Interview with Ryan Gander by Adam Carr conducted in the artist’s home in Saxmundham, UK, with questions by other people and ‘interruptions’ by the author
Adam Carr Since your work regularly involves other people, I thought it would be a good idea to approach other people you have worked with in various capacities to ask questions and I will ‘interrupt’ and mediate along the way…
Ryan Gander Okay, exciting!
A.C. Hans-Ulrich Obrist asked me to ask you a few questions, the first being, he says, a Rainer Maria Rilke question: what is your advice to a young artist?
R.G. It depends which young artist it is. The answer would differ accordingly. The advice would be to offset any natural asset or ability they had. For example for those who are adversely ambitious it would be to be patient; for those who have a solitary studio practice it would be to get out more; for those who responded to context or position and to the end user it would be to try to make work without compromise and conditions. I guess I give that advice because it is of importance, and something I think of often.
A.C. Do you think honesty is everything?
R.G. Honesty to yourself and your practice, for sure. Honesty to one’s self is about your morals and ethics. Good artists, in my opinion, make good artworks and bad artworks. I do not trust artists who make good, singular work. Learning and practice is key.
A.C. You must frequently get younger artists asking for advice. Do you think it is less about advice per se and more about trying to obtain some kind of guide or formula for potential success? I cannot help but be cynical sometimes.
R.G. Well, the thing about making art is that it is supposed to be really difficult, otherwise it is not enjoyable. So, if you have a formula it is actually really easy, so there is no point doing it anymore in my opinion. It is like Picasso, when he said lots of artists are cake makers, who spend their time making cakes that are the same shape, with a few different flavours. That is like having a formula, having a mould, isn’t it? But the whole point is to not have a formula. I have dedicated my whole time as an artist working harder than I probably would have had to because I want my work to not have a formula. Every time I start with something I want to start at zero and start everything again.
A.C. Resetting constantly?
A.C. It is interesting you mentioned Picasso, as when you cooked dinner last night, you brought out napkins that each had Picasso’s signature… I know the story, but for the purpose of this interview or conversation, could you tell me about them again?
R.G. They are napkins with Picasso’s signature stitched on to them. I am interested in his signature as it something that his children and wife were in dispute over. They were not only debating his work, as well as the value of his work and who they would go to, but also the legacy of his name because it is unquantifiable wealth. I am interested in that, as it is not a physical thing. Rather, what he represents in people’s mindsets is actually more valuable than his artwork, so to sell his name and to sell a logo type, which is his signature, is to actually sell anything that is Picasso. It’s ended up with Citroën, a people mover, but it could quite easily of been a chain of hotels or it could have been a makeup eyeliner. I find it funny, as the car has really nothing to do with Picasso at all.
A.C. I have recently organised a painting show, for MOSTYN, Wales, titled Women’s Art Society II, and one thing I noticed visiting a lot of artists’ studios, whose practice is dominantly painting based, is that often the signing of the reverse of the work is still a done thing. It still signals, for me, an old fashioned idea of the artists in their studio or garret…
R.G. Yes, it is quite romantic.
A.C. Do you sign some of your works? I have worked with you a number of times, but I have never come across a work with a signature…
R.G. I only sign a work if the signature is part of the work. But for me, authorship, making the work, is just a receipt of an idea. It is a carrier of an idea. Some of the best ideas are told to you in pubs. I like the way they exist and travel like that; they live longer.
A.C. Like a whole history of artworks that exist in the form of words, stories and anecdotes only! There was a French artist whose work was distributed through word of mouth. He would hitch hike around the south of France and try to explain to those kind enough to pick him up that he was an artist whose work was about travelling around explaining to those kind enough to pick him up that he was an artist whose work was about travelling around, and so on…
R.G. More people tell a good story in a pub over 10 years, than they see singular works.
A.C. Hans-Ulrich also asked me to ask you what music you are listening to, as Dan Graham says we can only understand an artist if we know this…
R.G. This week I’m listening to Elkie Brooks, early Modest Mouse and Chet Baker. From this you will understand nothing, but Dan Graham will understand everything, only because he knows my star sign…
A.C. What is your star sign?
R.G. The cusp of Taurus and Gemini, but it depends if you’re reading Woman’s Own magazine or FHM… How are things at MOSTYN by the way?
