Artists are invited to give editorial shape to a project they have embarked on but that isn’t yet defined

Words and images by Ross Birrell

Bas Jan Ader is alive. Let me tell you the tale of our encounter.

Not so long ago a student of mine came to see me. She sought advice on an imagined exhibition she was organizing as part of a final year assessment. During the course of our conversation we discovered a mutual interest in mapping and fictional islands. So in the interest of helping with her proposed exhibition, I told her of a work that I had conceived almost a decade earlier, when Charles Esche was organizing the Cork Caucus in 2005 and which, as he informed me, was not so much an exhibition as an investigation into art and possibility. 

The work I proposed for the Caucus was called Searching for Hy-Brasil. Hy-Brasil was a mythical island reported to lie off the west coast of Ireland and which appeared on numerous maps of Europe and the Atlantic from the mid-13th century onwards. Hy-Brasil is marked, for example, on Abraham Ortelius’ 1595 map of Europe. Most accounts agree on the Island’s co-ordinates: 52° 09’ 42.532”N, 13° 13’ 12.69”W.

According to legend the mysterious Island is veiled in mist and only appears once every 7 years. The island takes its name from the Gaelic, Uí Breasail which means “descendants.” Although intrigued by narratives of mythical and legendary islands, I did not set out to prove the existence of the phantom island of Hy-Brasil and to end its exclusion from western academic cartography. Mine was a different quest. I was convinced that the phantom island of Hy-Brasil held the secret of the legendary disappearance of the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader.

The story of Ader’s disappearance is well known but still surrounded in mystery. On 9th July 1975 as part of a three-part work, In Search of the Miraculous, Ader set off from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to sail east across the Atlantic. Ader’s boat, a Guppy 13, was called Ocean Wave. After 3 weeks, all contact with the artist was lost. Ocean Wave was found several months later drifting about 150 miles off the west coast of Ireland but Ader’s body was never found. 

After consulting charts and records of Ader’s route and the co-ordinates of where Ocean Wave was found, I understood that Ader’s search for the miraculous must have drawn him towards the mythical island of Hy-Brasil. I became convinced that Bas Jan Ader was still alive and living on this mysterious and legendary island. Ader had not perished but had indeed found the miraculous for which he had been searching.


Some months after the Cork Caucus (in which I did not eventually participate) I found by chance, half hidden among some grimy paperbacks in a shop doorway in my village, an old hardback copy of a book by the Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky. I picked up the book, A New Model of the Universe, and opened it at random: 

*   *


My way lay to the East. My previous journeys had convinced me that there still remained much in the East that had long ceased to exist in Europe. At the same time I was not at all sure that I should find precisely what I wanted to find. And above all I could not say with certainty what exactly I should search for.

I read on a little:

The question of “schools” (I am speaking, of course, of “esoteric” or “occult” schools) still contained much that was not clear. I did not doubt that schools existed. But I could not say whether it was necessary to assume the physical existence of such schools on earth. Sometimes it seemed to me that true schools could only exist on another plane and that we could approach them only when in special states of consciousness…

I held the object in my hand and turned back to examine the contents page. And there it was: “IX. In Search of the Miraculous,” a series of sketches from 1908-1914 on Notre Dame, the Pyramids, The Sphinx, The Buddha with the Sapphire Eyes. What I had accidentally found was not a book but a sign. Yet it was not a sign from a Russian esotericist but from a Dutch conceptual artist long assumed dead. A New Model of the Universe was to be my guidebook to find Hy-Brasil. Once there, I would gift the book to Bas Jan Ader. If the island refused to appear, I would cast Ouspensky’s words into the sea.

On 18th April 2006, I flew to Dublin and took a bus to Cork. The next day, on what would have been Ader’s 64th birthday, I hired a small boat equipped with oars and an outboard motor. I took provisions, compass and a map. The forecast was for fine weather and visibility was good. Safely stowed inside a sealed package beside me was the gift for Bas Jan Ader. 

A while out to sea, however, and the situation began to change. I was far from shore now and entirely surrounded by water with little sight of land upon the horizon. I cut the engine and took my bearings. As I checked my position, an uneasy sensation crept over me. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the boat was surrounded by mist until it had become a thick and all-encompassing fog. I recalled Ouspensky’s words, “true schools could only exist on another plane and that we could approach them only when in special states of consciousness.” I allowed myself to become one with the fog. 

