Conceptual art offers viewers a journey along an associative chain. There is always a bottom. O rather, the work attains its own life by cannibalizing the half-lives of its sources. Looping back through multiple tropes to arrive at its own existence, the conceptual art work offers itself the protagonist of an old-fashioned, well-crafted story composed through the collision of historical referents rather than characters.
Chris Kraus, ‘Where Art Belongs’ (2011)
At the end of the summer of 2011 Ryan Gander presented ‘Locked Room Scenario’ (you can read my review here), a grand scale mise-en-scène that perfectly embodied his interest in loose associations and in the creation of narratives, whose elusive rewards are often found in their very difficulty to be grasped and deciphered. It is this collision of historical referents that Chris Kraus mentions in the opening quote, as well as the characters that Gander constructs, what makes the work of this British artist a challenge to the viewer. But as he himself has quipped: “Spectators need to invest their time and their energy in my work, in order to receive something in exchange. It is my way of filtering and encountering people who aren’t just looking for a dinner party conversation”. In a long conversation conducted in his East London studio, Gander and I discussed his work, his (anti)curatorial practice and why he isn’t an elitist.
I’d like to start by asking you about the concept of control. I have the feeling that some artists make work in a quest for control: how the work exists and how it is experienced and interpreted. In you practice, including ‘Locked Room Scenario’, your goal seems to be completely the opposite: opening up possibilities and discussions…
Bad artworks only have one reading. Really good artworks start in one place but go to multiple places; they have multiple readings, different possibilities and outcomes. For me, bad works are linear, singular and describe only one idea. But if there is only one idea to describe, you can probably articulate in speech. You don’t really need to “make something” out of it. The point of “making something” is that it can be interpreted in multiple ways. The more ways it can be interpreted and the more complicated the journey to get to that interpretation, the better the work will be.
Regarding ‘Locked Room Scenario’, I found that many people were trying to unravel a mystery by gathering as many clues and signs as possible. As if there was a complete narrative behind all those clues, a “right version” of the work. Is there a “right way” to experience it?
No, there isn’t a proper or more correct way to experience the work. Different things happen to different people by the nature of the work. It is constructed like that. So you probably miss about 60% of it if you only visit it once. You’d have to go and see it like ten times in order to see everything, and even then some of the things only happen on certain moments, so might miss them all. So every person’s experience is completely different, which is one thing I wanted, so they would end up sitting in the pub asking each other “did that taxi driver offer you a free ride home?”, “No, but I was followed by a deaf person”. That’s important.
I mean, there is a story, but it is my story and it is just an excuse to produce the work. It’s not important that the visitor understands it, what’s important is that the visitor uses his imagination. It’s a bit like a treadmill for the imagination, like being in the gym. Because the imagination is like muscle that needs exercising and we are all pretty rubbish at it. Do you remember when you were a kid, and you would look out of the window from your parents’ car and the things you could imagine? Or when you were playing in the garden making a tree house or sitting on the bed which turned into a boat… And you really believed these things! But you get older and you simply can do these things anymore. Your imagination becomes a bit stilted, lazy and flabby. ‘Locked Room Scenario’ is just an experience that can last as long as you want, and that gives you lots of catalysts to daydream and use your imagination. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people are scared of letting go and using their imagination.
It seems to me that the critical discourse around your work tends to focus on its ideas and concepts, the intangible part of it, which is logical to an extent given the conceptual nature of your practice. But it sometimes feels as if we were forgetting to discuss the aesthetic part of your pieces…
It is not that it is neglected, it just doesn’t matter what it looks like. That’s not important. The only important thing about aesthetics is that they communicate the story of how the work came to be.
But I do think that you have an interest in aesthetics which shows, for example, in the way you curate. Like the Limoncello show, for instance, which was all white and black and very sleek…
But that wasn’t due to an aesthetic interest, meaning that I just liked the way it looked. There was a conceptual reason for it. It was meant to be a tongue in cheek comment on conceptual art being boring. All my aesthetic choices have reasons behind them. What I mean is that the things I do look the way they do because of the thinking behind them, not because I have made aesthetic decisions. The material thing is just the leftover from an idea. It’s a physical manifestation of an idea, like a receipt that proves the idea existed.
You’ve said that you wouldn’t want people to consider ‘Locked Room Scenario’ a critique of the art world.
Yes, some people suggested that because it centres around an exhibition it could be read as some sort of parody. But for me these are the less interesting conclusions to the work, while the ones around fictional narratives are the most interesting.
In any case, some people criticise your work on the basis that it is very self-referential and opaque. Do you agree with that?
What I’ve heard is that I make art for the art world, rather than about the art world. Which could be true, to a certain extent. You make work for the people that are going to be interested in it…
On that same note, there is a feeling, when encountering your work, that if one has some previous knowledge of the history of art and even of your own practice, he/she will have more chances of navigating the piece sucessfully and understanding the wealth of quotes and references that you place all over. For example, in ‘Locked Room Scenario’ you reference several movements in the history of art, such as Situationism, Fluxus or Conceptualism. And you also quote yourself in the use of Santo Sterne, which is a fictional artist that you’ve already used in previous projects. Isn’t it a sort of a natural selection, whereby only the more knowledgeable spectators will understand the piece?
