MANCHESTER, UK — Ryan Gander got his lucky break in art when he was accepted to study on the Post-Graduate in Fine Art Research at Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht, after having walked into the academy without an interview and being offered a place by Fran Schaerf, and later going on to become a Post-Graduate in Fine Art Participant at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam. “That was my first lucky break,” Gander recalls, as we sit down to discuss his work on the occasion of his latest exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery titled Make Every Show Like It’s Your Last. The exhibition is all about reviving the idea of education and creativity as noble — and healthy — artistic pursuit, which reflects on both Gander’s concerns as an artist for the state of the art world (and from a wider perspective, the world) today, and his own background.
The Manchester show is, after all, a homecoming of sorts: Gander studied at Manchester Metropolitan University because, as he recalls “I couldn’t get in anywhere else.” The choices were limited: “I could either stay in Chester selling carpets, or I could join this new course, which of course was the better option,” he explains. After graduating, he decided he did not want to live in the shadow of the Young British Artists in London, especially given this was work he did not particularly enjoy. “Instead, he followed his instincts, which leads us right back to Manchester, and to the work Gander has done in ensuring others might enjoy the lucky breaks that came to him. This year, Gander is set to launch the residential art school he conceived with collaborator Simon Turnbull, Fairfield International, conceived for those who “don’t have a trust fund or a wealthy spouse” because “things are falling to bits around us.”
In this interview, Ryan Gander weighs in on his perspectives on what it means to be an artist today, and what he does in response to those conclusions.
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Stephanie Bailey: I wanted to first bring up the inclusion of Imagineering in Art Unlimited at Art Basel 2014: an advertisement promoting imagination in the UK public, which you commissioned advertising agency Kirke and Hodgson to produce in the style of a government ad campaign. You also presented posters from the project around Basel as part of Art Parcours. It was an interesting project to insert into a fair given how much the market affects aesthetics within the fair space, in that it felt like a public service announcement…
Ryan Gander: Yeah, it sort of stood outside of the context of the fair a bit. Art is meant to be innovative and push things forward, but a lot of art doesn’t in Art Unlimited and contexts like that: it just looks like art. It’s good to make something that doesn’t look like art.
SB: You talk about this in the 2008 documentary you commissioned: Things that mean things and things that look like they mean things. It follows the making of a film that was never made, The Magic and the Meaning: described as a 16mm black and white study of seven young art students visiting a Francis Bacon exhibition at Tate Britain. In the documentary, you give an interview in which you describe contemporary art with words like weak, thin, empty, and vapid …
RG: It’s interesting because I made that film quite a while a go, and artists are doing now what the film was alluding to then: today so many artists don’t spend their time in the studio they spend their time in the library looking at what art looks successful and making a pastiche of that art.
SB: Or, do you think it’s the sheer amount of imagery artists can look at today?
RG: It’s like the scroll generation of you’re always on to the next image before you’ve thought about the image that you’re looking at.
SB: Which also relates to the sheer number of artists and the volume of art that is actually out there …
RG: I mean: contemporary art has become incredibly popular over the past five or six years — it has reached new heights of interest and there are people who aren’t interested in the history of it, or they don’t understand what is good or bad because they are new to it. And there are people who have massive amounts of power and money, and the economy dictates the history of art. And a massive number of artists now just make art that has no meaning, no soul, and no content — work that is a pastiche and that looks like it means things, but is in fact only retinal and has no meaning whatsoever.
SB: In the documentary, you talk about the most successful drawing you ever made at the age of 23 in Paris, when you drew a student drawing tools in a tool shop. This idea of an artist observing artists, or of being outside looking in, is something that really frames your work as a whole …
RG: Yes, it’s about continuity and self-reflection …
SB: … which relates to your 2011 Art Angel commission, Locked Room Scenario: an exhibition that left visitors wandering corridors around a blocked space within an abandoned building unable to see an exhibition that was visible only through cracks in windows or walls, with fragments of clues left outside … including a discarded seating plan for a gallery dinner …
RG: That work was a critique of all the structures in the art world, really.
