Published as “The Storyteller” in the exhibition catalogue accompanying Ryan Gander’s exhibition “Heralded as the New Black.” The exhibition premiered at the IKON Gallery, Brimingham, and traveled to the South London Gallery and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. For more information, click here.
“I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum.” – Louise Glück, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence”
“Conceptual Artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” – Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art”
“You should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” – Ian Gander, the artist’s father
Conceptual art is an open-ended gambit. Unlike the drive toward flatness that fueled the development of much modernist painting, which foretold its own end once pure depthlessness had been achieved, Conceptual art is most often underpinned by processes, by ways of seeing and thinking. As such, the term is by no means limited to the philosophical-linguistic explorations of Joseph Kosuth, the rule-based structures and permutations of Sol LeWitt, or any of the dry, seemingly abstract investigations promulgated by early avatars of the movement. Instead, Conceptual art embodies an approach to the world—or, better yet, extracts a core sample from the vast inventory of worldly experience, holding it up to new light.
Because nearly all art made today must in some way grapple with modernism—which, like capitalism, may never end—the core samples Conceptual artists draw out often incorporate aspects of the modernist legacy. This heritage necessarily comes down to us fragmented, incomplete. Glück, in the essay from which the epigraph quoted above is taken, continues: “All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.”
London-based artist Ryan Gander’s artworks frequently engage with this weighty aesthetic and ideological inheritance: architecture, typographic design, utopian city planning, other artists’ works, language, and the artist’s studio have all appeared in some form or another in his art. It may seem a small-stakes operation to make art that is, broadly, about other art or about artmaking, and for many artists working today, the air indeed seems pretty thin. Yet Gander doesn’t simply tease out the nuances of chair designs or bemoan the failure of this or that manifesto to correctly prophecy the present. Instead he frequently manages to inhabit or reanimate fragments of this tradition, offering not rote, judgmental commentary on what has past but rather a meditation on the conditions that brought such objects and ideals into being. He hovers in the gaps that have opened up between then and now, pointing out the static that interferes with any understanding of the context in which something was first created. As one critic phrased it, Gander offers “allegorical resurrection[s] of cultural ruins.” But by granting autonomy to these ruins—they are not mere illustrations of some thesis—his artworks avoid forfeiting the power of which Glück speaks.
The curator Douglas Fogle has claimed that at heart Gander is a sculptor; another curator, Bart van der Heiden, has posited photography as Gander’s core practice. I’d like to propose a quite different source for his alchemical ability to transmute received ideas and forms into compelling artworks: storytelling. Gander’s narratives blow life into modernism’s dying embers, reigniting the utopian striving and the restless, playful curiosity about the world that were indivisible from the creation of so much modernist art, architecture, and design but are now mostly lost to us. (Many artists working now, some of whom were included in a recent exhibition at the Hamburg Kunsterein titled “Formalism: Modern Art Today,” engage the form but not the spirit of the forebears to which they lay claim. At its least developed, this neo-modernism—forgive the term—is mere style, elegant yet vacuous.) The narrative impulse likewise ties together Gander’s quite varied artistic output: film installations, sculptures, sound pieces, drawings, a children’s book, public art, a television series pilot, lectures—even an invented word, slipped discreetly into the English language.
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Storytelling is most clearly discerned in The Boy Who Always Looked Up (2003), a forty-eight-page children’s book that Gander wrote and illustrated. It whimsically narrates the life of Hungarian-born architect Ernö Goldfinger, in particular the construction of his thirty-two-story Trellick Tower. That Brutalist building, a public housing structure completed in 1972, is situated across the street from the Victorian house of Tom, the story’s narrator, who meets Goldfinger when several architects visit the site during construction. The friendship between Tom and the architect leads to the addition of basement doorways that act as portals to a utopian world symbolized by a paper model for the building. Gander’s mix of fact and fantasy contrasts not only the viewpoints of child and architect, but also the architect’s earnest intentions and the somewhat grim reality of the building itself. (Like many high-rise public housing buildings in England and the United States, Trellick Tower was for many years beset with crime and in a state of general disrepair.) The juxtapositions lead to a host of questions about the efficacy of such projects: Did Goldfinger’s aspirations—and, by extension, those of architects who created similar projects—founder in the face of decidedly non-idealistic residents? Is such aspiration childlike, or even misguided, in its naïveté? Can architecture effect social change?
