The one thing I know about Ryan Gander before we meet to look at his new show at the Lisson Gallery is that he doesn’t want to be seen as a disabled artist. He just can’t walk. That, he says from his wheelchair, doesn’t define who he is. What does interest him are ideas.
“Language is his subject, and art is simply the medium he uses to discuss it.”
In his baseball cap and cool black garb, he’s unashamedly intellectual. A conceptual artist who asks big questions about the modern world, about how we cope in societies driven by the need for constant economic growth and consumption. How we value our time when there are so many competing demands set against the continuous noise of the internet and social media. As we chat in the gallery surrounded by his work, I wonder if he’d have been just as happy being a philosopher as an artist. It’s not the making of artwork, per se, that captivates him, he says, but how he uses it to explore the nature of the self and how language plays a part in defining who we are.
Language is his subject, and art is simply the medium he uses to discuss it. He wants his work to be unexpected, to take people out of their comfort zones. He’s critical of the blue-chip nature of the art world and doesn’t want to make art just for the cognoscenti. To be elitist. I point out that he’s showing in one of London’s most prestigious galleries, but he assures me that he’s also about to show work on a boat and in a tattoo parlour.
On entering the gallery, it might not, at first, be clear what his concerns actually are. A wall of Donald Judd-style Perspex lockers, all packed with umbrellas and other personal effects like office lockers, are the first thing you see. Each is identically arranged, reminding those old enough of Pete Seeger’s ’60s song: little boxes made of ticky tacky. Little boxes on the hillside. Little boxes all the same. A social satire on the conformity and aspiration of middle-class life. On one wall is a strange clock that merges two displays to create a sense of double vision. While across the room sits an unexceptional metal office desk and fan. Disconcertingly, there’s a distinct odour of damp and urine in that corner of the room. Hidden under the desk is a life-size, animatronic female gorilla – she’s called Brenda, apparently. With her moving head and darting eyes, she’s so engaging that I have to keep reminding myself she’s not real as she appears to be trying to communicate, using her fingers to count or figure something out. What that may be is not at all clear. The question posed here seems to be whether our closest, non-verbal relatives are able to understand language or count? Is an ability to do so the thing that defines us as human? Very touchingly, Ryan Gander tells me he has a four-year-old non-verbal autistic son. It’s quite clear that his child ‘understands’ what is being said to him even though he does not speak, forcing us to question and re-evaluate our understanding of language and communication.
Hung throughout the gallery are a series of steel plates that bear Gander’s poetic and typographic compositions. (I’m a terrible poet, he admits, on learning that I’m a published poet.) But ‘poetry’ is not really the point. You’re my best machine (Ee Ouw Arh 2003) presents the first sounds made by humans around 50,000 years ago, whilst a stainless steel door depicts different genres of language from official signage to graffiti. It is linguistics rather than poetic imagery that attracts Gander.
In one of the side galleries is a series made this year: Know not your place in the world. Here, two life-size bronzes of Gander’s eldest and middle children are dressed up in a collection of clothes and props. Their gaze is fixed on a couple of theatrical-looking masks painted in matt and gloss colours that have been strategically placed on the floor at their feet. This explores Gander’s interest in make-believe and play – those important devices in any artist’s toolbox –suggesting that if we don a mask, it allows us to present different versions of ourselves.
Among the most engaging pieces in the show is the re-worked documentary Only a Matter of Time. By wearing different hand-drawn masks inspired by Picasso – a reference to the 2017 exhibition at Remai Modern, Saskatoon, Faces of Picasso: The Collection Selected by Ryan Gander – Ryan Gander never has to reveal his true self. Like the heteronyms of the famous Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, who wrote poetry in the guise of different poets, these masks allow Gander to be invisible and be whoever he chooses whilst conducting his interviews. He has, during his career, made work as eight other artists, including Aston Ernest and Santo Stern (an acronym). Some of these artists, he tells me, are more talented than he is. Others enjoy making deliberately trashy work. During the film, he explores the concept of the self/selves through that most contemporary of phenomena, the selfie. Narcissistic and always curated, the selfie encourages a discrepancy between who we say we are online and who we really are.
During the course of the film, he visits an Instagram influencer, and David Baddiel, who has a huge following on Twitter (now X), a man who cryogenically freezes the dead and another who is into trans-humanism and bionic body parts. He also visits Freud’s house in Maresfield Gardens to discuss the splitting of the self into the id, ego and super-ego. There is also a pilgrimage to a modern-day female hermit living in complete isolation in a hut in a Welsh wood. There, beyond the reaches of the technological world, she talks of connecting with the earth and blocking out the negative noise of contemporary society.
Being enigmatic has long been part of the contemporary art game. It is, perhaps, what propelled Andy Warhol to fame. Ryan Gander is an exception among conceptual artists in that for him; there’s no disguising his moral alarm at the idea of being cryogenically resurrected like some Iceland Lazarus or his distaste at the endless narcissism of social media influencers being played out in this repetitive world of the present tense. In his film, he makes no bones that his empathy lies with the woman in her Welsh woods, cooking on an open fire and living close to nature. Despite the apparently playful, postmodern aesthetic of his work, Ryan Gander’s values, it turns out, are those of an old-fashioned, principled humanist.
Ryan Gander PUNTO!, Lisson Gallery, 27 Bell Street, London NW1 5BY, Until 28 October 2023
Lead image: Ryan Gander Only a matter of time, 2020, Video Still, video dimensions variable ©Ryan Gander, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
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