David R J Stent ‘THE TASK OF THE IMPOSSIBLE (or The Figure’s Contributions to the Field)’



At this moment the Figure spies a strange platform set into one of the banks – a semi-circular indentation set into the earth like a stage, book-ended by large mounds as if boulders were concealed under nettles. In amongst those grasses the Figure makes out a series of hard angles glinting in the light, slowly recognising the surfaces of a crude shelter – a tiny hermit’s cabin pinned against the slope, propped up with a stick. Although the coincidence would be lost on the Figure, the setting echoes that of Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Antony, missing only the Saint’s holy book and the cross casting a shadow over the hovel.[1] What also escapes the Figure would be Jean-Luc Nancy’s reading of Flaubert’s text as an “exemplary case of literary disaster (…) an act of stupidity” and his insistence, no doubt laced with irony, that Flaubert enjoys the doomed cause of his writing; or rather that he enjoys his lack of enjoyment in the whole “pointless and exhausting enterprise.”[2]

The Figure would be unaware that Nancy probes the motivation behind the “putting together [of] a text that ends up being a dreadful pain, designed solely to demonstrate that it gets nowhere”, whilst continuing to assert that this was precisely Flaubert’s intention from the beginning – producing writing that relied only on an obscure internal coherence to keep it ‘afloat’.[3] For Nancy, Flaubert’s ending to Antony’s trials is a “perfectly ambivalent” flourish consistent with this approach – the Saint is suspended between his deliverance from temptation and his having succumbed to it (as well as a third way whereby he is delivered by succumbing to it), and as such, throughout the composition of the text, Flaubert succeeds in writing himself into a corner, giving himself nowhere to go.[4] As a form of self-cancellation the work resists and circles itself, always moving away from a position of steady authority as if its concern were to establish what couldn’t be clearly established. Flaubert’s writing flickers between an exhausted consciousness and an obstinate ‘matter’ underlying everything. Just as Antony, after having penetrated each atom at the end of the book, desires to “become matter”, so the Figure, if it were capable of making the association, could recognise its repetitive, self-cancelling operation as an attempt at writing its ‘entry’ into the matter of potential.[5]



Although it is not registered by the Figure, the orientation of the wooden crate wedged into the bank also echoes that of a box in an untitled 1972 work by the Dutch-American artist Bas Jan Ader. In this work a series of photographs show the artist being caught under the box as if in a trap. Dressed in a suit and tie, Ader is shown crawling to the box on his hands and knees, then drinking tea underneath it. The box is propped up on a stick. In the fifth image the stick is removed and the box falls, trapping Ader underneath. Even if the Figure is unaware of it, the fifth image of the series is immediately striking. It does not show the propping stick being pulled away from the box but as having vanished completely, leaving an unsupported crate hovering in mid-air. The trap has been tripped and yet it holds. The image encapsulates something of the incongruity of Ader’s practice, pinpointing a gesture of suspension and neutrality that springs from the material of the work, as if an internal flaw betrayed the work’s capacity to deny itself or highlighted a detail of impossibility that could never be sustained.