This kind of storytelling is quite different from “back stories,” the information some artists share as a kind of legend or key to understanding the perplexing, hermetic objects they choose to exhibit. Whereas those tip-offs function to limit interpretation—“Oh, this accumulation of plastic tubes and women’s high heels is about unequal access to water,” or some such—Gander’s artworks consistently open outward. Another work in the same series as the children’s book is Bauhaus Revisited (2003), a re-creation of a chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1924 such that the shape of each piece indicates what moves it can make. Hartwig’s set, meant to eliminate the barrier to entry that kept beginners from understanding the complex game, was designed to be mass produced. Gander’s version, however, is necessarily a one-off and sunders any attempt at playing: It was carved from rare African zebrawood, the marbleized patterning of which makes it impossible to distinguish the two traditional “sides” or “teams” of the game. The gesture can be seen several ways: as an acknowledgment of the removal of such populist-friendly designs as Hartwig’s to the rarefied world of museum collections; as a Dadaist prank liberating the game from the constraints of applicable rules; or as a completion of the pieces’ migration from representation (of knights, bishops, etc.) to pure abstraction.
Both of these artworks are part of the series “An Incomplete History of Ideas” (2002–2006), a body of work that also, in another piece, deployed designer and socialist William Morris’s shambolic book of utopian socialism News from Nowhere. What unites these variegated touchstones is embodied in the word incomplete: Not only did each object end up operating much differently from how it was intended, but myriad new possibilities arise when they’re considered in relation to one another. As Gander wrote about one work in the series, a novel meant to be written by fifteen separate authors then shopped by the artist to literary agents under a pen name, “I don’t know if it will be a good story. I’m just providing the possibility, the condition for things to happen.”
“An Incomplete History of Ideas” functions associatively, joining together fragments with a logic whose qualities as a fixative may in the end only be known to the artist. This has been Gander’s modus operandi since his time at the Rijksakedemie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam, where he first presented his Loose Association lecture, a performance piece with which he has been closely identified ever since. Taking the form of a narrated Power Point slide show, the talk plausibly strings together seemingly offhand observations about a comically wide range of subjects, from “desire lines” to Captain Birdseye, from his late great aunt Deva to Klingons, and from Panopticon theorizer Jeremy Bentham to his late grandfather’s collection of QSL cards, which ham-radio and CB operators mail to each other to acknowledge that they’ve spoken over the airwaves. Like the children’s-book story of Ernö Goldfinger’s life, these talks blend fact and fiction, trading on the authority automatically accorded a lecture to grant provisional “truth” status to urban myths. (Bear in mind the lesson imparted to the artist by his father, quoted at the outset of this essay.) It’s slippery territory, but as Gander has noted, “The ability to find a logic in associating ideas isn’t for the lazy.”
That assertion was published in a catalogue of Gander’s Association Photographs (2005), which are intimately related to the Loose Association lectures. The series, comprising eighteen images, depicts carefully plotted arrangements of the 105 “personally significant” items that the artist collected over a two-year period. Each item—from self-evident objects like newspaper articles and a packet of salt to inscrutable inclusions like blank sheets of carbon paper—is annotated by a museum-style wall label that is itself depicted in the photograph. Printed at the same scale as the sections of wall they depict, these flatly lit compositions are what one critic called a “conceptual trompe l’oeil.” Each item contained therein is, likewise, potentially a starting point for an entirely new strand of Gander’s work. This possibility is confirmed by a closer look at image number seventeen. The photograph depicts an artwork by the artist Aurélien Froment consisting of an agenda for the year 2030, a date Gander recycled into the title of his 2005 Store Gallery exhibition “Somewhere Between 1886 and 2030.” (In a sound piece included in the show, Froment discusses his own artwork.) On either side of the agenda are a promotional sheet for an Eames chair on an “Eiffel Tower” base, a picture of two billboards for British Telecom that incorporate giant Post-It Notes, and a small sketch of the Eiffel Tower on another (normal-size) Post-It Note, all three of which the artist, at the time of this writing, is working into a stand-alone artwork.
