British artist Ryan Gander creates works that are celebrated for their conceptual rigour, humour and constellational narrative interpretations. In conversation, as in his art practice, Gander is witty, engaging and opinionated, keeping his viewer—or interviewer—on her toes.
Now, as a Nomadic Resident at OCAD University in Toronto, Gander is trying to pass along some insights from his practice, leading a group of students on an investigation into the hidden forms of communication that leave narrative traces throughout the city.
Yet Gander’s lessons could also well be on how to manage one’s time as a busy, internationally active artist—he has compared his recent travel schedule to that of a touring musician (but, he corrects me, “not a rock star”). Gander recently opened “Creative Play May Entail Some Risk Taking,” an exhibition on view now until May 17 at Toronto’s Scrap Metal Gallery. This weekend, he’s off to New York to check in with Lisson Gallery, and then he returns to Canada to open his solo exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal on March 3. (Before going to the MAC, “Make every show like it’s your last” was also exhibited in Paris, Manchester, Derry-Londonderry, Linz, Vancouver and Aspen.)
During our recent meeting at the largest art college in Canada, Gander and I spoke about what visiting aliens would think of artmaking on Earth, why post-Internet art and trust-fund kids are going to split the artworld as we know it, what his rules are for making “good” art and more.
Our chat ended when we were interrupted by a man who fit the description of one of the characters Gander performs as. The man turned out to just be an opportunistic artist, poking his nose in on a private conversation. For a moment, though, I wasn’t sure—because wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of “cognitive experiment” that Gander might pull?
Rosie Prata: Can you tell me what the aim of the OCAD University residency is?
Ryan Gander: I’m of the school of thinking that the best art school is just a warm room. You, know, research isn’t boring, or having to be quiet in a library. It’s just being interested in the world around you.
The world is amazing—totally, totally amazing. When I came out of the university on the way to lunch, within five metres of the front door I’d seen 10 really good vehicles of articulation. Really interesting things.
RP: What did you see?
RG: A bank balance slip sticking out of an ATM, a feather on a floor—but it wasn’t a feather from a coat, it was some sort of decorative plumage—and those message boards with staples. I thought the staples were probably more interesting than the messages. There’s just infinite stuff around you—and not just in an urban context. I think that making art is just being acutely aware of those things, keeping that cognitive valve in your mind massively open to observe and record those things.
I’m trying to teach students that art isn’t just what you stick on a wall. It’s usually not the physical thing; it’s the idea that the physical thing is the fallout of. Everyone values the physical thing—the painting, the sculpture, the video—but that’s not the art. The magic’s not in there. That’s just the offcuts, the byproducts, the receipts of ideas.
I told the students today, I find it really incredible that we’ve had the whole natural human world explained to us, and we can cure some of the worst diseases, and we can stop floods and we can change the speed of wind—all these achievements, and still 90% of art is stuff that’s hung on the wall. That’s just insane! If Martians came down and talked about that with any of us, they’d just think that we were of such inferior intellect.
RP: Many of the works in your show at Scrap Metal seem to deal with that very human tendency to seek meaningful rhythms and patterns within random noise and data. I looked up what that’s called, and apparently this phenomenon, of experiencing delusions as revelations, is known as “apophenia.” It’s stuff like seeing Jesus’s face in a piece of toast. The Wikipedia page I read set it in opposition to epiphanies—realizations about the interconnected nature of reality. Is it ever your intention to set up scenarios for people to experience false epiphanies?
RG: They’re not false epiphanies. I know what the objective is, but I don’t know what the outcome is. The objective is that the outcome for everyone would be distinctly different. They’re almost like exercises. You know how the mind’s like a muscle? It’s like taking your mind to the gym.
And, equally, there’s lot of spectators or audiences that would just walk past those works and be like, I don’t have the energy, I want everything explained to me. They’re like good sieves for your audience, because all the lazy spectators fall through, and you’re just left with engaged people.
RP: How do you keep yourself entertained and interested in artmaking? What challenges do you set for yourself?
RG: Oh, I can’t get bored. I have a list of over 1,000 works I want to make. There’s maybe 85 things on the production list now, and there’s probably 12 solo shows to make, and there’s about 100 group shows a year, easy. And there’s only six people in the studio.
RP: Can you tell me about the performance piece at Scrap Metal, Lost in My Own Recursive Narrative?
