Testing the Limits of Art-Fashion with Ryan Gander

The Artist Explains Global Nomadism and the Power of Non-Style

Ryan Gander is an artist for right now. The poster child of his recent exhibition, “Make Every Show Like It’s Your Last,” is Magnus Opus, a pair of giant roving animatronic eyes set in the gallery wall. It is a cartoon-cliché of the haunted portrait with the wandering eyes. The work is linked to the rest of the exhibition in Gander’s quintessential mode: loosely. His overall body of work, a freely associative mix of multimedia pieces, ranges from idiosyncratic sculptures made of household goods, to sartorial collaborations with adidas and 84-Lab.

If art today is often prized for its imageability—its Instagram likeability—then Gander’s work operates by using expectations to catapult abnormality. As the show’s curator, Mark Lanctôt, observed, the shifting eyes of Magnus Opus consistently provoked muted exclamations of surprise from museum-goers. Gander’s work challenges the way we engage with physical and institutional space. How do you act in a gallery? Gander pushes the viewer to ask this question of themselves, cutting through a lot of the pretension that often surrounds the art milieu. He is unapologetically vocal about this, calling out everyone from trust-funded artists to lazy viewership. On the occasion of his exhibition in Montreal, he spoke with Rachel Buchholtzer. 

Rachel Buchholtzer: It seems like your audience has to do a lot of work at your exhibitions.

Ryan Gander: I think good art isn’t really complete without the spectator. It’s funny how developed the human race is, but 95% of art is still hung on the wall—you just look at it, and then you walk onto the next piece of work. It’s kind of spectacularly ridiculous.

You’ve talked about there being “infinite stuff” around us that has the potential to inspire a work. How do you know when an idea is worth pursuing?

That’s difficult. I guess when you’re given something on a silver plate, it doesn’t mean as much to you as if you discover something. When you discover something on your own grounds, it’s almost like it belongs to you. In that sense, I think it’s always good to make spectators work a little bit, to get the idea, or to get a sense of ownership. For the show in Montreal, there are three works that are crumpled pieces of paper on the floor and they look like litter. There’s a piece of letter paper with a drawing of a fictional dinner seating plan on it, and there’s one that’s a fortune cookie message. They’re presented as detritus, of little consequence and little meaning, as if they should be picked up and thrown in the bin. It’s only really the keen eye and the keen mind that notices that this fragment maybe belongs in the realm of art. And when you speculate, and discover this idea, then you can take ownership.

You have an exhibition in Montreal and you are a “Nomadic Resident” at the Ontario College of Art and Design for 2016. I’m speaking to you from Vancouver, where “Make Every Show Like It’s Your Last” was also shown at the Contemporary Art Gallery in 2015. How did you come to be working in multiple cities in Canada?

Art is really weird because it functions in waves. Like next year is a big China and Korea year for me: I have three shows in each, respectively. Last year was just a Canadian year. Then you’re big in France. It has to be this way, otherwise you exhaust everybody, and they get very bored of you. I mean, that’s just the way the whole art tour mechanism works.

You’re traveling constantly. How does this influence your work?

It’s funny, because when you do an artist residency, the institutions always expect you to make work about the place you are in. But that’s ridiculous really, you need digestion time—it usually takes a year to infiltrate into the whole idea system. So next year I’ll be making works about Canadian culture, or a phenomenon that I remember, or photographs. And because the goal of my work is universality—that it follows this crazy path of diversity and jumps from one thing to another— I travel out of necessity. Otherwise I’d have a very singular perspective on the world.

Did you always want to be an artist?

I didn’t really decide to be an artist, I just sort of became an artist. It’s the best job anyone could have, but I really don’t know how it happened.

So it was just kind of a natural progression?

Yeah. I had a show, and then someone asked me if I wanted to do another one, then someone else suggested we make a book. I mean, it sounds kind of blasé, but it was actually a lot of work and turmoil and stress and questioning of self-worth. And a lot of doubt. It’s hard to make the decision that you’re going to make art professionally, cause effectively 0.01% of the people who choose to make art actually make a living at it.

But once you get recognition it must start to seem more possible.

Exactly. But you have to keep the momentum up. I didn’t really realize that aspect. You can’t do a load of shows and have some recognition, and then not do anything for six months after. So you just end up working six days a week really hard. But doesn’t everybody? At least I get the occasional first class flight.

You collaborated with adidas in 2014 on the ZX 750 sneakers. Could you talk about how this collaboration came about?

It was a collaboration with adidas Originals in Tokyo. Kazuki Kuraishi is the guy who decides what gets made and is very involved with knowing what’s cool. He asked if I’d be interested in doing some trainers, and when I asked him what he wanted. He just said, “Anything.” That sounded like it could be dangerous. I didn’t think they’d be actually able to mass-produce what I was asking them to do. But they did, and the shoe sold out pretty quick.

And there was a lot of controversy around them too.

Was there? I didn’t know that.

Yeah, people seemed to either love them or ask, “Why would anyone pay money for these?”

But those are philistines and charlatans, you get them with everything. They’re the kind of people who just want people to listen to them, which is sad.

What do you think about artist-fashion collaborations in general? Would you do one again?

Absolutely. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I mean obviously making museum shows, and biennials, and the art thing is great. It’s my main job in a way. But there are parts of making clothes that I enjoy way more. I went out one night in London, and there was a guy wearing one of the black Gore-Tex coats that I’d designed. I asked him where he got it from, but he didn’t know that I’d made it. Interactions like that are so rewarding. Usually with art, art people go and see your shows—you know how many people attended, you have visitor figures, and you read the reviews. But with stuff that people wear, it’s totally different, because you experience it in the street. It’s nice that people want to associate themselves with your work. It’s a different kind of value system.

It must be kind of surreal in a way, seeing people wearing things you created, but in such unpredictable contexts.

I’d love to do more of it. I could do it as a job.

You work in such vastly different mediums. What makes a work a Ryan Gander piece?

There’s two ways of identifying works. One is by visual characteristics, but I’m not very fond of art that has any sort of stylistic signature or artist’s identity attached to it. I think it’s self-obsessive to have style. But the other way of identifying work is by its conceptual underpinnings. All my work looks like different people could have made it. It’s diverse and there’s no stylistic signature, but you can see all of it is to do, somehow, with absence, or loss, or invisibility, or latency, or showing the framing system but not having any content. Someone told me once that they saw a work of mine at an art fair, and they were playing a game of "guess the artist." One girl immediately said “It’s a Ryan Gander,” and when someone asked how she knew, she said “Because I don’t know who else it could be by.” So maybe I do have a style, and that style is everything else.

  • Text: Rachel Buchholtzer
    Images courtesy of Ryan Gander and Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal
    Video: SSENSE