But photograph number seventeen, titled What kind of a world, also depicts, in its lower-left-hand corner, a sketch on graph paper of “how best to annotate this work.” (This sketch itself is annotated in the depicted wall label; it is listed as number 105, the last in the series of evocative objects.) If Gander’s associative artworks are akin to strolls or rambles in a park, in which a succession of sense impressions cohere instinctually rather than by some force of reasoning, the idea behind the inclusion of such a sketch in the finished photograph is so tightly wound as to be a perfect circle. Loops, tautologies, and knots are the opposite of Gander’s more fanciful linkages, and function as counterbalances to the meandering side of his output. Perhaps the tightest spring he has wound is the word he invented, mitim. Not only is it an palindrome, but when set in capital letters in many sans-serif typefaces it is also visually symmetrical, a “physical palindrome.” Mitim means “a mythical word newly introduced into history as if it had always been there”—it is what it means. In a text published in the design journal Dot Dot Dot, Gander explained at length the difficulties he faces with regard to instigating and increasing its circulation, which must stem in part from this self-reflexive circumscription.
It’s worth noting here that the most significant element of our inheritance from modernism in the arts may be artistic self-consciousness about the characteristics (and limitations) of a given medium. Painters made paintings about painting; novelists wrote books that called attention to their construction. (In this vein, in 2001 Gander restaged the image from a Serge Gainsbourg album cover to investigate the pictorial information taken in by three different types of camera, presenting the results side-by-side.) Gander’s ceaseless and playful inquisitiveness is particularly fertile in this regard: Each aspect of his studio practice is fit to be pried apart and examined in the same way an engineer might investigate a watch or a computer programmer might probe a handheld gadget. This is not limited to individual gestures or artworks: The aforementioned sound piece, including in his 2005 exhibition at Store Gallery, narrated not only Froment’s 2030 agenda and details about the artworks that were included in the show, but also those ideas for artworks that Gander had considered for inclusion but ultimately discarded. The strategy once again functions in a manner quite opposed to museum-display convention, in which an Acoustiguide sound track anchors an exhibition visitor with concrete details about given works. In Somewhere Between, the sound track serves to pick apart the viewer’s assumptions while at the same time lead her to imaginatively create objects that are not present (or, in one case, is only present on the show’s invitation card).
In three recent video installations Gander has deployed his penchant for creating coiled and free-ranging structures at the same time. The balance between these modes is slightly different in each. Two, both titled Is this guilt in you too, possess a centrifugal force, moving outward from a central visual motif or situation; the third, titled Ghostwriter Subtext, features figures well known in the art world and is more centripetal.
The young girl narrating Is this guilt in you too (The study of a car in a field) (2005), which was made by Gander for presentation at the 2005 Art Basel art fair, has not only seen the video, but is in the process of seeing it at the same time as the viewer of the finished piece. “The voice”—meaning hers—“… makes it seem like somebody has already seen this.” At one point in the audio commentary about the minute-long digital video, she narrates what one watches like a play-by-play announcer. She describes the slow fade from black to white, the snowy field that comes into view, the stand of trees and powder-dusted mountains in the background, the four-door sedan idling in the midst of the scene, and the bluish shadow it casts on the ground nearby. If this were the extent of the girl’s commentary on the looped video, the work could be seen as ironically self-conscious, a humorous addition to the mass of artworks, films, theater productions, and novels that reflexively acknowledge the fact of their fabrication. But her quote continues: “…and they know what you’re watching, and they sort of know everything about it.” Prompted by an interlocutor we cannot hear, she presses onward, discussing the clip’s relationship to music videos and driving video games; analyzing its real-world verisimilitude; offering psychological speculations about the kind of person who could have ended up in a situation like the one onscreen; prognosticating about what could happen next; guessing what kinds of feelings it might arouse in the viewer; selecting a suitable sound track for it. Perhaps most importantly and humorously, she explains where it is to be exhibited—“An art fair, in Basel”—and spells out what art fairs are: “[They are] the art world. Lots of galleries are there, like streets. And it’s full of people walking around.” Encountering this video installation at Art Basel must have been uncanny. How often do artworks speak back to you? And of those, how many speak of the encounter you’re in the midst having? If the tradition of self-conscious artworks stretches back well beyond twentieth-century modernism (think of Velazquez’s Las Meninas), it remains rare even today that an artwork is endowed with something more akin to artificial intelligence.
To encounter it at a nonprofit venue, as I did at Artists Space in New York in late 2005, is to understand how the video, already complete and therefore somewhat out of the artist’s hands, continues to subtly chart its movement through the world. An attendant, slightly dissonant frisson inheres in the experience, forcing one to think not only about the conditions of the particular exhibition you are attending, but also about its previous incarnation as an artwork made for an entirely different venue. To imagine its resonance in an art-fair setting encourages one to think more critically about the contingent, ever-evolving relationship between an artwork and its public. It brings to mind a striking question: Just what causes the guilt referred to in the title? With everything but an answer coming from the artwork itself, one’s response, as with all of Gander’s works, must be an individual act of negotiation. To traffic in such thought-provocation without retreating into abstraction or mystical ambiguity is rare. The study of a car in a field is a video koan, the value of which does not reside solely in the stress of meditation upon the considerable questions it generates, but also in the image itself, which is, despite its utter anonymity, prepossessing.