RG: There’s an actor who’s employed who wanders around the gallery, and they look like a visitor or like someone who works there. Essentially you don’t know who they are if there’s a few people in the space. And every seven minutes they repeat their actions.
So they walk through the space and they might drop a tissue, then they’ll pick it up, then they’ll walk over to the toilet door and try the door handle, and then they’ll walk over to an artwork and look behind it and cough, and then they’ll walk back to the front door and they’ll drop a tissue and pick it up, and it’s essentially like a physical explanation of déjà vu.
But, again, it’s like one of those works that’s like a sieve for spectatorship quality. You have to have an inquisitive mind to even notice the work, never mind be able to enjoy it.
RP: I know you did another work similar to that, with a character called Earnest Hawker.
RG: I did that for Performa 15, and then in Aspen for the final day of that show. The guy who plays the character—he’s not an actor, because actors always look like they’re acting—he’s just a normal British guy who lives in New York, and the producer found him in a bar, at a British meet-up group, and just thought he was a bit like me and that he’d be good for the performance.
Essentially, the character is me in about 25 years’ time, after my wife has left me and taken the kids, I’ve gone bankrupt and I don’t have any ideas, I no longer have any galleries that I work with, I don’t get any shows. I live in New York in a small flat on my own. I sell my wares by wandering around New York trying to get into the openings and dinner parties, playing off this history of being Ryan Gander in the past (meaning me now). He smells a bit of gin, he’s got a duffel coat that’s got a lot of cat hair on it. His white jeans are a little bit dirty at the knees. He’s on his own all the time.
There’s a lot of those people in the New York artworld that just approach you and just start talking to you. Are they called hacks? He carries a plastic bag, a Hudson News bag from the airport turned inside out, and it contains $25 bronze keyrings of miniature sculptures of works that I’ve made, or would make in this fictional future, or works that I wanted to make but they were unsuccessful and never realized. So it’s a parapossible version of me, an alternative future reality.
RP: Are there any works you can think of that are on your wish list but for some reason would never be possible to realize?
RG: No. You can make anything.
RP: Yes, when I think of what I know of your work, you’ve done a lot of things that people wouldn’t consider possible, or wouldn’t even necessarily classify as art.
RG: Yeah, I’ve built a sprinkler system in a private museum and had that running for the duration of the show, and had the water go down a tiny slit that was built in a false floor on one side and was recycled through it so you couldn’t walk through the museum.
And at Documenta 13, the wind thing (I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise, (The Invisible Pull), 2012), it cost a fortune and was like a magical feat of engineering that took Bonn University two years to make. We had to build two soundproof buildings to house these giant turbines, and just to work out the airflow in the museum and then close every air-conditioning duct so that there wouldn’t be any pull-off…it was a massive, massive task to make that work. It seemed so subtle, but it was really a big deal to make. People would come in and say, “But…you just turned the air conditioning on.” It was a little more complicated!
RP: What do you think of as your best work?
RG: Everyone thinks it’s the wind at Documenta.
I think it’s a work called Is this guilting you too? (study of a car in a field). It’s a one-minute video animation, a flying scene, of a car in a field of snow, with no footsteps up to it, and there’s exhaust fumes coming out of it, and the car’s covered in snow.
It’s one of those lateral-thinking puzzles, an impossible situation. But this was made before…you know, every bloody artist in the world does computer animation now—this whole thin “post-Internet” genre.
RP: What do you think about that?
RG: Post-Internet art? It’s just fucking dorky. Any art about the Internet or accessibility or the screen or the skin is just dorky. It’s a crap subject to make art about. Really crap.
RP: Do you think you’d ever try it out?
RG: Well this work was about that, but it was made about 20 years ago. I mean, Loose Associations Lecture (1.1) (2001) was made 15 years ago, and that was, like, pre–post-Internet. I did it recently at Central Saint Martins for the BBC, who recorded it for a program, and I hadn’t done it for 13 years, and it was ridiculous because I was talking about the Internet like it was a new invention. That was like time travel.
The Internet is just such an old subject. I don’t know why people are using rapid-prototype machines and doing crap computer animation of humans.
It’s in the same sort of genre as this fetishism of the nostalgia of film. I can’t stand film. I find it so manipulative, and so creepy, that an artist would be strategic and try to control spectators’ emotion with nostalgia. I find it very insincere, actually.
RP: I’d definitely never use nostalgia to describe your work. In fact, I have a bit of trouble seeing an impression of the self in your work.
