In one of his notebook entries, [Bas Jan] Ader jotted an idea for a postcard: "Greetings from Beautiful Ader Falls." More ominously, he wrote, "All is falling." --Bruce Hainley, “Legends of the Fall,” Artforum, March 1999
In the far western hinterlands of old New Amsterdam, just past the fraying edge of the California sprawl, languishes the twilight township of Ader Falls. A phantom truck stop often missed on the long, lonesome interstate between Los Angeles and New York, this forgotten village fades in and out like a half-finished dream.
Ader Falls smells of the loneliness and dust one finds in the deserted outposts of a crumbled empire. Though its construction was abandoned mid-stroke, the town still bears the mark of its founder’s outsize ambitions. Designed with sweeping lines and advanced amenities, the town lives in a past more modern than the present. The scattered buildings creak with wistfulness on streets imbued with the soft-glow of nostalgia for what might have been. At nightfall these days, the town flickers and spasms with neon and fluorescent, though the townsfolk have observed when smashed with a heavy stone, most lights will go out.
Founded (like so many heartlandish American townships) by a ne’er-do-well adventurer and dreamer, a brooding European prankster who died young of dubious heroism, Ader Falls harbors an unusual share of drifters and grifters, cons so talented they deserve the additive cognomen of “artist.”
The townsfolk, unharrassed, except by time and accident, live day to day in a series of simple gestures, movements stripped of unnecessary meaning and performed with the deadpan seriousness normally reserved for soldiers, comedians and recently recovered alcoholics. Having come to Ader Falls from difficult and strange stories abroad. Following shipwrecks and nervous breakdowns, after chasing one chimera or another, the men and women of Ader Falls have finally found a place to look for what cannot be found.
Entertainments in Ader Falls are, as one could imagine, sparing. A lone radio station spins the sadder, dreamier songs of ’50s hit machines on slow revolution, making the jingle and pop of bubblegum wheeze and murmur along like a funereal hymn. The paunchy proprietor of the local general store hawks, with bourgeois flourish, a set of mail-order prints of Dutch and German masters, from sweeping Caspar Friedrichs to a flyspecked Mondrian. Outside the general store sits a photo-booth, the kind that spits out four shots for a dollar, but the snaps get shredded and abandoned, the pictures always making the sitter seem so sad. Though sadness can imbue a man or woman with the beauty of its depth, one does not like to remember oneself burdened with such tragedy. The townsfolk may occasionally finger through dog-eared copies of Reader’s Digest, but only to linger overlong on the disasters
Ader Falls has no waterfall, at least not any waterfall that could engender engorged well-hydrated adjectives like “majestic” or the sensually bureaucratic “voluminous,” words which often get appended to the famous Niagara. But things do fall there. People from trees and houses. Rocks, night, and often, tears. In Ader Falls, all is falling.
Bas Jan Ader, Broken Fall (Organic), 1971, Silver gelatin print, 18 x 25 inches; Courtesy Bas Jan Ader Estate
Perhaps the most notable feature of this nondescript burg is its unique relationship to gravity. In Ader Falls, things fall. Not the Yeatsian gyre of things falling apart, the imperial Roman arc of a rise followed by the inevitably deflationary fall, nor the grandiosity of the first Fall, but the curious gravitational calibrations of reality being regularly tested with humor, and its limitations a cause for mourning. Gravity blankets the hills like a forgotten curse, which inspires a cheerfully doomed optimism in breaking the law of gravity, followed by sense of tragedy with every crash.
These regularly dashed hopes make the townspeople jocular jokesters filled as they are with hope, and maudlin defeatists crushed as they are by failure. They can often be found either laughing or weeping in the streets, at their jobs, behind desks and countertops, at the factories and shoe stores. Their tears dripping into lukewarm cups of coffee and on freshly printed receipts. Their chuckles mingling with moans of their fellows. A tourist to Ader Falls might venture to ask the lachrymose population the cause of their powerful sadness (and why it seems their neighbors laugh at them), but they are unable to squeeze a word out through their melancholic wheezes. Spend too much time there and neither will you.
The weeping can begin at breakfast, an off-hand comment that cuts through all the morass and callousness of modern life, just a few trickles over runny eggs and golden brown toast, the kind of tears your tough old father would weep at the recounting of a World War II sea battle. But the trickle mounts and by lunch turns torrential. Standing up from leather roll chairs, grabbing the wall for balance as they stumble out into the streets, the weepers begin to laugh at their own terrible predicament (the only retort for tragedy being comedy, as everyone knows). But the two (the laugh and the cry) get stuck together, like when one tries to breathe and drink at the same time, and the two get mixed and the swallower/breather would begin to choke uncontrollably. Red faced, wet-eyed, face convulsive.
The laughter/weeping in Ader Falls could continue all day, or like a sudden change in the weather, disappear as slinkily as it came, travelling beneath the surface until the next day or the day after it would return: as a sob or a snivel, a whimper, a whine or a wail, inevitably dropping to the desperate release of brawling, before descending at its nadir to embarrassed blubbing.
As if the town were built on a well of sadness, the people of Ader Falls weep with abandon, a freedom lost on everyone but children or the desperate. Seeing another resident weep, you might start weeping yourself, or laughing at the ridiculousness of a town of people who weep, and start laughing so hard that tears come to your eyes, a faucet once opened which can be difficult to shut.
Periodically, denizens, drifters and pilgrims get inscribed into the annals of local lore like how other towns might honor their native sons and daughter as football stars or war dead. Those notable few of Ader Falls have performed duties and rituals, actions and gestures which reflect the civic soul, there are no statues in Ader Falls, but their names have currency in the city’s precincts and are passed around in hallowed whispers.
Most of these adopted sons and daughters, these passers-through, ramble past the signs on the road coming in and out that demarcate the municipal boundaries. “Welcome to Beautiful Ader Falls” greets all comers as they drift into town. As they leave hangs another sign, on the opposite turn of the welcome, written in the same willowy script, and at night, as it so often is, the sign is illuminated by a single white bulb, the light crisp and ghostly, one last note from the town before it gets left behind, usually forever.
In black letters on a white field is written the message, “Please Don’t Leave.”
(Image on top: Bas Jan Ader,
Please Don’t Leave Me, 1969, paint, light bulbs, wire,
dimensions variable; Courtesy Bas Jan Ader Estate)