BRITISH ARTIST Ryan Gander is an ideas man. They are his métier and material, not just because he is a conceptual artist but also because he has an insatiable, childlike curiosity about everything. Arriving before Christmas at Gander’s studio in a picturesque village in Suffolk, northeast of London, I was eager to peruse his legendary “ideas wall,” having seen the floor-to-ceiling expanse of white typed sheets on a television program. However, Gander was in the process of building a new space, and the wall had been dismantled. But he photographed it with myriad props beforehand, turning it into the subject of a series of artworks.
Gander’s work encompasses a wide range of forms, from sculpture (life-size figures made of artist-model armatures, or animatronic eyes embedded in the wall) and wall-hung pieces (mirrors draped in bedsheets made of marble) to books, fictional characters, concrete poetry, and fashion. He has produced limited-edition sneakers with fake mud on the sides and dresses made from postal sacks. Despite this diversity of mediums and styles, themes recur often, including the relationship between spectator and spectacle, parallel realities, incongruous collisions, and access and accessibility, which are especially pertinent for the artist, who uses a wheelchair.
A keen storyteller with a love of puzzles and intrigue, Gander offers the viewer economical clues to kindle the imagination. For example, he paints portraits and self-portraits but exhibits only the palettes, whose daubed pigments yield no clue as to the sitters’ identity. He had several glass or mirror palettes strewn around the studio.
Gander has also turned viewers into detectives hunting an elusive group show, made children’s forts out of marble, and presented vitrines that turn opaque on approach. At Documenta 13 in 2012, Gander’s work consisted of nothing but an almost imperceptible breeze wafting spectators through the gallery. He prefers to deal in the creative potential of absence rather than the satiety of presence.
Gander was born in 1976 in Chester, northwest England, and earned a BA in interactive art from Manchester Metropolitan University. Between 2000 and 2004 he completed postgraduate studies at the Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, and the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam. He has exhibited extensively and lives between London and Suffolk with his wife and two daughters, from whom he takes frequent inspiration.
This spring Gander has solo exhibitions at the Cc Foundation in Shanghai, the National Museum of Art, Osaka, and the Hyundai Gallery in Seoul. “Night in the Museum,” his curated selection from the British Arts Council Collection, tours the UK until May 21, and he will have the inaugural exhibition at the Remai Modern in Saskatoon, Canada, opening Sept. 30.
After visiting Gander in Suffolk, I met him in his East London studio, where he handles the business side of his practice. Among the topics of conversation were the nature of creativity and madness, and the difference between art shows and art exhibitions.
ELIZABETH FULLERTON Will you resurrect your ideas wall in your new space?
RYAN GANDER The wall makes me panic a bit. It’s like having so many children that you can’t feed them all. I made a resolution––not at New Year’s––to finish more things before starting new ones. There were too many on the go.
Do you want to see a secret? You know all the portraits that I paint and never show anyone? Do you want to see [a photo of] one? They’re actually really good. People think I don’t do them, and that’s annoying. I enjoy painting them.
FULLERTON Why do you show only the palettes?
GANDER The palette means more because the palette represents all the paintings that could have been, not the painting that I decided on. The self-portrait palettes are like a tongue-in-cheek dig at how ridiculous it is to build clumsy egocentric monuments to yourself, which is what so many artists do.
FULLERTON Your practice extends to writing, sculpture, architecture, and design. Is there any hierarchy to your production?
GANDER No. I like things that are outside the realm of art. I like the trainers [Yo-yo Criticism, 2014], and I like the cocktail book [Artists’ Cocktails: A Compendium, 2013], and I like designing buildings and doing consultancy work for property developers, and I like doing public art. It’s just a different context, a different audience. There’s a functionality about these things. They exist in the real world. The trainers are a great artwork because thousands of people wear them on the street. It’s astonishing and really exciting. You can tell when people are making or curating art for the right reasons, because they do things that you wouldn’t expect. I think that a key way to identify quality is expectation. It should surpass expectation. If I go to a show and it’s what I thought it would be, then it’s pandering to being successful.