Is this guilt in you too (Cinema verso) (2006) charts the story of two characters, one living in New York City, the other in upstate New York. Both are experiencing sensory lapses: In the city, the man is slowly going blind, and is trying to find the best route to his daughter’s school given his deteriorating sight. Upstate, the unnamed character is experiencing what might be described as a kind of snow blindness, a whiteout not unlike that which was depicted in The study of a car in a field. With numerous such links between them, Gander has suggested that study may be seen as a kind of trailer for cinema verso. But whereas the earlier installation disentangled its audio and video tracks, but let gallery-goers experience them simultaneously, Cinema verso goes one step further. Viewers enter into a situation analogous to those experienced by the two protagonists, as it quickly becomes apparent that one is viewing the reverse side—verso—of a semi-opaque projection screen, through which distinct images become bleary washes of moving color. (This fact is confirmed by peeking around the edge of the screen at an empty auditorium.) The audio track is likewise faint, as it emanates from a directional speaker placed in a corner near to the screen. If you wish to hear the sound track, you must stand beneath the speaker and therefore cannot see the screen clearly; conversely, if you can see the video, its sound is unavailable. The installation anatomizes sensory experience, causing an empathic connection with the video’s hampered protagonists and forcing an imaginative reconstruction of its constituent parts, which will necessarily be different for each viewer.
Ghostwriter Subtext – (Notes on Speaking and Learning) (2006) furthers this theme, adding an intriguing subtext: the installation itself admits a divisive, revealing ambivalence. It is a two-channel work, the main screen depicting an interview with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and the architect Rem Koolhaas conducted by a ghostwriter that Gander has hired. Obrist and Koolhaas are sitting inside the Serpentine Gallery’s temporary pavilion in London, which had, shortly before the shooting of Gander’s video, been the site of a twenty-four-hour “interview marathon” conducted by the duo. The unnamed ghostwriter, for whom extracting information is key to his trade, turns the tables on these prolific interrogators. In a manner similar to Cinema verso Gander has severed image and sound: Though the audio plays sequentially and is audible throughout the installation, Obrist and Koolhaas are only depicted at moments only when they are not speaking; as soon as their lips part to emit speech, the image cuts away to one of the other two listeners. (Interestingly, this decision gives the images the rhythm of conversation, alternately dawdling and accelerated.) A second, blank screen presents the transcript of a conversation between Gander and a friend as subtitles. Whereas Cinema verso allowed one behind the screen, this conversation, in which Gander wonders about the effectiveness of the installation as a whole, prods at the seamless surface one expects an artwork exhibited in public to possess. (In this manner it returns to probing of The story of a car in a field.) Given the deft play with truth that Gander has exhibited throughout his career, it’s perhaps too simple to assume that the dialogue flashing across the bottom of the screen is in any way confessional. But it doesn’t appear to be a conceit, and the possibility—of an anxious artwork, infallible as humans are—is appealing.
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Gander is a latter-day modernist operating in the expanded field—high culture and low—brought into the realm of fine-art discourse by postmodernism. As he says himself: “I don’t see the difference between [the artist] Jonathan Monk’s work, the colour red, Star Wars the movie, or a piece of cardboard.” As the combination of technological development and increasingly available specialized labor has allowed artists to slalom across disciplines heretofore barricaded by the need for training, one comes to identify a certain class of practitioners less by style than by outlook. Other artists, such as the collaborative duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, for whom Gander has expressed admiration, or Maurizio Cattelan, deploy a similar (and potent) combination of self-reflexiveness and humor. What makes Gander’s practice unique is the frequency with which he turns this playful deliberation—it is calculation without cynicism—on himself, offering up to viewers an opportunity to inhabit his world rather than a position paper to ingest. That such an impressive variety of stories has been for several years the result of this curious process is all the more laudable. The last words should go to Gander himself: “I make better work when I’m just entwined with all the amazing stuff we’re all drenched in every day—just by happening to be alive—than when I am aware I’m ‘making art’. It’s that simple.”