SB: So your work is very much an artist’s eyes on the art world, observing its systems and structures. How do you negotiate this position as an artist?
RG: It’s important to make work that is accessible: that doesn’t alienate people and is not elitist but is also a bit like folk art. It basically disguises itself as different types of art, so that some things look hardcore conceptual but are in fact not conceptual—they are romanticisms. And this is what interests me: that play in the use of visual language and creating visual sentences and exploring possible forms of expression. The artists I identify with are really healthy, exciting and ambitious. They are real pioneers and explorers of language, which gets me super excited. Artists like Pierre Huyghe, who is amazing. But it’s not just artists, it’s designers as well: like Bruno Munari, Victor Papanek, writer Richard Sennett — they all have this superloop of thought and this ability to produce new meaning — meaning that knocks you off your feet because the thinking is quick, acute, to the point and economical because it is well versed, like visual poetry.
SB: Superloop: do you have a definition for that?
RG: It’s like four-dimensional meaning, or thought when it turns itself inside out; and by the time you’ve thought about it, it’s turned into something else.
SB: Your work seems to toe the line between sincerity and irony …
SB: And I wonder if you could talk about Imagineering in the context of the art fair and the art market, and how you deal with the constraints. I am also thinking about the lamps you produce that go on sale in the art fair, which you originally devised for your wife to prove to her you could make a lamp in fifteen minutes using everyday objects and materials. You said you took them to an art fair as a way of commenting on the trend for bespoke, one-off design by artists, which, as you have commented, goes against the tenet of good design in that it should better the world in some way.
RG: Well, with the lamps, I didn’t only sell them — I gave a lot away as gifts to friends because I love making them. But when it comes to the lamps as works, the work wasn’t to make a lamp, it was to make a lot of lamps that were totally bespoke, unique and handcrafted, but ironic because they were bricolage and they were made from cheap things. To spend £15 on them and sell them for £15,000 was the objective. It was a critique of this one-off design trend, because I’m also a designer — I also design clothes, and I’m working on a kitchen sink right now. There is a different set of rules to this kind of activity.
In terms of Imagineering, I think what this project has in common with the lamps, is that they don’t come out of being an artist. I mean, it sounds awful, but I don’t want to be an artist: I want to make art. With the lamps and with Imagineering, they don’t come out of me waking up and saying: I’m an artist and I need to make art for a show. They come out because my daily life and my creative life have seamlessly merged: everything you do is a creative act. And when you are hyper aware of that, the things you do—the games you play with your children, the political party you vote for — everything is a creative act.
SB: And this is something you emphasize in your work: that it’s not about the making as much as it is about the concept, or the meaning making behind the act itself.
SB: In Things that mean things and things that look like they mean things you say that you have a desire as an artist to make a contribution to the art world: what would you like that contribution to be?
RG: I’d like it to be unpredictable, educational, a case study of human development; I’d like it to turn the economic systems we know upside down to make the world a more enjoyable place for everyone. And I’d like it to have people see that the choices they make in their lives — if they are thought about creatively—can make life more enjoyable.
But you have to live by example. Take the art school I’m doing, Fairfield International. It’s really hard to do: to raise the money — £3 million — especially when you have six jobs. But you can’t not do it because one day you’ll be dead. I’ve seen hundreds of young artists from regional art schools in the UK who are absolutely killer artists who leave and go work at Allied Carpets or whatever, which happened to me.
SB: So the art school is a way to give that break to others like you, who might not find the support they need …
RG: The art school is a selfish motivation to iron out the inequality. Because a lot of the artists who want to be artists, are really kids with trust funds. Or their parents are artists and they’ve fallen into it. So I just wanted to iron out the discrepancy and look at things for the work and the merit of the work, not who your dad is best mate’s with. I mean, I know there are better artists working in McDonald’s and that really frustrates me.