Ryan Gander


Ryan Gander seems to be something of a tease. His installation But it was all green, 2003, camouflaged STORE’s exterior windows by covering them with the type of reflective, translucent black plastic sheeting that usually connotes “sex shop.” The near-empty interior, however, would instantly have dashed the hopes of any visitor seeking reading matter of the one-handed variety. The floor was covered with plain black carpet, four speakers were placed in the gallery’s ceiling corners, and an antiquated but functioning flip-dot signboard was inset in the wall, an apparently random scattering of yellow dots slowly trickling down its surface. The work (which contained no green element whatsoever, at least optically speaking) exemplified what the 2003 Prix de Rome catalogue characterizes as Gander’s “minimal, barely expressive visual language.”

The work’s aural content amply made up for this sparseness. Above the discreet rustle of the signboard, the speakers relayed the cultivated voice of British art historian Margaret Garlake, delivering a script (by Gander) in the form of an illustrated lecture on color—or rather, on invisibility. It described seven instances (some possibly fictitious or at least exaggerated) of colors devised or evolved to facilitate disappearance. (It also included some writerly slips—like the misuse of the words “misnomer” and “allegedly”—that slightly undermined the project’s authority. Gander needs to find himself an editor.) Examples included “the world’s blackest black,” an exceptionally light-absorbent chemical coating invented to improve the Hubble Space Telescope’s imaging capacity; the specific blue used for Chroma-Key video effects; the black leopard’s deceptive “spots” (the consequence of differences in fur length rather than color); and Black Watch military tartan. Originally made from a mix of exclusively black fibers, this textile only revealed its tartan weave when caught by the light (or so Gander claims). Also listed was the “pure” blue tone of the video projection screen prior to the playing of a video: “a place where nothing exists but immeasurable possibilities,” in the artist’s words. The talk referred to thirteen illustrations—visible, of course, only to the mind’s eye.

Inside the gallery, the obscured window functioned as a one-way mirror: Visitors could scrutinize passersby in the street with complete impunity. This “cloaking device” didn’t so much empower viewers as translate them, conceptually speaking, into the same kind of ambiguous, voided zone as that invoked in the lecture: To stand in such close proximity to others without having one’s presence acknowledged proved strangely unsettling. The artist has discussed his work in terms of “making the invisible visible,” a slippery and, one suspects, strategically unsatisfactory expression for an impossible task. But maybe, rather like a black hole, invisibility can be registered via the influences it exerts on surrounding matter. At one level, the work probed this notion: The signboard’s trickling spots, for example, were actually a “transcription” of rain running down a glass pane. It’s an idea that intersects fascinatingly with the installation’s overt art-historical references—to the tradition of the monochrome, for example, or to assorted Conceptualist rearrangements of the gallery space (such as Michael Asher’s 1974 Claire Copley Gallery demolition job). Belying Gander’s reputation as something of a conquistador of the incomprehensible (the catalogue to a 2002 survey of his work was cheekily entitled “In a language you don’t understand”), But it was all green presented an allusive text, legible and satisfyingly coherent without being banal: a persuasive (and overdue) London debut.

Rachel Withers