No. It doesn’t matter, it’s just a different experience. It is still an experience, no matter how much previous knowledge you have. A lot of these things are just excuses to make things. Just because there is a reference to me in it, it doesn’t mean that you need to know it to understand the work. It’s not elitist in the sense that the more you know the more you get from it. I have seen people getting much more from my work than people that know everything about art. It doesn’t have to do with how much you know and how much you research. It has to do with how much you let yourself go and how much you invest of yourself in it.
If it is not elitist then, is your strategy just a playful game of references?
It depends on what exactly you are talking about. In my works there are different levels of encryption, of closure and camouflage. And there are things that people will never get cause they are just things that happened to me. There are works that mean something, that have a lot of meaning. And there are works that are totally meaningless, like a painting of clouds. People make work that doesn’t mean anything more than “I’m artist and I like these materials”. I am not interested in that at all, because it doesn’t do anything for me if it doesn’t have a meaning.
What can you tell me of your participation in the last Venice Biennale, ILLUMInations (2011)?
In the para-pavilion, for example, I showed a vitrine with two dice of forty-two sides, each side with the initials of all the artists that were included the show. But I had more works scattered around the biennale. I showed five works in total. They were big works for me, but for biennale standards they were actually pretty small. I remember going to Venice previous years and encountering these huge bombastic, business-card projects that shouted “this is me!!” in a big room. And I decided that I wasn’t going to do that, so I thought I’d make five works and ask the curators to put them wherever they wanted, spreading them in different location. That was meant to make them function as punctuations. Some people thought it worked well, that it was refreshing to see works of smaller scale in this context. Others, on the other hand, thought, “Ryan Gander, who does he think he is? He is everywhere!!”. You can’t really win, can you?
What connections do you find between your curatorial practice and your own artistic practice?
I don’t have a curatorial practice.
Well, I think you do… In 2011 you curated the Limoncello show and the opening exhibition of the Lisson Gallery in Milan. And when you did the Art Now show at Tate Britain in 2008, you chose to curate other artists’ works, rather than present your own…
No, I really don’t have a curatorial practice. What I do is not curating. I just invite people to participate in a show…
How is that different from curating?
It isn’t curating because I am not a curator. It’s like making a mixtape. And every time I “curate” something anyway, the logic behind it is sort of “anti-curating”, of a critique of curating.
How does that logic work?
For example, in the Young British Art show (Limoncello Gallery, 2011) I did a sort of experiment. You could put up an exhibition with the same thirty-eight extraordinary artist and because no one knows who they are, not many people will come. But I called the show “Young British Art”, and two thousand people turned up to the opening. I like testing that sort of thing. It exposed the ludicrousness of the art world, but it was also brilliant for the artists in the show! (laughs).
Maybe two thousand people showed up because you curated it…
No, I don’t think so. It had to do with the name, with being all black & white works and with opening on a Bank Holiday weekend…
What about the Tate Art Now show? Did they ask you to curate a small show instead of presenting some of your works or was it your idea?
They asked me if I wanted to do something, if I had any ideas. And just a few weeks before I had been invited to see their stores, and they pulled out all these amazing storing walls full of artworks, with paintings upside down, without any sort of order, chronological or thematic. They were placed just wherever they’d fit, so you’d have a Pollock next to a Steve Claydon, which I thought was brilliant. There was this really nice happenstance and that’s why that show I did was also a critique of curating. I just picked two walls by rolling a dice and hung its contents in the gallery in exactly the same locations as they had been in the store. The fact is that you can make associations and pull connection and collisions between things by just rolling a dice and it will look great. And that’s not curating, is it? It’s so easy to curate, and it seems that the harder you try to curate the worse the show ends up being.
You have always said, regarding your own artistic practice, that it is much more interesting to put a set of works together that just an isolated one. That the dialogue between works creates something much more powerful…
That’s true. So if we call that “curating”, which I’d rather not, and your question is whether there are connections with my artistic practice, there are connections indeed. The interest in the creation of new meaning by putting a set of works together is definitely present in both. The “Loose Associations” lectures or the “Associate Templates” series are mainly based around that principle.
‘Loose Associations’ will be ten years old soon. Were those lectures and the subsequent book a declaration of intent, a summary of your artistic methodology?
It wasn’t mean to be like that, but the truth is that it does represents the way I work. Coming back to the idea of curating my own pieces in sets, I think I have a sort of privilege in that I make a lot of work. I make work really fast and I am not that precious about letting it go. Some artist are really afraid of their artworks leaving their studios but I just need to see how my pieces work out there. Here in the studio we make at least a 100 works a year. I would be so bored if I only did a couple of projects per year! I am not interested in doing masterpieces, I am much more interested in seeing how different works go together, so I can “curate” my own shows. That’s where I get the most enjoyment.
The typical response to your work involves a love or hate reaction. Many people seem to get annoyed by it, why do you think that happens?
Yes, it seems to irritate some people. But that is just because they let themselves. It has to do with their own characters rather than with my work. The other day I went to the kitchen department of John Lewis with my brother and he turned all the egg timer’s alarm clocks exactly in three minutes and then walked off. I though that was a brilliant creative act, but imagine how many people were irritated and annoyed. These are the people that also get irritated with my work (laughs).
An shorter version of this interview was published on this is tomorrow in November 2011. You can read it here.
Images courtesy of Studio Gander and Artangel.