After a short while I could hear something that sounded like a cry. I listened closely for the sound again. It was like a sea bird calling from a short distance away. Perhaps there was a fishing boat nearby. But it wasn’t the cry of a sea bird. It was something altogether more eerie. It was a calling voice, the ancient lament of man. I steeled myself, attached the oars and began to navigate through the fog towards the sound. Eventually the voice grew closer cutting through the mist like a torch beam, calling me towards it almost like a mystic siren song, warning or beckoning me onto hidden rocks, until suddenly the boat hit what could only be described as dry land. 


I pulled the boat up on a sandy cove and there he was, sat cross-legged in a well of high grass on a sand dune. Cribbed in the angle of his knees was an open book and he was singing what sounded to be a sea shanty. He appeared to be the island’s sole inhabitant. Ader closed the book and broke off from his singing, lay the book aside and stood up. He was tall, lean and still youthful. As he approached where I stood on the shore, it was clear he had aged in line with the island. That is to say, as the island of Hy-Brasil only appeared every 7 years, that in the 31 years since his disappearance, Adar had aged only 4 years, making us more or less the same age. He studied me in silence for a while with his deep blue eyes. Those eyes concealed an infinite universe of unattainable meaning. A buddha with sapphire eyes. The mist began to lift a little and I could make out the implied forms of an island of legend. He motioned with his hand in invitation to sit and so we sat together on the sand, staring out upon the surrounding sea. The following is a transcript of our conversation.

Transcript of a conversation with Bas Jan Ader on the island of Hy-Brasil

A silence. 

Why did you come to Hy-Brasil?

In search of the miraculous…

Are you alone here?

I’m too sad to tell you…

Are you dead?

A long silence followed. Ader looked out to sea. A squall seemed to be whipping up. He spoke to me in slow and measured tones.

I live on the ocean waves. My home is the rolling deep, where the scattered waters rave and the winds their revels keep. Like an eagle caged, I pine on this dull, unchanging shore…

Suddenly standing up, he became more animated, gesturing as if he were sailing again, his small vessel carried along on strong trade winds across a surging sea.

… Once more on the deck I stand of my own swift-gliding craft. Set sail! Farewell to the land. The gale follows far abaft: we shoot through the sparkling foam. Like an ocean bird set free. Like the ocean birds, our home we’ll find far out on the sea…

Suddenly the mist came down and the sea swelled around our feet. The island appeared to be sinking fast. It was clear it was time to go.

The island is sinking. I must go now, I said.

Ader stopped abruptly and turned to me disconsolate, his features infinitely sad:

Please don’t leave me…

He took a step toward me but I was compelled to get back into the boat. I pushed it back down the beach and it plunged back into the swelling water. I leaped in and searched for the oars with trembling hands. All this time Ader followed me, steadily and slowly, his voice appealing to me softly almost in a whisper: “Please don’t leave me… Please don’t leave me… Please don’t leave me…”

As I rowed back into the mist I could still hear this soft refrain from the disappearing shore: “Please don’t leave me… Please don’t leave me… Please don’t leave me…”

Then suddenly he stopped and turned his back to me and, taking up his song again, climbed and resumed his place  on the high dune as the miraculous island concealed itself once more beneath turbulent waves.


Eventually the mist cleared and, as visibility returned, I could establish nothing of the island remaining. As I replaced the oars and made to start up the engine of the outboard motor, I saw again the package. I had forgotten to deliver the gift to its destination. Quickly, I broke the seal on the package and tore from the book the pages of the chapter “In Search of the Miraculous.” I stood up in the rocking boat, faced the direction of the lost Island of Hy-Brasil, and threw the torn pages into the sea.

Ross Birrell (1969) is a Scottish artist, writer and lecturer. His work revolves around the interrelations of art, philosophy, place, politics and music in the production of a series of solo and collaborative films, installations, site-specific interventions, text works, recordings, music compositions, writings. He is also the founder member of the band Guppy 13. Their debut EP, In Search of the Miraculous — featuring the tracks “In Search of the Miraculous,” “I’m Too Sad To Tell You” and “Please Don’t Leave Me” — will be released on Ocean Wave Records.