PRINT February 2007


Ryan Gander, Is This Guilt in You Too—(Cinema Verso) (detail), 2005, cinema installation featuring the film 24 Seconds Elapsed Between the First and Last Shot, 56 minutes 51 seconds. Installation view, former library next to Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 2006. Photo: Louise Hayward.

SEEING JUST ONE or two isolated works by London-based artist Ryan Gander does not do justice to the diversity of his oeuvre, which includes objects, photographs, drawings, installations, films, novels, and lectures. He could perhaps be considered a sculptor in the most expanded definition of that term, but it would be more accurate to describe him as a forensic examiner whose reconstructions of modernity’s “crime scene” lead us to the intersections of the history of social systems (their failures and subversive adaptations, in particular) and everyday life. With each new project Gander carefully inserts himself into the mechanism of the modernist engine whose fuel is the dictum “form follows function,” poetically addressing the human element that always seems to frustrate the best-laid plans of social engineers, to say nothing of their utopian impulses. Given the artist’s frequent and often humorous use of popular genres, one might equally well consider him the head of a self-proclaimed CSI: Bauhaus.

Gander’s practice is poignantly dramatized in The Boy Who Always Looked Up, 2004, where, in collaboration with illustrator Sara De Bondt, he uses the unlikely medium of the children’s book to tell the story of London’s Brutalist icon, Trellick Tower—which, in this tale as in reality, has fallen into disrepair, plagued by both structural and social problems. (Gander refers to it simply as the “tower of terror.”) In despair, the building’s real-life designer, noted modernist Ernö Goldfinger, disappears through a magical gray door into a fantasy world composed of his own architectural model of the building, where his grand vision can be maintained intact. There he has a conversation with the innocent young dreamer Tom—the boy who is always looking up. Asked by the architect why this is so, Tom answers, “Because it’s empty up here in the sky, and when I look up I feel like I can do anything, like anything’s possible.” This is Gander at his most antiprogrammatic: The hubristic utopian mission, and ultimate retreat, of the architect discovers a counterpoint in the humility and hope offered by childlike dreams.

This playful threading of fact and fiction, interlacing modernist ambitions with their actual manifestations, similarly characterizes a series of projects Gander executed last year for Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau in Bologna, Italy, including Stumbling Block (Milestone), 2006, a sculpture made from concrete fallen from the architect’s Unité d’Habitation some three hundred miles away in Marseille, France. Using the literal detritus of modernism, Gander set up a kind of feedback loop: The decaying concrete of the residential block in France was recycled into a nonfunctional milestone placed at the entrance to its sister edifice in Bologna as a strange kind of cautionary tale, in which form follows dysfunction to humorous effect as past and present come crashing together in a slapstick antimonument.

A similar ingenuity is apparent in the “Loose Associations” lectures Gander has held since 2002—public performances in which the artist undertakes stream-of-consciousness analyses of design, language, and culture. Gander moves fluidly (if not strictly logically) from one topic to the next—from, say, the “desire lines” created in the grass by people cutting between paved pathways in a field, to the fake Arne Jacobsen chairs in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, to the 1967 proto-MTV video for Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” to the symbol for the artist formerly (and now again) known as Prince, to the possible typographical error in the title of Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s 1967 book, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, to the constructed Elvish language in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. These subjects reflect the artist’s interest in the living and dynamic nature of design, typographic, and linguistic systems (whether real or invented), as well as their built-in capacity for subversion and error that comes from their very use.

Gander’s practice as a whole could, in fact, be seen as the artist’s tracing his own “inventory of effects” by examining what Ferdinand de Saussure referred to as “parole”—the messy, human application of systems, which often confounds their orderly, rule-bound nature (their “langue,” in Saussure’s terminology). But it is Gander’s fascination with linguistic systems themselves that led him not only to consider wholly fictional languages such as Elvish and Klingon, but also, subsequently, to propose the introduction of a new word into the English language: mitim, which the artist defines as “a mythical word newly introduced into history as if it had always been there.” Deliberating as to how the word might be brought into existence, he asked friends in the publishing world to slip it into their writing as a kind of viral, linguistic sculpture. Besides being a perfectly designed palindrome that forms a closed system typographically—as well as semantically, being itself an instantiation of its own definition—the word epitomizes Gander’s methodology of exposing the tautological nature of any system: inducing the snake, so to say, to eat its own tail.

