Visual mysteries

Visual mysteries

Ryan Gander believes that living by itself is a creative act, but artworks that have a set meaning are terribly boring, writes Giridhar Khasnis .

 One of Britain’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, Ryan Gander has had a comet-like career. The 38-year-old wheel-bound conceptual artist’s work has been shown at prestigious venues like Venice Biennale (2011), the Palais de Tokyo (Paris/2012), and dOCUMENTA 13 (Germany/2012). A number of awards have come his way, including the Dutch ‘Prix de Rome’ in 2003; the Baloise Art Statements of the Art Basel in 2006; the ABN Amro Art Price in 2006; and, the Zürich Art Prize in 2009. 

Described as a ‘cultural magpie’, mysterious storyteller and a raconteur who disrupts the narrative deliberately, Gander is known to celebrate the wonders of the imagination. A procession of objects and ideas emanate from his works and take the shape of intriguing puzzles or a network of multiple connections and connotations. Gander works with a plethora of mediums — painting, sculpting, writing, films, installation, found objects, photography, performative lectures, and publications, among others. Many of his works are spare, child-like, and enigmatic. Ideas are central to his creations but he displays no consistent style, medium or way of working with them. Spoofs, riddles and fantasy are part of his oeuvre, and he could be seen deliberately mixing things up and surprising the viewer. Gander insists it is the nature of art making, and in fact the only way of making art. “Sometimes, I highlight something that exists. At other times, I create things that are totally new. Sometimes, I collide things to produce a hybrid, and often I just sit and watch and don’t say or do anything.” The restless shifting of styles and ideas is essential to Gander’s viewpoint. “The point of being an artist is that you can do something different everyday.” 

Embedded narrative

Gander does not provide easy answers or even clues to his convoluted and puzzling objects and images. Instead he provokes the viewer to decipher the fragments of an embedded narrative and invent his/her own stories. “The idea is that the spectator is allowed to daydream about meaning, to resist closure, and to increase possible associations with things in the images or in your own imaginative archive.” 

One of his well-known works, ‘Magnus Opus’ (2013) (which, incidentally, was part of his curiously titled exhibition ‘Make Every Show Like It’s Your Last’) had two large animatronic eyes on the wall following every movement and gesture of the visitor. The prying eyes were not benign but had moving eyebrows, eyeballs and eyelids which alternately seemed to display expressions of shock, surprise, boredom, anger, confusion and joy. With the application of comic aesthetic to his work, the artist was actually overturning the traditional gallery experience for the hapless visitor who found himself to be an object of surveillance.

Gander’s installation — ‘Is the guilt in you too?’ (Cinema Verso, 2006) — provided another bewildering experience to the visitor who had to navigate through a plethora of obstacles, debris, dead ends, and illusions. The whole experience was symbolic of the inequitable difficulties faced by the disabled.

Art of noticing 

‘Come On! Think!’ was the title of his work shown in 2012 Art Basel. It had a series of long wooden shelves, each having mounted photographs of pornographic magazine covers; interestingly, the covers themselves bore no images, but just the whiteness of the paper. It was left to the viewer’s imagination to think of the picture that could have actually been on the cover!

“Artworks that have a set meaning are always so terribly boring, aren’t they?” asks Gander. “If you see an artwork and you get it, then you forget it straight away. The artworks that I like are the ones that I am still thinking about now — they stay in your mind and your imagination.” 

At one level, Gander’s art stems from noticing ordinary objects and picking on everyday events. “I am interested in stories, and in the way that objects can act as vessels for these stories.” He believes living itself is a creative act, and even the way one puts things on the mantlepiece or wears clothes or performs a seemingly routine act could hold an artistic trace.

He also sees a mystifying strangeness that pervades both the real and imagined worlds. “There is no difference between the fictions I am creating in here and outside and what is happening in everyday life. We are so bombarded with crap all the time that we get noise-cancelling headphones, we try to close everything out. But when we were kids we would climb under the dining room table and put a cloth over it, and in our minds it would really be a house because our imagination was so attuned and acute.”

In fact, Gander returns to childhood wonders and pranks again and again. In one of his recent works, he produced marble replicas of the dens that he made with his five-year-old daughter with chairs, umbrella and other objects. “The naivety of children gives them this beautiful ability to approach artworks without any cultural baggage that adults have with them.”

This is evident in many of his other important works. His sculptural piece titled ‘The Happy Prince’ (2010) was inspired by a children’s story written by Oscar Wilde and its climactic moment when the statue of a smiling prince is destroyed. In ‘We never had a lot of € around here’ (2010), he had a 25 Euro coin dated 2036 (!) glued to the floor. For ‘Never Shone’, he had a water puddle specially created on gallery floor; and the puddle was topped up every morning. For ‘Grand or Good Fouls’ (2011), a neon sign depicting the phrase ‘I see your work in colours that don’t exist’ was installed and then broken by the artist; the broken glass and other debris were left undidsturbed across the gallery space. ‘Investigation # 92’ (2013) had alphabets made from striped toothpaste squirts, which were framed and then glazed. Gander believes that objects are objects, but it is for the artist to decide “what you are placing, how you place it, and who is looking at it, and when, where, etc.” 

For one who is always keen to invent and innovate, Gander’s scorn for artists who are easily satisfied to work on a few ideas for decades is understandable. “A majority of artists have a single idea, at best a few, spread over an entire 50-year practice.” He is also not taken in by the present structure of art education; he believes that paper qualifications could actually be detrimental to an artist. He recommends youngsters working with senior artists instead. “That’s a much better experience than learning off some tutor who hasn’t had a show for 15 years and isn’t in the field.” He also says that part of people being creative is to share ideas. “I see being a painter or a photographer in contemporary art like masturbating a bit, just pleasing yourself, really selfishly, but sharing nothing.”