Ryan Gander, now one of the favourite schmusers of contemporary art institutions, currently has his second solo show in Paris this year at the FRAC Le Plateau. Given that he was only born in 1976 and graduated in 2000, Gander has had solo shows at an obscene number of high-level fancy art places.
Here’s a list from his gallery’s website: FRAC Île-de-France / Le Plateau (2013); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2012); Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2012); Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich (2010); Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2008); the Stedelijk Museum Bureau, Amsterdam (2007 & 2003); MUMOK, Vienna (2007) and the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco (2007). He has also shown in group exhibitions such as the Shanghai Biennale (2012); documenta 13, Kassel (2012); ILLUMInations, 54th Biennale di Venezia, Venice (2011); 55th Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (2008) and the Sydney Biennial (2008). Ryan Gander has been awarded numerous prestigious prizes, among others the Zürich Art Prize (2009), the ABN Amro Art Price (2006), the Baloise Art Statements of the Art Basel (2006) and the Dutch Prix de Rome for sculpture (2003).
Nobody should thus blame me for choosing some random semi-sucessful young artist to be complaining about.
I saw the show yesterday and was there for the curator’s show and tell. And frankly speaking: it upset me. I don’t want to dislike contemporary art and this is not a general post against Ryan Gander – I don’t know his work well enough – but this show is just, pardon my French, minimalist bullshit blown-up by discourse.
The first thing we see is a poster for “Imagineering”, a campaign to incentivize the English population to use their imagination more. It’s supposedly sponsored by the Ministry for Innovation and something. The truth is: Gander told an English ad agency to come up with a campaign, pretending that it was for the ministry – or so we are told. Probably he really told them that they should suggest a campaign as if it was for the ministry. In his gallery’s words: “Ryan Gander’s complex and unfettered conceptual practice is stimulated by queries, investigations or what-ifs”. “Queries, investigations or what-ifs”? Wow! What is that supposed to mean? That he just does whatever comes to his mind, inventing more or less – mostly less – interesting fictions. The fact is that contemporary artists who deal in fiction are usually less good at it than contemporary writers or film-makers. I sometimes feel that it’s only because they are not good enough to create really engaging narratives – because it’s harder – that they pretend to be “deconstructing the concept of fiction” (or narrative or what-have-you). The concept of deconstruction comes in real handy. It’s like writers and curators had all gone through press-training where they were told: “Whenever a work is not really good at something, just say ‘The work deconstructs the concept something‘. It works every time.”
There are of course exceptions, artists interestingly working with the concepts of fiction, what-ifs and narrative, people like, ahm, Hubbard and Birchler, or Matthew Buckingham and to some extent Cardiff and Miller. But most of them eventually fall prone to conceptual … you know what I mean. Curators, gallery owners and collectors just don’t seem to be good at making the difference and you thus see fantastic exhibitions by quite deep artists followed by conceptual bullshit like this, or, much worse – oh yes, I’m not saying Gander is the worst among the young successful artists – the kind of stuff Stefan Brügemann produces.
Of course Gander has, like most artists, preferences that make him seem a little coherent. In his case (as in many artists’) these are things that have some achorage in modern art (like the Bauhaus). What’s great about this preference is that those who know something about modern art – the artworld basically – can feel smart. And if someone makes us feel smart, we like them. It’s as simple as that.
Sometimes he introduces some less well-know reference to someone that we – aka the artworld – all feel we ought to know about (like Ernö Goldfinger). And then we are even happier. The psychology behind this is somewhat more complex. I can’t really explain it, but in my earlier life, I did an internship with a priest (yup, it can be done). She told me: if you give a talk, make sure that every 30 minutes, there’s a something people don’t understand – they’ll respect you more. As it is, a lot of contemporary art (and philosophy I’m afraid) seems to be based on showing people their limitations. We like that. Maybe it’s a basis of learning. Maybe it’s masochism. But in any case, it’s another subject. Back to Gander. All his work is basically based on insider jokes and what I have sometimes called the “Oh-Yes-Effect”. “Oh yes! That’s what it’s about. That’s interesting.” Really? Is it?
The prototypical work of this kind is a comic kind face that reacts to the physical presence of visitors, moving eyebrows, eyelids and changing the direction of its look.
It’s about, well, the picture looking at the visitor – rather than the opposite. Oh! Yes! That’s interesting! Or…well, look at what the face expresses just now:
It, of course, is no new theme. James Elkins wrote an influential book called The Object stares back in 1997 and Rémy Zaugg has extensively treated the topic of the picture staring – or not – in his work:
What’s new with Gander is the application of comics’ aesthetics to the topic of the work staring at us and introducing some not-too-fancy spectator detection technology. Now that’s an innovation! Imagineering, maybe.
