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Ryan Gander on Visual Signifiers and Containers for Ideas

The acclaimed British conceptual artist speaks on fieldwork, telling tales, and meeting Prince Charles.
2017-03-21 15:56:59
Capitalizing on the momentum of two major Hong Kong art fairs -- not to mention migratory collector crowds -- the cogs of Shanghai’s mighty arts machine were working overtime this past weekend. Seizing on the opportunity ourselves of his own impending trip to Art Basel, SmSh chatted with acclaimed British artist Ryan Gander about arty and conceptual things.

Gander is a big deal. As well as showing at museums and galleries around the world, the conceptual artist was recently awarded Order of the British Empire for services to art. Among his patrons is Shanghai-based collector and entrepreneur David Chau, whose art credentials include founding Cc Foundation (a platform aimed at supporting and promoting contemporary art in and from China), and co-founding ART021 art fair. On further expanding an already varied business portfolio last summer by acquiring Hebei Lions, he commissioned Gander to design the football team’s kit.

He’s now teaming up with Lisson Gallery to host the British artist’s first ever China solo at Cc Foundation’s M50 space. “My foundation is a bit different because it’s just me - I don’t have curators, it’s just what and who I’m interested in," Chau explains. "Most of the artists I work with aren’t “just” artists. Ryan does advertisements, he does commercial projects. Just like when I worked with Xu Zhen, he also does a lot of different stuff. And I do too - I have a football team, I’m a collector, I have my own companies… It’s [about finding] people who are so multi-talented, but also true to the art.” Gander to a tee, here's the man himself had to say on the opening of his first China solo, Human / Non Human / Broken / Non Broken.


SmSh: Welcome to China! It’s your first time here - what are your impressions so far?

Ryan Gander: It’s quite like… Italy.

SmSh: Oh, how so?

RG: There’s a sort of order in the chaos I’m seeing. For someone whose currency is visual language I’m seeing a lot of signs. Not road signs, but visual signs -- signifiers -- that I just can’t comprehend at all. I’ve been going to Japan two or three times a year for about a decade and I thought it would be quite like Japan, but it’s not. It’s completely different. So that’s interesting. It’s funny: In a way Britain’s a bit like Japan, because it’s an island, in a bigger continent. So this feels like Italy. But then I’ve only been here three days, so...

SmSh: What are the visual signifiers that you’ve particularly noticed?

RG: There’s a lot of references to paper -- also a lot of textiles. Which doesn’t surprise me; China invented the first mass production form of printing and it seems paper is woven into everything. There’s a lot of ‘empirical gold’ -- badly fitted marble. It’s expensive, marble, so you’d think you’d fit it properly. [Shanghai] feels a bit like Naples. I once did a show there. I was crossing a road with the guy who was hosting me, and I wheeled out into the road and he shouted, ‘Stop!’ I said, ‘Well it’s on green…’

He said, ‘In Napoli, green is a suggestion.’

It feels a bit like that here.

SmSh: Yeah, that sounds familiar! Hopefully, more inspiration for future projects than actual peril, though…

RG: For me this is like fieldwork. My whole work is about investigation, learning, developing, understanding, deciphering, decoding, recoding. Coming somewhere like this is like going on a massive geography field trip, but in semiotics -- not geography.

SmSh: People always talk about the stories in your work. What are they in this show?

RG: Everyone picks up on that, and there are a lot of stories -- but they’re more the catalyst for me making the work, not the singular by-product of making the work. For me, a successful work is one that has lots of interpretations. [It should] start in one place, which is the artist making it, and end up in a multitude of other places, all different tangents and trajectories depending on the person reading it. So, for me, a bad work would be one that starts in one place and ends in another place. So, the stories are mine, in a way. I’m always quite reluctant to spill the beans as to how things came into being because then you get lazy spectators taking singular readings, people repeating and repeating, and then the work becomes just about that.

And the work isn’t about that. It’s about having enough space or absence in the work for people to project things that I wouldn’t imagine. And those things that I wouldn’t imagine are as valid -- if not more valid -- than the catalyst for the story when I started. It does sort of kill works when they’re ‘about’ something. Works that aren’t about things can be about anything. There’s a sort of optimism about them.