FULLERTON Is there one medium that you enjoy most?
GANDER Writing, I guess. Not just writing books. There’s writing in everything, because everything’s a story.
FULLERTON Where did your love of storytelling come from?
GANDER I spent a lot of time on my own when I was little; I didn’t go to school. How do I say this without sounding twee and needy, because it’s not a wheelchair thing. It’s something different.
Accessibility is very overrated, and that idea fuels my work, and me as a human. Let’s say I’m at a party in Berlin and it’s up a flight of steps. I’m in the room downstairs, and I don’t know what’s upstairs. So I imagine what would be there. Spending your entire life envisaging things that are inaccessible to you is like taking your imagination to the gym.
And then when you think about my work and about the flak that I get for being inaccessible or elitist––it’s because there’s always something missing or covered or negated or latent. But the beauty of that lies in the spectator’s need to imagine. Enabling people to imagine is a gift as valuable as education.
FULLERTON In New York this past fall you showed a
2016 version of the installation Fieldwork at Lisson Gallery, comprising objects––such as an urn that held your aunt’s ashes, a baseball bat covered in nails, a pair of taxidermied pigeons––parading past an opening in the wall on a conveyor belt. Each object forms the basis for a discourse in your accompanying tome Fieldwork, The Complete Reader.[pq]”Spending your life envisaging things that are inaccessible to you is like taking your imagination to the gym.”[/pq]
GANDER I was trying to make vessels for powerful stories. It’s not that the work needs support from the book. I wanted to make the book, and then the fallout of that desire was to physically manifest the objects. I wanted to make a collection.
It’s going to be the first show at the Remai Modern in Saskatoon. They’ve got a big collection of Picasso prints. I love that I make a collection that goes into a collection. I want to hang the entire collection of Picasso prints around the box with the conveyor belt in it.
FULLERTON Fieldwork, The Complete Reader recalls Montaigne’s Essays or Roland Barthes’s Mythologies in that your musings are witty, personal, digressive, and random.
GANDER I love those books. I love the short chapters. That is, in general, what my practice is: short chapters that contain a massive amount of work and time. They’re economical, because each chapter could be a book. The most inspiring parts of those books are the contents pages, definitely, because the chapters potentially could be about anything and most of them don’t relate to each other. I wanted to test myself and do something that I’d find really difficult. And writing the book was really difficult.
FULLERTON The title of your New York Lisson exhibition, “I See Straight Through You,” sounds almost accusatory.
GANDER It was a bit cynical, wasn’t it? Obviously there are works like the [animatronic] eyes, and then there are works like the armature men, which essentially present the structure of a human without any of the substance. Yet they give emotion.
The title also had to do with New York. When you go to galleries in New York, most of the shows are one work made many times in different colors and sizes. And that’s it. They don’t feel like exhibitions, in the sense that a greater artwork is being made from the individual pieces. For an exhibition, you curate your own work. You have a palette of ideas that form a broader concept. But I would say a tiny proportion of shows that I’ve seen in New York are exhibitions––instead they feel like car showrooms.
FULLERTON For “Night in the Museum,” the exhibition that you selected from the UK Arts Council Collection, you explored the theme of spectatorship further, positioning figurative sculptures in front of abstract works containing the color blue. So Kerry Stewart’s 1996 sculpture of an early human, Untitled (Lucy), stared intently at Garth Evans’s Blue No. 30 from 1964.
GANDER When the exhibition was at the gallery in Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a lady came over to me and said, “I keep saying ‘sorry’ to all these sculptures. I walk in front of one and think it’s a person.” I liked that. I’d not thought of it but when we tried it, we really felt like we were disrupting a gaze. It’s strange how much power you can create with inanimate eyes made with bronze or plastic.
FULLERTON Your curatorial strategy generated unanticipated associations between the pairs. What is the significance of the color blue for you? Could it equally have been red?