Which brings us back to the beginning. After the poster, the FRAC show starts, with some kind of weird installation, that is, according to the catalogue, a “monolith”(get the reference? ;-). The monolith is, of course, one of the favorite references of contemporary neo-conceptualist bullshitters, the other being Devil’s Tower from Spielberg’s Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977) . Gander’s monolith has mirrored walls and stands in the middle of a dark room. But while most artists, like Etienne Chambaud, do little more than display the form, Gander added some meaningful mechanism inside the structure. As you can see yourself in the polished surface, the work is supposedly about – guess what!…Bingo! Confronting the visitor with his own image. Yes! You are right. It seems to be a topic in Gander’s work. Something critics like me can detect and talk about to show that they not only read Derrida, but also Elkins and what have you.
The visitor then moves from this very very dark and deep first room to a room that shows the advertising campaign for “Imagineering”is shown. The naming – which combines engineering and imagination and makes one think of engineers of the imagination, which is of course a wonderful thing to be thinking of – is one of the best parts in the work. Too bad Gander didn’t come up with it. He just took the name from Disney. It’s, yes, a ready-made name. Disclosure: I think we all ought to prefer good advertising to bad art.
But the reference can, of course, be explained. According to one of the persons explaining the exhibition to visitors, the reference to Disney is a reference to childhood which is important in the artist’s work. Oh, yes! Childhood – a theme…
The whole exhibition scenography is such that we move from a room which is nearly entirely dark (the first room) to a room that is overly well lit in ugly neons (the last room). In between, there are different shades of gray. It gradually gets lighter. As the curator told us, this could be interpreted as a point about moving from the dark into the light. “Things become gradually clearer.” Don’t they? Yes. They do. A little too clear as far as I’m concerned…
But I found the idea better when Falko used it.
Oh! The curator also evoked the fact that the curtains of the first room are slightly moving as with some kind of breath (ventilators really). Ryan Gander showed the same kind of installation when he was invited to the Venice Biennale. He had been given a large room and just made the wind blow through it. Refusing to show stuff. Reminds me of something Tino Sehgal showed at another Biennale. But we shouldn’t be thinking of Sehgal here, but something much older – much older – the curator fortunately told us what it can make us think of: pneûma to which the Ancient Greeks attributed life-giving power… Oh! Yes! That’s interesting. Setting up a couple of ventilators brings us right back to the Old Greeks. Welcome to contemporary art, dear.
The problem with this kind of “X can make you think of Y” is that if an artist doesn’t really have a clear stance on anything anything can make you think of anything. But that’s just what their work is about! It’s about “imagination, thought-stuff”, as the curator pointed out – as if thinking and imagining were (kind of) the same. And that’s when I started understanding why curators aren’t good at making differences…
The fact is: the less the artist does, the better. Because the less he will limit what you can legitimately think of (or imagine, of course).
Do I really have to tell you about the lamps which Gander built with plastic containers and plastic tubes he got at the local BHV DIY market-section – leaving the name stickers visible to make sure everyone gets just how low-key the installation – which probably sold for tens of thousands Euros by now – is? Do I really have to comment?
It’s okay that a work is really about an idea, you know. I’m just asking that the idea be good.
The one room that I found relatively interesting is the last one (you see it in the picture above). It holds three marble sculptures based on the outline of little cabins his 2 or 3-year old daughter built at their London home with chairs and an umbrella and stuff.
The little transparent disks on the wall are said to be portraits – the fact is: Gander used them to mix the colors for portraits he painted, portraits which stay in the artist’s archive (I suspect them to be really bad). Each portrait goes with a little story from Gander’s life. A girl kissing him. A friend drinking and telling him about art, an aunt giving him sweets… etc. It’s a nice exercise in storytelling. It looks neat. And there’s one good idea in it: It’s an inverted portrait. What’s considered to be remains becomes the portrait and we have to imagine the portrait based on the remains of colors. What counts is what we imagine… Now, I didn’t research this. But I’m quite sure some artists did the same thing in the 60ies or 70ies already. It just feels like that kind of stuff to me. Is this a problem? Well, not really. Originality isn’t a value in itself. But then, if the idea is the main element of something and someone already had the idea just as well as you – or better – it’s a bit of a problem, I think… But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe nobody did it before.
By the way: the sculptures in this last room also show that great minds meet: Guillaume Leblon, a French artist whose references to modernity include Adolf Loos and the Le Corbusier (Oh! interesting! I’m pretty sure Leblon and Gander know and like each other) also showed us some boxes his little kid played with in an exhibition I saw a couple of years ago…
Some people call this “Conceptual romaticism”, I suppose. I’d rather call it self-centered minimalist bullshit.