In light of this at once subversive and analytic linguistic gambit, Gander might be said to have combined Jorge Luis Borges’s love of the spurious (as in the writer’s description of the mythical land of Uqbar in a possibly nonexistent volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica) with Roland Barthes’s cultural deconstructions, working with a kind of mythopoetics that pulls back the curtain and asks us to look at the mechanisms behind it. This happened almost literally in Gander’s recent installation Is This Guilt in You Too—(Cinema Verso), 2005, which was on view last year in London in the abandoned and disheveled library next to Whitechapel Art Gallery (the site of the institution’s future expansion). Audiences found themselves literally on the other side (i.e., the verso) of one of our culture’s primary forms of visual communication, looking at blurry images of one of Gander’s films projected from behind onto a screen made of whitewashed plastic. Standing in one corner of the room, viewers could look through a gap in the whitewash, which revealed a full-fledged cinema behind the screen. A directional speaker meant that this corner was also the only place where the otherwise barely perceptible audio track could be heard clearly. We were either unable to see the image (if we walked too close to the screen), or unable to hear the dialogue (if we moved too far away from it), a disjuncture that served to emphasize our dependence on the intersection of sound and vision. Shuffling back and forth from the screen to the rear of the room, we found ourselves in another of Gander’s favorite moments, caught between the potential of understanding and systemic wholeness and the white noise and myopia of the breakdown of communication. The engineered impossibility of completion in this work shares a melancholic sensibility with the artist’s story of Tom and Ernö, and the troubles that beset all-encompassing ambitions.

Ryan Gander, Stumbling Block (Milestone), 2006, milestone made from concrete collected from Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, 23 5/8 x 13 3/4 x 7 7/8". Photo: Polly Braden.

Gander’s most recent work explores the interstitial moments in ordinary communication, positing them as what one might describe as linguistic instantiations of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. For the two-part video installation Ghostwriter Subtext (Towards a Significantly More Plausible Interrobang), 2006, curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and architect Rem Koolhaas are interviewed by an unnamed ghostwriter—someone who makes his living literally in the shadows, interviewing celebrities in order to anonymously produce their so-called autobiographies. The ghostwriter asks Obrist and Koolhaas how they go about interviewing artists and architects—a practice for which both are well known, of course—conducting, in effect, an “interview about interviewing” and thereby creating a typically Ganderian tautological effect. The discussion is complemented by camera work and editing that take a page from Structuralist film of the 1960s and ’70s, including shots of the crew and audience. Meanwhile, the second part of the installation consists of a single-channel monitor displaying a series of subtitles against a black background. Someone identified as “the artist” and an anonymous speaker comment on the projected film, musing at one point about the possible failure of the entire project of “making a film about the filming of an interview about interviewing.”

What is interesting about Ghostwriter Subtext is not in fact who we are seeing on-screen, but rather the fact that we only see these subjects when they are not speaking, right up to the instant just before they open their mouths. They are, in other words, caught in a moment of potentiality. (It’s a move worthy of Jean-Luc Godard but with a better sense of humor; we never see these figures as we’ve come to know them publicly.) It is through the triangulation of the viewers, the subjects on-screen, and the caesuras in dialogue—the moments of uncertainty between utterance and comprehension—that this work transcends any personalities involved and steers clear of the navel-gazing of much art about art. If, as suggested in the adjacent subtitles, Gander’s piece fails by the measure of its original intentions, it is a productive failure, pointing to the systematic impossibility of communication without gaps in understanding.

This year Gander is taking a sabbatical from solo exhibitions to concentrate on his writing—in particular, a shooting script for a thirteen-part television series about (what else?) television, titled Appendix Appendix, which he is developing with his frequent collaborator, typographer Stuart Bailey. Describing the project as a cross between John Berger’s pioneering ’70s television series Ways of Seeing and Monty Python, the artist has even pitched the concept to a Hollywood producer. Appendix Appendix seems to offer Gander yet another opportunity to exorcise and exercise the ghosts in the machine: One episode, for instance, is devoted to the design history of TV test patterns. And if his reference to Monty Python bears fruit, we may well see the crystallization of “something completely different” in the artist’s loose associational method. Gander certainly seems to share a madcap illogic with the comedy team. After all, this is the boy who cried mitim.

Douglas Fogle is curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.