“Before I sold an artwork making art made me feel a bit mad. I was doing things that were fundamentally unusual, filling my life with really weird stuff, like embroidering stars on the bus on the way to Manchester,” says Ryan Gander. “That’s what mad people do. It’s not what normal people do.”
Selling art and being seen as “a bit mad” aren’t really things Ryan has to worry about any more. The conceptual artist’s work is a slippery thing to sum up in easy, pithy statements. It ranges from recreations of a chess set based on his father’s recollections of making car parts in a factory to immortalising the dens his young daughter made in a gallery setting to his Loose Associations lectures, where he shows a series of seemingly interconnected images and describes how each relates to the next (“you see a tramp eating rice pudding and you link it to a rainbow coloured vajazzle”). While formally multifarious, the thread connecting each of these projects is his passion for collaboration and for telling stories, something we find him to be exceptionally good at when we visit his London studio.
“Before I sold an artwork making art made me feel a bit mad. I was doing things that were fundamentally unusual, filling my life with really weird stuff, like embroidering stars on the bus on the way to Manchester.”
“Nothing exists in isolation, and things that do exist in isolation aren’t interesting for the world,” he says. “Being a painter and sitting in your studio and painting things on your own is not participation, that’s not an interesting practice. I wouldn’t enjoy that.” Ryan’s current collaborator is his six-year-old daughter Olive, with whom he’s curating a show at the Quartz Gallery in Berlin. It’s a perfect example of Ryan’s approach to art: taking an idea and putting it in the hands of someone else, and seeing what’s going to happen. It’s playful, communicative and far more complex than the objects or works in isolation would appear to be.
“[The project] has involved me telling Olive what to make, her disagreeing and my wife telling me I’m stopping her being creative and to let her get on with it,” Ryan explains. “We’ve made two or three works together and we’ve made some separately that have a dialogue with each other. I’m not trying to tell her what to do. It’s funny because it’s going to be a better show because she’s doing it.” Seemingly from nowhere, one of Ryan’s assistants pulls out a huge pile of printed shoeboxes, emblazoned with a design created by Olive when Ryan gave her a white box to do whatever she fancied with. Eventually, 1000 of these will be created and placed in the gallery. Ryan explains: “I guess we’ll just make them, put them there and let her play. She’ll do something that’s either totally unexpected or totally expected. When she started painting the outside of the shoeboxes, that’s something I would never had thought of doing – using a 3D object as a flat surface. It’s counter-logical: it’s something an adult would never think of doing.”
This drive to align with impulses that get shrouded in jobs, stresses and suits and ties in adulthood is something Ryan has long explored. “Kids don’t have the cultural baggage we have, and they don’t have all the association of art as elitism as a sort of shadow in their mind,” he says. “[Adults] are scared of reading art wrong and they’re scared of humiliation. That’s why I’m fascinated with working with my kids: they won’t be kids for long and they don’t have that cultural baggage. They’re not scared of accidentally being creative.” So can adults ever return to that innocent, liberated mode of creativity? “ We don’t pretend any more,” says Ryan. “Pretence is an amazing human quality but adults never pretend. They can imagine, but pretending is different. Imagination is just in your head – it’s musing or daydreaming. Pretending is physically role playing and acting out that imagination.”
“Kids don’t have the cultural baggage we have, and they don’t have all the association of art as elitism as a sort of shadow in their mind”
Taking this statement into account when reading Ryan’s work gives a few more clues into his process. Many works are direct physical manifestations of imagined events, such as his “parapossible situations” works, which explore other realities in which the artist could have existed. These involve a role play of sorts, with an entire cast of odd characters including Ernest Hawker. “He is a 65-year-old version of me, a failed parallel version of me who lives in New York and wears white jeans,” Ryan tells us. “He’s pissed all the time and smells of BO and he’s got a little yellow spot of piss on his trousers. He goes around all the gallery openings and VIP things annoying people and trying to get them to buy keyrings he’s made of his work from his good old days of success.”
But it’s far too simplistic to reduce Ryan’s work to just reenacting his imaginary personae or making thoughts into something tangible. If at its heart is the idea of stories, collaboration and connections, then intertwined in that narrative are equally grand thematic concerns: contribution to art history, immortality and of course its natural counterpart, death. Morbidity is at the forefront of Ryan’s mind, it seems, having recently been confronted with rumours that he was terminally ill. “My Japanese gallerist said he was at a collector’s house who had some of my work. She started crying, and said ‘it’s a beautiful thing, as he won’t be with us much longer.’ They asked me if I was dying, as they’d heard it off a few people,” he says. “It’s great innit? I was thinking about going with the mythology and inflating it a bit more.”
Terminal illness gags aside, Ryan says his work “has something to do with death – it’s to do with legacy, so I make it for history. Not for someone, but for a time or space, which is the contribution to the history of art. That’s the thing I get off on.” With his characteristic divergent mind, as soon as he’s mentioned “getting off on” his place in art school books, Ryan lets himself meander into rather utopian metaphors. “Imagine the development of visual language as a massive mountain. One artist moves to one spot, then I see how he got there and I go after him and I go a bit further because my life experience is different or I go off on a trajectory. This is a terrible, romanticised cliché but it’s a summitless mountain, a mountain with no peak. A lot of people walk over the same footsteps all the time, and that’s the thing about contemporary art – it’s very repetitive.”
“I make art for history. Not for someone, but for a time or space, which is the contribution to the history of art. That’s the thing I get off on.”
Such a varied and prolific practice avoids repetition almost as much as it confuses art critics, many of whom seem to take a slightly churlish stance to it, assuming it’s all made to have a little laugh at their expense. There’s something of the “I didn’t want to go to your party anyway” to a few reviews: “Sometimes Gander makes me feel like a chump, or a dupe to his complications,” says one writer in The Guardian. “I think if a spectator feels duped it’s because perhaps they expect too much from their own intellect,” Ryan ponders. “Someone who didn’t have formal art training wouldn’t feel duped, they’d see it as a new experience that was fun. It’s a confirmation of the belief that art is elitist – the people who feel that animosity wonder how they could possibly ever be wrong in a world they know so well.”
We’re not entirely sure Ryan gives a fuck if they get it or not, or if they feel a bit silly. There’s no maliciousness, but there’s definitely a sense that he wants to play with us as viewers: not to necessarily challenge us in the sense of being elitist – a word he seems to detest – but in a relentless goal to make us see and experience something new and different. That’s perhaps the reason he does so much; there are always a million and one projects on the go, each of which pushes discrete ideas and media. “This sounds like blowing my own trumpet but it would be really easy for me to just be an artist and do one thing, but my practice is 1000 times more expansive as it’s 1000 practices in one, and that’s 1000 times harder than being an artist with a singular practice,” he says.
“It’s not commercially very good for you to have different practices as people don’t know who you are when every work’s different, so economically it’s bad. It’s that pursuit of visual language – that contribution to the history of art – it’s about pondering and exploring and you never really stop learning. There’s no ‘way’ of making work, there’s ‘ways’ of making work.”
With such a hunger to create and impact, a wild and strange imagination and an utterly unique and manifold mode of exploring ideas, situations and people, there’s no doubt of the uniqueness of Ryan’s mind. Perhaps it takes a certain degree of eccentricity to be a fine artist at all. But does he still see what he does as mad? “It’s easier to make art if you’re paid and you’re successful, as you don’t feel as barmy,” he says. We suggest he’d still be making it regardless of whether he sold anything. “I’d still be doing it but I’d be quiet about it,” he says. “And my mum would be ashamed of me rather than proud of me. That’s the difference.”