Archive for the ‘Seeing’ Category


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, film-makers or comic artists. 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 narrative” (or fiction 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 neo conceptual bs. 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 are somehow linked to modern art (like the Bauhaus). What’s great about this preference is that those who know something about modern art – the art world basically – can feel smart when they get the reference. 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. It also makes it clear why the artist got to do a show rather than ourselves. 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 staring back (Got the fancy reference? Come on! You can do it!) rather than the opposite. Oh! Yes! That’s interesting! Or…well, look at what the face expresses just now:

Gander Face


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:

Zaugg-Blind Picture

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) . What’s great about them is that they are a pop. But they are also smart at the same time. So when you use them you can both show that you don’t take yourself too seriously and – whatever. 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 where 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 so 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…

And 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 make us think of Sehgal, 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 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 romanticism”, I suppose. As you got by now I’d like to submit a new concept for consideration: self-centered minimalist bullshit.

We can at least distinguish four species, and several sub-species of buyers. I’ll focus on the four main species: the common buyer, the nostalgic buyer, the expert buyer and the creative buyer. Although there are some individuals that exemplify all and only traits of their species, most of them display traits of different species and can shift from one to the other, even on the same visit. Different types of buyers can like the same item for different reasons, which implies that there are some objects that appeal to all categories. These should turn out to be the top-sellers at flea markets if my little theory is correct. A seller at a flea market will be much more successful if (s)he knows these categories of buyers and adapts his or her sales pitch.

Different species of buyers are naturally attracted to items of different kinds. As for characterizing items, there seem to be three main characteristics: age, originality, usefulness. We could ad beauty here, but this would get us right away into hell’s kitchen. But let’s say that the beauty (or aesthetic value) is mainly a value for the creative buyer and that for a decorative item, beauty will be part of what makes it useful.

Usefulness and originality are both relative (as is age, but to a much lesser degree). As for now, originality of an item can be defined in terms of the probability of finding a similar or identical object at the same or another flee-market. Originality is thus gradual.

To keep it simple, I define usefulness in terms of frequency of use once acquired. This definition has the virtue of relying on facts rather than value. But it cannot account for some objects that we would call tremendously useful in common speech, like a suction cup used in cleaning sinks, but that we don’t use frequently. Frequency of use is relative (to other objects) and objective, even though the decision for buying an item or not really depends on expected usefulness, which is subjective. This concept is tightly linked to the common buyer.

The common buyer just looks for a simple object to be used like another object of the same kind which (s)he could buy in a store, and the main value of getting it at a flea market will be that it’s cheaper than at the store. The common buyer will likely prefer an item that seems better suited to execute the task (s)he buys it for. Everything else being equal, (s)he will usually prefer a newer item.

There are some sellers who specialize on this species or aspect of buyer personalities. They sell cheap, out-of-the-factory items for everyday use, like toothbrushes, spoons, nails, clothing, etc.

The nostalgic as well as the creative buyers tend to ignore these sellers or even despise them (they usually also tend to display a very different habitus). The behavior of the nostalgic and the creative buyers are similar and they are often interested in the same items, but, again, for different reasons.

The nostalgic buyer can be either a collector or else a romantic. This definition is sketchy, because the nostalgic buyer is just as complex as nostalgia. (S)he finds those items most interesting which remind him or her of a preferred period of time. (S)he will thus be buy those (old) items which represent her favored period.

The expert buyer isn’t emotionally implicated in buying. (S)he buys the items whose price doesn’t reflect their market value. (S)he will either keep them and wait that their price further raises or resell them soon at another place, where (s)he gets the market value for it. (S)he is really a trader at the flea market who buys an object because (s)he thinks that it’s a good deal.

There are now specific high-brow flea markets, like Les Puces du Design in Paris, where expert buyers resell items they got at standard flea markets, often for triple the price they bought them for. People who buy there usually have more money and are willing to pay the premium for someone else having done the sorting at a more standard flea market, where most objects are without interest, and only few actually have high market and aesthetic values.

In many cases, the nostalgic buyer will be ashamed of his or her nostalgia and will pretend to buy for the same reason the expert buyer buys, especially when questioned about a specific item which appealed to him or her because of personal fancy. However, (s)he will only rarely resell an item and the people in his or her environment will end up understanding that (s)he really buys for emotional rather than commercial reasons. If they are nice, they’ll let them go on pretending that they are actually expert buyers.

The creative buyer is probably the most intriguing and complex species. A creative buyer can buy things that nearly nobody else even finds worth looking at. And (s)he’ll be all the happier if they don’t. What makes him or her feel good is that they see something nobody else does. The creative buyer will pull a half hidden item from below a heap of stuff and shout out: “This is fantastic!” or scroll through hundreds of pictures because there might be one (s)he likes.

There are at least two subspecies: the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and the artist.

The DIY likes to restore items, (s)he like the smell of glue, the sound of drilling, and the feeling of polished wood. (S)he will be happy to acquire an item, simply because (s)he likes to restore it, erasing the traces of its use, and making it look fresh. If (s)he is on the internet, (s)he’ll probably love etsy. (S)he doesn’t necessarily like the old to have the patina of the old. (S)he buys an object because of the potential (s)he sees in it.

The artist likes to feel that (s)he sees something in the item that most other people don’t see. (S)he might for example buy an old projector in cheap plastic that runs with old batteries or a host of family photos. It might neither be cheap, nor useful nor remind him or her of a favorite moment in history. It’s just that “(s)he somehow likes it”, finds it “weird” or original or that (s)he thinks: I might use this for a project some day (either as a ready-made or else to integrate it into a work). For him or her, buying an object is like for an artist to make a ready-made in the most basic sense: she or he declares it to have value – even if their museum is just their apartment.  To make things clear: (S)he doesn’t actually have to make a living on being an artist. (S)he may “only” be an artist in his or her way of looking at the world of things. (S)he will take things made for one purpose and assign them another.(S)he buys an object because of what she (s)he sees into it.

Here are a couple of things I bought at the flea market. I let you figure out for yourself who in me bought each of these items. Would be happy if you shared some thoughts (and pictures) of your favourite flea market acquisitions.


These are three of my favourite logos .Is it obvious why I like them and think they are about as good as it get’s in logo design? It’s got something to do with how they minimalistically exemplifiy what they are about.

More precisely, the Focus Features logo visually exemplifies the opposite of what the word means, i.e. it exemplifies being out of focus. A visual effect troubles the reading and visually generates a meaning that is opposed to the meaning of the word it constitutes together with the other letters. It suggests difference and opposition. And Focus features was indeed involved in some of the best and surprising movies that I know.

The Desigual [Inequal] logo exemplifies inequality (of one among many), and suggests that this is what their apparel procures, which might well be true.

As for the Palomar5 logo it doesen’t really exemplify anything it means, but it shows that seeing as can exist for signs as well as pictures. That there’s not only visual seeing as, but that it also exists for conventional signs, or symbols. In a very large sense, one could say that it exemplifies creatively using what pre-exists, but that’s only part of what the project was about.

I find it interesting because of its relation to the seeing of aspects as theorized by Wittgenstein, which apparently doesn’t only exist for pictures like the famous duck-rabbit, but also for signs like the LO5 above.

Seeing as (or “seeing of aspects”) is a phenomenon I’ve been exploring for a while and I wrote about it before.

N.B. (There’s a fourth I couldn’t find. It’s from a American artist-founded house-painting company called “That’s paint” (the curator Steven Wright showed me some pictures of it) and a fifth I don’t find too bad for an engineering competition in problem-solving (or something like that). I would be interested in other suggestions along the same lines…