GANDER Blue, historically, in color theory and popular culture, is often associated with an optimistic unknown. It’s about exploration, it’s about an abyss that is not empty, something that is full but you can’t see what it is. It’s an absence, but you are given the possibility to imagine what is absent. So I guess all my work should be blue.
If your TV loses its signal, the screen goes blue––it encompasses every possibility of everything that could be shown on TV. When you look into the sea, the blue is the depth. When you look into the sky, the blue is the depth. Blue is important.
FULLERTON The starting point for “Night in the Museum” came from your ongoing series of artworks that couple one of your bronze versions of Degas’s famous ballerina with a blue cube, which is intended as a cartoonish emblem of modern art. You have freed the girl from her plinth and shown her smoking a cigarette or lying outstretched on her elbow. What fascinated you so much about the dancer?
GANDER I thought she was really sad. When I was installing my work for the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh in 2009, I kept passing her, and every time I thought, “God, I bet she’s seen a thing or two.” And then I thought she was so immovable for a ballerina, so stationary and heavy.[pq]”The palette means more than the painting, because it represents all the paintings that could have been.”[/pq]
FULLERTON You have made at least ten versions. What are her next outings?
GANDER It’s funny when people talk about the different sculptures, because for me they’re not really different. It’s just one her in different moments. I’m writing a storyboard following her explorations of the institution of art and her adventures around the plinth and blue cube. At the moment there are three that I definitely want to make and two of those I want to keep, so it’s just finding the money. One is where she’s crawling out of her hollow plinth, which lies overturned on its side, and there’s another where she’s dead over a plinth.
FULLERTON That’s the end of the series?
GANDER Yeah, but she’s not ready to die quite yet.
FULLERTON Recently, you have been displaying word compositions on the type of information monitors found in hotels or corporate lobbies.
GANDER I just showed one of the info totems called Staccato Moments. It plays with all the conformity of writing. The compositions are in sections: the conference room, the ballroom-each section is from a room in the game Cluedo [Clue in the United States]. There are all these visual devices on the screen that relate to the word compositions, which are basically streams of thoughts. [He recites.]
Early adopters, hear me now,
here me now . . .
Here I am!
Am I here?
I’m here . . .
. . . Guinea pigs, Pigs, Hogs, Boars, Sows, Grunters,
Fakers, Lovers, Haters,
Swine you are here
Sign you are here
On the long dotted line, you are here
The work is like a game in itself that contains references to other games. It is made in my mind like a puzzle, so it’s a bit like explaining what my practice is.
FULLERTON And you’re writing a new info totem with animated visual elements that will feature in your forthcoming exhibition in Korea.
GANDER Staccato Reflections is based on the idea of the self in culture, the obsession with the me and the selfie and the narcissist wand. The surface is mirrored, so as you read the words, you see yourself. The work has devices in it that are self-referential. It asks you to touch the screen, and then says “don’t touch the screen.” So it seems like it is responding to you, but it’s not.
FULLERTON You also have a major exhibition coming up at the National Museum of Art in Osaka. It will consist of your own work as well as an exhibition curated from their collection. What are your plans for the curated section?
GANDER It’s called “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and the works are in pairs. So you get a Picasso with a Man Ray and a Jiro Yoshihara painting with an Isamu Noguchi sculpture. There’s obviously a visual association to these pairings, and they jump around in history, geography, art movements, and mediums.
It’s based on one of my “Associative Photo” works from 2004 that is in the museum’s collection. For this series, I take materials like photos, photocopies, and letters, put them on the wall and make a caption. Then I photograph it with a plate camera and reprint it as a single image. The shadows make it look like a trompe l’oeil of things stuck to the wall in a frame. Each of the items has associations connected to the diverse research I’ve collected over the years.
FULLERTON So for the exhibition you are curating, you are using your “Associative Photo” . . .
GANDER . . . as a material, yeah. It’s like using ideas as material rather than material as material. It’s about being prolific enough and varied enough to create a collection or a stockpile or a toolbox of work that you can then use to make into masterworks for exhibitions.
