In 1975, the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader sailed out to sea in a tiny sailboat and was never seen again. 10 months later, his boat was found submerged off the coast of Ireland; his body never turned up. He titled the performance art piece In Search of the Miraculous. That same year, American psychologist Raymond Moody coined the term ‘near-death experience.’

A year prior, Friedrich Kunath spent his first hour on earth in Chemnitz, Germany. More than 30 years since Ader’s final disappearing act, Kunath’s first solo exhibition in a UK public gallery – fittingly titled Raymond Moody’s Blues – is currently on display at Modern Art Oxford. 

The protagonist at the heart of the installation and accompanying short film, You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Crazy (2012) is an ageing LA artist whose life in a state known for its materialism, perennial sunshine and endless downtime begins to unravel, leaving him as emotionally adrift as Ader’s lost boat.

For Kunath, who moved from Germany to LA to live and work fulltime, feelings of displacement and loss strike particularly close to his own artistic path. In this large-scale exhibit, he plays with the notion of what he refers to as “sad optimism,” or the discovery of life after death – of a relationship, of a connection to one’s home, of a former self – and the seemingly quotidian objects that become infused with nostalgia after they, too, become displaced.

Upon entering the space, the senses become engaged by various stimuli, from dark piano chords to the feel of walking on bright green tennis turf, subtly transporting the viewer into Kunath’s world where any boundaries between conventionally “happy” and “sad” emotions begin to blur. His melding of mediums, from audio and film to sculpture and painting, complement one another and enhance the melancholy mood that permeates the space; yet each piece also stands alone, largely due to their memorable titles. A rainbow-striped sweater stretches from one black chair to another, the fabric reaching like a long arm to hold hands with the other side: this is The Closest We Will Ever Be. A pair of lifesized, scuffed-up loafers, one weighed down with sand, the other holding an oversized orange with a carved leering face, appear to have trudged many miles before settling: this is Honey, I’m Home (Orange). 

Clear connections between the mishmash of things animate and inanimate – What A Difference It Makes When It Doesn’t Make Any Difference Anymore features two otters with human feet laying on either side of Barbara Streisand’s People vinyl record, each clutching a tennis ball – do not necessarily emerge upon first glance. But look closer: what appears to be a conglomeration of random images, strange figures, and cheap objects starts to feel more like a garage sale of the protagonist’s (perhaps the artist’s?) mind, cluttered with memories of both the bitter and sweet variety.

Kunath also celebrates the tiny fragments of one’s childhood that often get pushed to the side upon entering the Adult World: helium balloon strings, leftover from a birthday party, and black-and-white home video footage both find a place here. The comical converses with more macabre juxtapositions, such as Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I balanced on the nose of a performing seal. On the oil, acrylic, and colored pencil mural Life After Life, swaying palms and a perfectly blue sky are overlaid by doodles, transforming them into narratives subject to each viewer’s wandering associations: Rodin’s despondent Thinker sitting atop a globe, a midnight bicycle ride, an overflowing bathtub.

The middle gallery plays Kunath’s 17-minute film You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Crazy, reintroducing familiar images (plastic fruit and tennis courts all make an appearance) before an LA backdrop. A haunting string score by the Calder Quartet in collaboration with Kunath supplies a dynamism to even the quietest moments. While the loose plot works in tandem with the physical aspects of the exhibition, it does not tie up all the loose knots. The film – and the exhibition in its entirety – works precisely because Kunath does not instill in his audience a hard-and-fast sense of pity for the artist: we don’t know, may never know, as he bobs along on his sailboat, whether he revels in the quiet solitude or laments it. Kunath suggests that the answer, if any exists, is a bit of both.

Thanks to Nick Wood at Modern Art Oxford for providing insight into the exhibition and Bas Jan Ader. Raymond Moody’s Blues is on until 17th November at MAO. Admission is free.