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Reviews / December 10, 2009

Ryan Gander: A Not-So-Quick Study of Art and Artifice

Ryan Gander Things that mean things and things that look like they mean things 2008 Video still Courtesy the artist

In the tradition of artist profiles on television (read: The South Bank Show) UK artist Ryan Gander has meticulously crafted a hall-of-mirrors “documentary” complete with inspirational soundtrack called Things that mean things and things that look like they mean things. In it, Gander chronicles romanticism in the processes of drawing and viewing of art that lie in his film-within-a-film The Magic and the Meaning. There are interviews with the artist-auteur (Gander) and the art critic (Dan Fox of Frieze), as well as poetic clips of art students copying Francis Bacon paintings at Tate Britain—and more doc-styled clips of the filming of same.

While Gander and Fox seem to play themselves, the art students do not, forcing the viewer to sift through layers of truth and falsity. This is extremely difficult to do, mostly because Gander and Fox convincingly portray themselves; both speak with a great sincerity that can easily erase any sense of cynicism about the work.

Gander comments on the alchemy and romance of students drawing at museums in a way that speaks to the greater philosophy and process of looking at art—and in a way that is self-referential to the film itself. Fox’s remarks, like “as always with Ryan’s work, I’m a bit suspicious of it at first,” directly refer to both the mockumentary and the film-within-a-film. If one listens closely, the interpretation of the work is served directly to the viewer, who is constantly left uncertain about what is fact and what is fiction. There are many questions as to the extent of construction in both films, questions Fox continually feeds to the viewer.

Yet truth is also present in every layer of meaning that Gander crafts. Whether in the film, the film-within-the-film or the overall message of the two combined, pieces of wisdom can be procured that stand on their own. Things that mean things… situates itself within art history, speaking to a practice of portraying a truth. The truth here is performed and recorded, with Gander ultimately playing the trickster, making the viewer believe the performance itself is the truth.

It is bizarre how truthful and introspective the portraits of artist-as-persona are here, despite their inherent construction for the purposes of a fictitious film. The complexity in Gander’s work forces the viewer to put in the effort, to really see and absorb his kind of cleverness. In a rare moment of clarity in art, Things that mean things and things that look like they mean things says it all while trumping itself. (1286 Bloor St W, Toronto ON)

Charlene K. Lau

Charlene K. Lau is an art historian, critic and curator who has held fellowships at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Parsons School of Design and Performa Biennial. Her writing has been published in the Atlantic, the Brooklyn RailC Magazine, Canadian Art, Critical Studies in Fashion & BeautyFashion Theory and Journal of Curatorial Studies, among others. Her research interests include the avant-garde in art and fashion, Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), politically and socially engaged practices, and the pornographic.