RG: I think there’s too much self in my work. I think the thing is, when you think of self, you look for a clear identity of a person. I don’t really have a clear identity. There’s a lot of self, but my self is kind of sporadic and starts things and then puts them down and then answers a question from someone else. The work’s kind of scatty, jumpy, so maybe that’s the persona.
RP: It’s hard to lock down, and I see you tackling a number of personas. You’re also quite vocally against rules, traditions and conventions in art. Are there any rules that you do follow?
RG: List your assumptions. List your objectives. Look at things backwards. Remain light on your feet. Never do the same thing as the last thing that you did. Learn something from every work. Don’t make work to please people—or to win the Turner Prize. And make things where the stories are so interesting that the carrier has value, that people want it.
That’s not an economic thing. It’s like Luis Barragán’s collection of pestles and mortars, in the front of one of his houses, they’re things that people want because they represent interesting history, sociology, design. It’s not making things that are desirable, like a skull with diamonds in it. It’s about making things that are culturally valuable.
Imagine going to the Natural History Museum or the British Museum, and the exhibits you see, their value isn’t an intrinsic value, it’s the value of storytelling and fable-making. I feel like I’m not making artworks, I’m making exhibits for a museum of sociology or something, a lot of the time. I don’t feel like it’s art. It’s like making vessels for stories, or objects that carry meaning.
RP: Can you tell me about the work Barragán’s Device and Abbé Faria, and about how you make work by other artists?
RG: There are many artists that are involved in my practice that are fictional. And some of them I make work as, some I make work about, some of them I use as devil’s advocates or excuses to do things I don’t want to do or can’t do. They’re like little players in a game in a way.
So there’s Aston Ernest—he’s, like, the best artist in the world. He’s the artist that I’d really like to be. So when I make work by him it’s a real challenge, because it pushes me to be a better artist. But he’s not just a good artist because of the work he makes—he’s morally and ethically a good artist.
He has a nemesis called Santo Sterne (an anagram of Aston Ernest) and, similarly, I make work by him, but it’s work that I wouldn’t make. He’s a horrible artist. He’s the kind of artist that buys drinks for museum curators at restaurants, but spends no time making art. He wanders around the world with his trust-fund money going to every art fair, and the work that he makes is incredibly crass. It’s the world seen through a Photoshop filter. It’s Day-Glo colours, fluorescents and zebra stripes and lots of neon—it’s fucking dorky! It’s good to make work by him because it’s like exorcising these ghosts.
RP: It can be really frustrating when you see a brand-new, young artist and their first work is, like, a robot, and you think, well, yeah, everyone would be making robots if they had the money to do so!
RG: The trust-fund generation of artists is the biggest problem in the artworld right now. It’s a massive problem. I think the artworld will split in the next 10 years into two. There’ll be one artworld that’ll just be the way it’s been for the last 60 years, and then there’ll be this other artworld, with, like, retinal, sensational art by rich kids.
RP: You don’t think they’ll just burn themselves out, and they’ll disappear into the annals of history and will never really amount to anything?
RG: Anyone can make a “good” work. But I don’t trust artists that make a few good works. I trust artists that make a few good works and a lot of shit, over an 80-year period.
RP: What would you call “good” art?
RG: Mental agility, adaptability, physical poetics. It might not be by artists. It might be by Victor Papanek, the ecologist designer, or Bruno Munari.
Design is exactly the same as art, but it’s tangible art, so you can actually quantify it and judge it and talk about it in real terms in a functioning context, which is the world—and you can’t do that with art.
If I have a student and they make a shit typeface, I can say, “This is shit, because it doesn’t work here, you know, you can’t use Comic Sans MS on a gravestone for a reason.” But with an artwork, if I have a student and they have a terrible painting, they’ll say, “It’s about my sister who just died in a car crash.”
RP: Right, so it’s like you’re speaking the same visual language, but you’re either making a poem or an instruction manual.
RG: You can’t talk about art in the ways you can talk about design. I think there’s a higher level of creativity in multifaceted designers than there is in most artists. There’s a control to it and from that you can get conclusions and results and talk about it logically.
So I talk about design a lot, because it’s hard to talk about the ephemeral. It’s hard to talk when you’re sitting on a cloud.
“Creative Play May Entail Some Risk Taking” continues until May 17 at Scrap Metal Gallery in Toronto, while the large-scale exhibition “Make every show like it’s your last” opens at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal on March 3.