the estate is most likely based on Wade’s dual role of artist-curator. They believed that Wade was acting as an artist, making a new work “based” on Ader’s, an homage or a take on it. Wade insists that they knew he planned to reconstruct it exactly. He calls the piece a “curatorial artwork”, intentionally complicating the distinction between his two roles. Crucially, he wanted it to be seen as an Ader, not as him remaking an Ader. In other words, Wade wanted the work to be seen from a curatorial point of view rather than a creative one. It seems clear that the problem is one of authorship: Ader’s name had been paired with Coley’s on the invitation with Wade nominated as “curator”, and this wording framed the exhibition as such.

But, then, isn’t this what curating is? Think of the reconstruction of Brancusi’s atelier in the Pompidou Center. Or less contentious: any historical exhibition of paintings or sculptures. The goal is to package an ephemeral cultural object under the best circumstances and present it to be considered in the present-day. An exhibition has the possibility of being an event with intrinsic qualities akin to the original, as well as being a document of historical information. If Wade had remade Ader’s piece as an artist, the interpretation would have focused on whatever position he staked in his repetition, whereas the curator is rarely assumed to have “authored” a work he or she installs or reconstructs. Wade addresses issues of authorship, but in more exploratory way than did “appropriation artists” like Sherrie Levine or Mike Bidlo. Indeed, the sense that his motive is simply to get close to Ader suggests a different way of reading some of that early ‘80s work. Bidlo’s remaking of the famous films of Jackson Pollock painting come to mind as something more about ritual and embodiment than the death of the author.

And yet, the other stumbling block is that this is Conceptual Art, which questioned the boundaries of the object of art such that it couldn’t be “handled” in the same way as a conventional work. This is a question that is critical to consider as Conceptual Art is shoe-horned into the march of Post-War movements. In a sense, Conceptual Artists made sure you needed the artist to be present. This is proven by Ader’s conspicuous absence and Wade’s need firstly, to play detective in order to know how to reconstruct the piece, and then to stand in for him in the completion of it. The issue is whether the estate is right to ban reconstructions of Ader’s exhibitions, especially in the case of one like “Light Vulnerable Objects” where the artist is marginally present. By only allowing the work to be shown in terms of Ader’s “original” documentation, they clarify the boundaries of his “work” but sacrifice the viewer’s experience.

Wade’s project has a nice circularity to it, since Ader himself made works (about Mondrian) dealing with the problems and possibilities of artistic transmission. There’s also a strong aspect in Ader’s work of physical realness within his distancing position. He took real risks, albeit usually in a comic, self-defeating mode. But one senses he had to actually do it—fall off a bike into a canal, roll off the roof of a house, sail solo across the Atlantic—to have it mean anything. This itself suggests the reconstruction. Wade’s project is so compelling because, like with Ader, it’s like the teachers have exited the building and the kids are left to play.

Alison Green

London, England

Nathan Coley, "Fourteen Churches of Munster," 2000