A.C. Well, actually, just thinking in relation to Hans-Ulrich’s music question … The exhibition programme at MOSTYN, as you know, I planned to fall into two separate yet overlapping strands: one is defined by the exploration of the history of the building, which is, in part, inspired by childhood visits to the gallery and a curiosity about the building, its history and its location; the other is concerned with exploring already known and some might say populist themes in exhibition making, with a difference… so far portraiture, viewer interaction and landscape. For the series of history shows I am doing, I am currently planning an exhibition about the crossover between art and music, as MOSTYN’s building was once a piano dealership. What do you think of art as music or music as art?
R.G. I have never met an artist who makes good music, or the other way around…
A.C. There are a few. I think Life Without Buildings, which involved Sue Tompkins, are particularly good, to name just one. I understand what you mean though. It is perhaps by and large a cliché.
Our good friend Mario Garcia Torres wanted to ask, when does the work start for you? And I ask, is there a beginning or end?
R.G. The work only starts once one thing leads to another, it’s like a rolling investigation.
A.C. What was the ‘real’ start?
R.G. Aged 7, a shoe case full of wooden dollies and bookmarks.
A.C. One of the other questions I collected is from our Chester friend, artist Jesse Wine. Although we’ve touched on this previously, he would like to know how has being disabled affected the way people receive your work and if there is no discernible feeling or threat in that?
R.G. Same effect as you, Jesse, being ginger, has had on yours I expect.
A.C. Jens Hoffmann reported in and said: for the 2011 Venice Biennale you made a self-portrait depicting you after falling out of your wheelchair. You described the piece as a “self portrait in the worst possible position.” How would a self-portrait in the best possible position look like?
R.G. A performance of yourself doing the above.
A.C. Me!? Would you do this performance?
R.G. Absolutely not. The work in question is a strange work as I made the mistake of doing it without fully understanding the general public’s interpretation of it. I am not an artist who makes work about being in a wheelchair and for me it is about an inconsequential as wearing glasses or having a northern accent. I just ‘happen’ to be in a wheelchair, but those who do not know me or understand that fact read the work as some weird loaded politically motivated tragedy… I was interested in humour not pity.
A.C. Curator François Piron, who I recently saw in Llandudno, asked, what would be your greatest achievement as an artist?
R.G. To continue making difficult and self-challenging work for 60 years.
A.C. What would be your greatest achievement as a person?
R.G. To continue making difficult and self-challenging work for 60 years.
A.C. What is your favourite colour? Jonathan Monk would like to know.
R.G. Black. I am colour blind, and secondly in the realms of visual language and semiotics black represents the most possibilities whereas other colours have closed down connotations. I quite like the colour green also because I know what it represents conceptually, but I am not totally sure what it looks like.
A.C. We both saw artist Ann-Marie James the other day, and I explained about this conversation, and she asks: your eldest daughter has featured in or influenced your work in different ways over the years, and your wife has mentioned in passing that you and Olive are working on a show together in Turin later this year. As she gets older, and more aware of her role in your practice, how has that relationship altered? Does Olive remain the subject? Or is she a collaborator? A participant? An employee? A slave?!
R.G. The thing about contemporary art is that nothing exists in isolation, as Liam Gillick would say. It is logical and formal to think of context, authorship, cost, ownership, etc., as separate elements. But if you erase what you know and you think about constructing artworks, abstractly, it is possible to understand the appropriation of skills, people, references, as colours a ‘visual, retinal artist’ might use, or a material to be used, as part of a toolkit. It is conformist to worry about the exploitation of people and skills. Olive is pink, and as she ages she is morphing to a lime green. Penny is baby blue presently.
A.C. Rebecca May-Marston asked me to ask you, what would you do if people stopped buying your work?
R.G. I would live off of my wife. Imagine this image, me crawling out of Cash Generator. What happened? To be honest, if I did not sell work I would probably go into consultancy for organisations and businesses that needed catalytic thinking and aspiration. Not sure if I’d be any good at it, but I would enjoy it I think.
A.C. Artist Joe Orr asked, is there anything I should know?
R.G. Whatever you do need to know I am sure that I wouldn’t know it. The greatest quality of contemporary art is the difference between people and what they know. If we knew the same things we would not find work that self affirming.
A.C. One thing I would like to know, what kind of things could be expected to be seen or not seen at your solo exhibition at Lisson in London?
R.G. Ideally the unexpected. Unpredictability is a strong quality in my mind. Realistically, whatever from the master plan is finished and fits in the space without cramping itself out of style. I often make and show too much. Traditionally the invisible, the ‘what is not seen,’ in a personal tradition obviously, not a historical one… I have written a book this summer to accompany the show. Essays about the collection I will show. And now it’s raining and I am wondering why I didn’t get the chance to go on holiday. In the words of David Hockney… Inspiration? She never visits the lazy.