It started with a text message: "I'll wait in the Wenlock pub 10 mn before. Spencer A."
I received this note because I had signed up to visit Ryan Gander's latest project, "Locked Room Scenario." The pub in question was just around the corner from the disused East End warehouse where the show was supposed to take place — but, being late, I never got to meet "Spencer," a fictional artist dreamed up by Gander. I did, however, get to glimpse some of his works when I at last made it over to the space.
Commissioned by Artangel, Gander's immersive installation has the appearance of an abandoned art center, with its dull navy blue carpet, unopened mail, and wooden crates. An exhibition has taken place, half-de-installed artworks are visible through closed doors, but access is forbidden. The title "Field Meaning" and a list of six artists (including "Spencer Anthony") on the entrance wall tease us without revealing much. Behind a frosted panel, the shadow of a busy technician dismantles some unseen pieces. There are pictures on a lectern, a furry sculpture, and a Schnabel-size painting with the words "I want to think seriously about what I can accomplish with what is left of my life" scribbled in ghastly pink letters. Could this be the work of the enigmatic Spencer?
Like Christoph Büchel or Mike Nelson's environments, Gander's latest piece triggers an immediate suspension of disbelief, the thrill of feeling that you shouldn't be there. But this excitement is only a starting point. Once you are over it, you are left gathering cues and dreaming, as you wander through the dark corridors, about the lives and works of the artists in this fictional project. Recenlty, Gander talked to ARTINFO UK about artists' personae, lazy spectators, and the possibilities offered up by not being Ryan Gander.
Walking through your installation, I felt that it was presenting art as we "should not" see it — an exhibition of art "not being on show."
That's because you, and people, think you know how you should see art. You don't experience art when you go to a gallery necessarily. The true value of a work of art is the experience you have with the work after you've physically left it. Think about all your favorite works of art, the works you think about the most, and you talk to people about the most. Every time you think about a work of art, or talk about it you are visiting it. But if you think about the time you've spent with them physically, it pales in significance, doesn't it?
So are you, with this piece, creating memories?
All good art is creating memories. The art that doesn't succeed is the art that you look at, go "yeah, I get it," walk away from, and never think about again.
Isn't there something to be said for the experience itself, the moment you spend in front of the work? Or is the value of art determined by what happens afterward for you?
It depends if you are talking about my work of art or if you are talking about Santo Stern's and Rose Duvall's work, because they are two very separate things.
Tell me about these artists that you invented for "Locked Room."
I don't like all their work. Some of them, I'm jealous of because they make better work than me. Some of them, I'm sorry that they are dead, because it means that they won't make new works. The relationship between them makes me uncomfortable and I worry about it sometimes. I enjoy the books that they've read, and their catalogues. I have the same relationship with the artists in the show as I do with Martin Creed, or anyone else.
Do you feel that all artists are fictional constructs?
No, not all artists. Artists that change their names, or wear costumes and use the device, or the medium, of persona are usually artificial constructs. Maurizio Cattelan would be a good example. The way he behaves, and the way he's photographed and portrayed are part of his work. Gilbert & George are obviously a fictional construct. They're different degrees of fiction. Some artists use a persona in their work, but lots of artists don't.
Which category would you put yourself in?
Me, Ryan? I'm not a fictional artist.
Is this why you wanted to introduce these characters?
It's really difficult to use your imagination when you are adult. It's easy when you are a child and the older you get, the harder it becomes. Most people in Britain say that they use their imagination most when they dream about winning the lottery. Everyone does that. They think: "if I had money, I'd give this to my mum and I'd buy my brother a house or whatever." But most days, we don't use our imagination. So for me, to be able to translate that activity to art, easily and economically, it's good to have different people. You can make work that you don't like. You can make work that you think is bombastic and sarcastic, and you can make work that is way too black and white and intellectual, and doesn't have any visual currency for the spectator. You can do things that you can't do being Ryan Gander.
I'm a great believer in life being a variety of experiences, and living your life in a way that you don't know what's going to happen. I'm for trying everything: making sushi and designing jewelery. Everything you do that you've never done before brings you to a different place. I tried to imagine being an artist who painted everyday, or being a photographer who took photographs everyday — that just doesn't make any sense to me, or it seems incredibly boring.
And here, you are inviting us to meet you halfway. You are not presenting these works, you are allowing us to peep through the windows and see the show half-installed — or perhaps half de-installed.
It's not true. You believe in the fact that there is more. But there's not necessarily any more, maybe you are seeing everything. And if there is anything more to "get," it's in your imagination. Everyone's image or construct of the works, of the artists, of their lives, of their relationships, and of this as a project, will be totally different because you are only given the potential, a hint, a starting point. Everything else you have to build. It's a bit like going to the gym, but for your imagination rather than for your body.
It sounds terrible and very egotistic, but I'm not a massive fan of lazy spectators. Art isn't like going to the cinema. It shouldn't be that you just sit there with your mouth open, being fed stuff. Lazy spectators don't get my work, they walk away and they'll never access it. So the project is not for everyone. You are not going to come in and be amazed. It's not all flashing lights and bleeping colors. Spectators need to invest their time and their energy, and to be interested enough to get anything from it. That's quite a nice filter for people who don't just want dinner party conversation.
You are showing a messy, behind-the-scenes facet of art, putting the spectator in the position of a voyeur. Not only are you showing us fictional works by invented artists, but you are also adding an extra step: having to imagine what this show would be like if it was "open."
You know the dimension of the works, you know it's being shown in Brussels, because there are packing labels, you know its type, you know its year, you know the name of the artists. You know it's fixed to the wall, you know it's fixed to the floor. You know it's not a painting, you know it's not a photograph, you know it's been moving because of the marks, you know it's a kinetic thing, it's physical, it's a sculpture. That's a lot of things that you are told already. Now, if you want everything, then maybe you're asking too much.