FULLERTON Speaking of materials, you frequently create works where things are not what they seem. For instance, what appears to be drapery is marble, or a used condom is made of the same wood as the chest of drawers it sits on. Is it about experimenting with materials or are you prodding the spectator toward fresh perspectives?
GANDER There’s a certain currency in not being sure whether what you approach is an artwork or not, and then there’s also a currency to the materiality of things in general. You can construct an artwork from those currencies as if they were materials. So instead of having burnt sienna or ocher, you have the currency of the double take.
It’s hard to explain. This is why it’s visual language. Only a tiny section of art practitioners are into the semiotics of visual language, and some of them are very eloquent, like Pierre Huyghe or Rosemarie Trockel. Being that light on your feet with language and with meaning, it’s a beautiful thing. It pushes the brain and everything that you know. And, for me, that’s true creativity.
FULLERTON Working across a broad spectrum, as those artists do, seems key to you.
GANDER The artists that I’m not into are the ones who just do the art thing. Because if being creative is applicable to the whole world and can go anywhere, why would you just do the one thing? I think you have this valve in your head that lets you read information in an abstract, unprejudiced way. When you’re a kid, it’s fully open, but over time it gets smaller and smaller.
The exercise of seeing––[he looks around the room] like seeing the rhythm of the Christmas lights on the plants and seeing air pulled into the humidifier and turned into water, and thinking about the air in the lungs and the water we drink––that’s having the valve open, taking the time to notice all those things. I sound like a mad person.
As you get older, the valve closes. Art becomes logical, it becomes your job, and it doesn’t feel mad anymore.
I’ve just told you about things that I know I’m going to make and that don’t make me feel so mad at the moment. But there are all these other things that we haven’t talked about.
FULLERTON Can you discuss some of those?
GANDER It’s just a big list. One idea is this robot arm that would be made in Germany to sort small plastic animal toys. While it divides different species into mothers and children, it plays music to work to. You have a zebra baby next to a lion baby, and a lion mother next to a bear next to a seal. It randomly mixes them up and then sorts them back out.
FULLERTON What was the genesis of that?
GANDER My kids play with toy animals, made by Schleich. I like the idea that when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the guy left in the shuttle had to orbit the moon. So while Armstrong made “one small step for [a] man, one great leap for mankind,” there’s this poor dude that no one remembers. There’s a futility to the shuttle going around and around. The robot arm is a bit like that. Pure futility. But it’s massively loaded with politics and emotion.
FULLERTON Yes, and of course German history.
GANDER I didn’t think about that. Fuck! I need to change it. I need to get some Swiss animals, make a politically neutral artwork.
Then there’s the snow globe that never stops snowing. An internal blizzard keeps you from being able to see the object inside. And there’s a film script that I need to finish. The actor Jim Broadbent has agreed to play me when I’m old. He sees systems that happen all around him: the heat signature of all the things in the kitchen, the footpaths of all the people moving around the café. It’s like a portrait of someone who’s mad.
FULLERTON Do you think all these works manifest madness?
GANDER Let’s call it illogic rather than madness.
FULLERTON How important is humor in your work? Is it a by-product or a conscious element?
GANDER That’s what trying to be creative is. It’s playing, because you understand stuff through play. I’m interested in accidental art-making, in compositions that come about through happenstance. The structure of comedy is grounded in making collisions and associations that are illogical and absurd. My work uses the mind to think about things in depth, so it’s not surprising that what I do is funny. Because it’s out of the ordinary. It’s not of logic––it’s of illogic.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Ryan Gander—These Wings Aren’t for Flying,” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told—The Collection curated by Ryan Gander,” at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, through July 2; “Night in the Museum,” at the Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester, UK, through May 21; “Human/nonHuman/Broken/nonBroken,” at the Cc Foundation, Shanghai, through May 14; “Ryan Gander: Soft Modernism,” at Hyundai Gallery, Seoul, through May 7.
ELIZABETH FULLERTON is a writer living in London.