Discussing freedom from form with Ryan Gander
Ryan Gander is very busy. Aside from a practice that turns out over 100 artworks a year, he’s recently been on the judging panel for New Contemporaries, designed a line of trainers for Adidas, and has plans to open an art school.
His practice encompasses sculpture, painting, writing, video, and immersive art-theatre. There are tropes drawn on, sustained and then discarded, from piece to piece.
The breadth of Gander’s output is so vast, the connections between works so nebulous, that it’s difficult to know where to begin. While there are no exclusive themes explored, in conversation Gander describes an interest in the collision of objects – juxtapositions. Elsewhere he focuses on narrative, as in his series of works modelled on Degas’s dancer, which sees the ultimate Gallerina step off her plinth and take a fag break, look out of the window and then engage – increasingly violently – with her surroundings. Each sculpture constitutes a sequential installment in a static, frame-by-frame narrative.
Guardian art critic Adrian Searle, meanwhile, asserts that “noticing things is at the core of what he does”, citing, as an example, Gander’s marble-dust casts of his daughter’s forts. While an unarguable conceptual motif, this again seems too narrow to adequately describe the span of his output. Interviewing him over the phone, I put it to him.
What, if any, is the point of contact between the different themes you explore in your work?
I think it’s always changing. I think that’s what keeps me interested. I think there’s probably like, five or six different practices, and I swap between them when I get a bit bored. The work is a bit jumpy; it has this kind of spastic energy that’s a bit too highly strung. Maybe you can see that in the variety.
There’s a conversation on YouTube between you and [art historian] Rudi Fuchs; you were talking about the Degas Ballerina works, and he said your work was circular – Beckettian. Some of your pieces remind me of an Ouroboros in that way, continuous but also closed. Do you need a work to have that sense of logical completeness before you make it?
Again, it’s different. In a lot of the works there’s a lot of meta-, and there’s a lot of total internal refraction; a lot of circular concept. Only as much as there is leaving things open; missing information, the latent and the ghost and the taking away and providing only the framework and not the content. It doesn’t need to have a complete concept before it starts; I’d say half the works that I make are investigations or trials, because I don’t know what I’m doing and I want to see how these things fall out of me into the world, and see how they look and function.
The ballerina, in his sculpture series, is freed from her plinth and liberated from her Degas form, but remains trapped in the dual threads of Gander’s narrative and his watertight conceptualisation. The work, in this instance, seems almost closed-off to external critical dialogue and preserved by the artist’s conceptual rigor.
The self-assuredness with which Gander discusses his works (another YouTube clip shows a panel discussion during which he blithely describes the “loose associative”, almost nonsense-poetry logic that links the works in an exhibition – search ‘Ryan Gander in conversation with Louise Hayward’) is reflected in the ease, and nonchalance, with which he describes his “five or six different practices”. It’s a refreshing perspective; a departure from what can be a dogmatic loyalty to, or a dependence on, medium.
It seems as though to stand by this multifaceted approach to practice[s] requires a kind of confidence; I can imagine a kind of intellectual bullying happening at art school, for example, about a practice that isn’t committed to a medium or specific field of investigation. Did this confidence come with commercial success, or was it there before?
I don’t make enough profit to say I’m commercially successful; I spend all my money on making art, so I don’t know if commercial success is in the conversation. I think I had that confidence when I was intellectually bullied at college, because I think if you work by the code that I work by, and the morals and the ethics that I personally have about making art, and about contributing to the history of art, then you can’t fuck around with that.
Gander’s sense of the history of art, and the self-awareness he has about his own position within it, is telling. With this he starts to elucidate the “spastic energy” of his output.
When I was asking at the beginning about the points of contact between the disparate conceptual elements that make up your practice, I suppose I was trying to ask you what drives you as a maker. Is this desire to add to the art ‘canon’ the bottom line?
Yeah, it’s a bit like collecting. When I saw my new book Culturefield printed for the first time, I had this feeling that I looked like a bit of a collector – “let’s see how many things I can do in my lifetime”. Just try and make the things that I do as obscure from the next thing or as acute from the last. It’s a bit like a self-challenge, a quest. That’s a bit how I feel about it; I really want to do a uniform for a McDonald’s drivethrough attendant, there’s a colossal list of devices that I want to use. I probably won’t be able to do them all in my lifetime, but it’s a way to keep busy…
What becomes clear is that the scale of Gander’s output reflects not a scattergun, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach, but rather a broad, but no less piercing, exploration into visual language; art for art’s sake.
It could be argued that the recursive quality of this approach requires something of a leap of faith; a willingness to see an intrinsic value in art. Without this faith, the whole endeavor could be written off as a waste of time. But that’s really a truism about the whole of contemporary art, and besides, Gander is highly persuasive.
With a practice as conceptual as his, so rooted in idea rather than any sort of materiality, it’s a fluency in the language of art that comes through, and that supports the art-for-art loop. Gander himself brings it up, “I’m really articulate in visual language, I’ve spent 25 years learning about it. If you spent 25 years learning Chinese, you’d be able to speak it pretty proficiently.”
Fundamentally, Gander’s loyalty is to art itself; not to the fluff that surrounds it. It’s telling that it’s “visual language” he refers to, not critical theory.
It’s great hearing you talk about your work because you’re very direct. It’s not bogged down in references to Adorno. What is your position on critical theory?
My position on critical theory is that it’s easier to speak about things when you speak in examples with solid things in front of you, than it is to speak about multiple possible things at once, like you’re sitting on a cloud. I’m not a big fan of critical theory per se; it’s too ambiguous. I like to speak and think in examples. And it’s easier for people to visualise things in examples. I like critical theory, but I like critical theory with physical foundation.
So then your artworks are examples?
Yeah, they are. They’re almost like swatches.
A lot of artists now are adopting a medium or language that aren’t theirs to use, in a sense. Music, for example, or poetry. Sometimes it’s like art functions as a kind of inoculation against poor quality; that artists are held to a different standard than musicians. Is it less forgivable when they’re using a visual discourse badly, than when they use a different discipline badly?
Yeah, it’s much worse. But, you’ve still got to be good. Like that TV commercial I made [Imagineering, 2013]; if you’re going to make a TV commercial and it has to be good, you get the people who make TV commercials to make the TV commercial. If I was to do a project that was a song, I’d work with professionals that understood what they were doing. I haven’t got time to learn about that as well as everything else I need to know; you can’t do everything. ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ is true. I can’t know about ceramics and bronze casting and architecture and philanthropy. It’s impossible.
While Gander’s visual fluency provides access to a cultural lexicon of imagery and reference, it is his fundamental engagement with the open dialogue of art itself that gives both clout and a kind of generosity to his insights.
I think if you have your own language and practice, and you make something reminiscent of someone else’s work or the crux of someone else’s idea for a singular work, that’s quite interesting. It means the trajectories of your paths have crossed. It’s interesting because it’s mimetic – it’s reflecting everything that’s around you, and the things you appreciate. It’s the same as putting vases on the windowsill that people can see from the outside, or having fluffy dice in your car. It’s all showing, and refracting everything that’s around you that you enjoy. It’s not copying, it’s kind of nice.
All photos © Ryan Gander, courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.