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The Figure remains unaware that the implanted impossibility exemplified by Ader’s ‘missing stick’ is echoed in other instances throughout his body of work. In other cases the locations of such a nodal points are more ambiguous. In Search of the Miraculous, a project from 1975 destined to remain unfinished, saw Ader attempt to sail across the Atlantic in a small, one-man boat. Though an experienced sailor, the artist never completed his journey. The wrecked ‘Guppy 13’ was picked up some ten months later off the coast of Ireland and Ader disappeared at sea. Erik Beenker, writing in a catalogue accompanying an exhibition of Ader’s work in 2006, makes casual reference to the ‘Guppy 13’ being “unsinkable” and Ader being attached to it by a “lifeline.”[6] Although the implication is somewhat different, it is compelling to consider this umbilical connection in relation to an unsustainable space of impossibility – a space Ader seemed intent on approaching, even falling into, throughout his life and work. In the case of In Search of the Miraculous the notion of ‘being attached to the unsinkable’ is a paradoxical conjunction, resonant with notions of immanent nullity and self-cancellation. Yet the sentence might also be misread to produce another suitably strange concept relevant to Ader’s endeavour: being attached to the impossible. Given the perfectly ambivalent ending to Ader’s trials, it is as if the artist had always been attached to and divorced from the ability to sink, as if this said something about potentiality as both capacity and incapacity, an ability to do and to not do. Ader was always already attracted and tied to such potentiality. In this sense the lifeline committed him to an untenable position. It made him a component in a process that, once engaged upon, supplied its own undoing, as if it were always essential to the founding premise of the enterprise. An attachment to the impossible implies a double bind of affirmation and self-cancellation – the artist sailing into an incommensurable relationship with the ocean, posing a problem for which there can never be a solution. The ligature between the artist and the vehicle of his disappearance supplies the most incongruous of suppositions – a clause that ruins, or sets up for ruination, the ostensive boundaries of its journey. This is what drives Ader’s inclination toward the impossible – an umbilical connection to potentiality that opened him up to assuming the ultimately undecidable designation of ‘lost at sea’. Ader’s work so often involved his surrender to ‘superior forces’ – his relenting to gravity when falling from the roof of his house, his cycling into an Amsterdam canal or the slip from a tree into a ditch. Yet his acts of abandonment formed part of a broader quest to disappear, often reinforced by processes of un-working being allowed back into events as they unfold. Throughout his work Ader is always concerned with setting the conditions for a state of crisis, as well as the mechanics necessary for ‘making a scene’. According to Jan Verwoert, in establishing requirements for these crises, Ader succeeds in inducing a “moment of necessity (…) out of a situation of contingency.”[7] This is to say that the contingent is forced into necessity through Ader’s actions. For Verwoert, this goading of a decisive moment of necessity from contingency is central to Ader’s practice, asserting that he does not seek failure as such but rather the environs of a necessary decision which might lead either to failure or its dismissal. Verwoert goes on to argue that Ader’s work is a “proactive technique, an emotional skill of provoking decisions through an attitude of decisive indecisiveness”, but is this what is going on in In Search of the Miraculous?[8] In relation to this question it is tempting to read significance into the two books allegedly found among Ader’s belongings – G. W. F. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit and The Strange Journey of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. Although more obvious associations can be drawn between Ader and Crowhurst (in 1969 Crowhurst, an amateur sailor took part in a round-the- world yacht race during which he abandoned the competition and faked his position before apparently descending into insanity and committing suicide), it is the connections to Hegel that may be most useful.[9] In 2004, the filmmaker Rene Daalder quotes a passage from Hegel’s Phenomenology in an article claiming that various sections of the text were underlined in Ader’s personal copy of the book:

Formation is the vanishing of being into nothing and the vanishing of nothing into being.[10]

It is possible to approach this fragment of text outside its specific placement in the context of Hegel’s thought, as if it were an image excised from the original text. It not only touches on the ambiguities accompanying the act of vanishing but also inherent in creativity (‘formation’) and the task of the artist. The co-existence of absence and presence, work and its denial, embedded in this un-contextualised fragment echoes the kind of incommensurable space that runs through many of Ader’s works. But if throughout his work Ader transformed this incommensurability into a material gesture within his work whereby transformative regions are opened that are beyond its limits, In Search of the Miraculous does something else with this gesture. Rather than the “unauthored uprising” Sally O’Reilly sees in In Search of the Miraculous (described as an instance where a practice revolts against an artist in an implosion sourced not in an authorial contrivance but in the self-reflexivity of all circumstance and culminating in an unforeseen ‘incident’), there is an inversion of the equation that Verwoert assigns to Ader’s oeuvre.[11]

Instead of necessity being extracted from contingency, In Search of the Miraculous produces absolute contingency out of necessity. Ader is ‘lost at sea’, having moving toward a point of potentiality – a point of no return.


This text is an extract from one of sixteen individual folios that constitute ‘The Region of Disillusionment ✺ The Experience of Writing as Research as Art’, a practice-as-research Fine Art PhD submitted to the University of Reading in 2010.

[1] “The setting is (…) high on a mountain, where a platform curves to a half-moon, shut in by large boulders. The hermit’s cabin occupies the rear. It consists of mud and reeds, with a flat roof and no door.” Flaubert, G. (1983) [1874] (trans. Mrosovsky, K.) The Temptation of St Antony. London: Penguin Classics, 61.

[2] Nancy, J-L. (2006) ‘On Writing: Which Reveals Nothing’ in (ed. Sparks, S.) Multiple Arts: The Muses II. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 70 & 76.

[3] Ibid., 71.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Flaubert 1983, 232.

[6] Beenker, E. (2006) ‘Bas Jan Ader (1942-1975 missing at sea): the man who wanted to look beyond the horizon’ in Bas Jan Ader: Please Don’t Leave Me. Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 10.

[7] Verwoert, J. (2006) Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous. London: Afterall Books, 28.

[8] Ibid., 31.

[9] The British artist Tacita Dean has made several works involving aspects of Crowhurst’s story, including Disappearance at Sea (1996) and Teignmouth Electron (1999).

[10] Quoted in Daalder, R. (2004) ‘Bas Jan Ader in the Age of Jackass’ in Contemporary Magazine, February 2004, 2. <http://www.basjanader.com&gt;

[11] O’Reilly, S. (2005) ‘Self-Reflexivity’ in Art Monthly, Issue 289, September 2005, 7-10.