David Chau with Ryan Gander

SmSh: I agree with you. But keeping things open and ambiguous, are there any pointers you can give to reading, say, all these big ball-bearings, for example?

RG: Okay, I’ll spill the beans. The ball piece is a new work. Actually, we only just got it working, that’s how new it is. It was made for this space, and is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Essentially, it’s a machine that randomly spits out balls, but of course [the viewer doesn’t] know … if it’s a person, or a machine, you don’t know what’s behind the wall, or how big it is…

SmSh: Or how heavy they’re going to be if they hit you…

RG: Or their material. They’re really heavy. They might kill you.

SmSh: Now there’s a headline…

RG: There’s references to industry, engineering, to gambling, productivity, and to labor. They all disappear in the morning, and start again, until the space is full of balls again. There are 9,000 in total, so when it’s full, it’s full. There’s references to currency, there’s references to the materiality of this fella behind me [a standing robot figure called xxx]: This is the substance that this is from, it’s the same material. And there’s the futility of it. Instinctively, not verbally, we all ask ourselves about alien objects that we don’t understand, about their authorship, ownership, function, cost, [and] value. When you ask that you’re still left with a lot of spaces. Things that don’t have an objective, or a logical reason for existence are puzzling, and everyone loves a puzzle.

Those things are the off-cuts, the receipts of imagination, which is essentially what decent contemporary art is. It’s not a thing of value, it’s a vessel that contains imagination, or a story, or several ideas, or investigation. I don’t mind where the work goes. If I make something and it’s rubbish -- and 30% of what I make is rubbish, which is totally healthy and normal; never trust an artist who makes good work only -- it goes in the skip. Its just an investigation, I learn from it, and that’s what you take.

Whether this ends up in a museum collection or a private collection doesn’t matter to me. I’ve taken a photograph of it, and I’ve brought it into existence. It’s not like my kids. [With] my kids, I want them to stay at home forever -- they’re not allowed to go to university, to leave! But it’s not like that with art. It’s just stuff, it’s a container for ideas and for imagination. The ideas and the imagination exist without the container. So you can’t be possessive or materialistic about it.

The worst thing is if it ends up in storage, ‘cos then I have to pay for it. That’s something with artists, though. They’re all such avid collectors, they all love collecting stuff. I’ve got boxes full of key cards from hotels…

SmSh: I guarantee you’re going to be going back with SO much stuff from this trip

RG: I brought a suitcase within a suitcase. That’s my tactic.

SmSh: How did you meet David Chau?

RG: We went to ballet school together, actually, in the early '90s...

SmSh: [Laughs.] Okay! On the subject of collecting -- you’re headed to Hong Kong Art Basel next week. What are you doing there?

RG: I’ll be talking about art fair art as one of the Art Basel discussions, and I’m also doing the Intelligence Squared debate which is entitled, ‘Is Social Media Killing Art.’

SmSh: Do you enjoy art fairs?

RG: I don’t have a view on art fairs, they’re totally normal. Healthy. There’s always some sort of political thing with artists where they think they should say they hate art fairs which I just find illogical, ludicrous and childish because money is a great enabler. I much prefer to be independent and sustainable, and make whatever I want because I can afford to, and then throw it in the bin if I choose to.

SmSh: Or storage?

RG: Or choose to pay more for storage. Rather than get a grant off the Art Council, or have a full-time job and try to make work on Saturday mornings… Money buys food, money buys materials for art, art gets swapped for money. It’s just the world, it’s not a problem.

SmSh: Got it. Also, congrats on the OBE! Was that a total surprise?

RG: Thanks! Yeah, I just got a letter from Buckingham Palace. I’ve already been [to collect the OBE]. I went to see Charles. My seven-year old, Olive, came, and also my wife. The little one stayed in a hotel. She got a new dress and was very excited to go to a real palace, but then when she got there she was a bit bored.

SmSh: Long day, huh?

RG: It’s an hour of sitting through the same thing. But it was actually really casual -- more so than I thought it would be. Charles is a nice guy, we had a chat. I’ve met him before actually. It was good.


Ryan’s show, Human / Non Human / Broken / Non Broken, continues through 14 May. Do go see it, and while you’re in the area consider stopping by several other newly opened exhibitions we've outlined right here.