The first piece to the right of the entrance to Ryan Gander’s show at Lisson Gallery in New York, which opens Friday, is a small hole carved in the wall, inside of which is a 20 pound note that quivers uncontrollably. It’s also a work that, during the busy Chelsea openings bonanza, most will miss while shuffling through the scrum, as they cheek-kiss friends hello and peer into their phones, the Instagram app open, snapping away. The work is tiny, way down on the floor, meant to be blocked by stiletto stems.
“It’s a mouse that I’ve been training for ten years,” Ryan Gander said, perhaps deadpanning, perhaps not. We were both watching the mysterious shaking British bill.
“We installed the mouse in the wall, and he has a 20 pound note in his teeth,” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
“No,” he said, absolutely deadpan. “It’s a machine.”
The exchange mirrored the tenor of Gander’s work, which can be mischievous masquerading as earnest, and vice versa. The work can be obscured, or the obscuring can be the work itself—the mouse, or the wall hiding the lack of a mouse. It’s conceptual art that triumphs over petty cleverness by being heartfelt but wryly hilarious, with the self-defense built in. It’s also conceptual art using seemingly random items such as warm French dildos (more on that later). Or, then again, maybe all that’s incorrect. Descriptions of his work often include phrases like “Gander’s eclectic output defies categorization,” which makes things difficult for a person tasked with categorizing it, such as a writer for an art magazine.
What is clear is that Gander’s become a powerhouse, with his works intriguing and baffling people in major shows throughout the world, and all this has made him something of a lodestar to young artists in England, a group he also supports by setting up art schools around the country.
Among Gander’s works is This Consequence (2005), where a museum guard is asked to wear a white Adidas tracksuit with two curious bloodstains on it. And then there is Thank you, but I am promised to the company of my artist this evening during the opening, a performance for the Public sector of Art Basel Miami Beach in 2014 in which he hired two enormous bodyguards to follow around the sector’s curator, Nicholas Baume. For Documenta 13, I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize (The Invisible Pull), 2012, consisted of just breeze blowing through a room, with the wind maybe aided by something of Gander’s making, or maybe not.
Gander’s Lisson show is called “I see straight through you,” and when I toured it with him recently, he made witty observations here and there, seeming like a very down to earth guy. Which is not to say that he explained things: the show as it stands a gleeful whoosh of mystery, an infusion of smirking doubt in the sea of bombast that is so many shows these days.
“It’s about thinking about the idea of disclosure, and giving the spectator space to imagine their own thing, rather than giving them everything on a silver plate—entertaining them,” Gander told me. “I’m trying to get them to not be lazy. And to add their own meaning to it all.”
To this end, he added, “There are artists I don’t like, that irritate me, but I think about their art later on, so I know it’s good. You don’t have to like the art for it to be good.”
“What if someone came to your show and said they don’t like the art?” I asked.
“I want them thrown out the gallery,” Gander said, laughing. “I want their names, they sound like idiots.”
We started going around the show. Placed in the gallery’s main room are robot-looking figures, their joints steel slabs with three buttons. One of the figures, Your Bolstered Voice (Dramaturgical framework for structure and stability), 2016, is holding a smaller version of himself, a tiny steel-and-wire guy.
“It’s his little broken toy,” Gander said as I walked beside his wheelchair, which he uses to get around due to a disability.
There are antique mirrors covered by billowing sheets made of marble resin, cutting off the reflection, and there is a single black balloon, floating at the top of the gallery, out of the range of a normal gaze. At the front of the gallery, there’s Dominae Illud Opus Populare (2016), the female counterpart to his 2013 work Magnus Opus (Gander told me that title was tongue-in-cheek—“It’s just an artwork,” he said rather cheekily). Installed inside the wall, the new work is a large pair of eyes that can track visitors using sensors, and eyebrows to register emotion.
“She’s having a lot of fun in New York, she’s never been here—she’s never been out of the country,” Gander said, pulling up next to her.
I also noted that it’s slightly lower than it would normally be, forcing most viewers to bend down at it.
“Well, it’s at my height,” Gander said, laughing and gesturing to the wheelchair.
At the center of the gallery, Gander constructed a large apparatus to house his project Fieldwork, in which items of his choosing spin around on a conveyor belt, and become visible one by one as they pass through an aperture. He said the process by which the objects are revealed is something akin to what he calls “scroll culture.”
“They want to take the Instagram of it, and always thinking about the next thing, even though you haven’t looked at what you’re meant to be looking at,” he said. “Scrolling from left to right, that’s not part of the scroll generation at all, it’s always up and down, but there was this left to right, with literature.”
I noted that we read left-to-right on our phones, on certain apps—like, for instance, the new Instagram Now feature, or Tinder.
The objects that we see as they glide past the glass window are drawn from Gander’s life, from his personal history and things he likes, mementos and ephemera, and heavier stuff. They’re all included in a book, Fieldwork, The Complete Reader, a copy of which was at the gallery. Gander grabbed it and we started leafing through. (The belt with the actual objects was right in front of us, but on Wednesday it was still being installed, so the low-fi version—reading a book left-to-right—would have to do.)
Gander opened the book, and started flipping through the different items.
“That’s my daughter’s notebook, but recast in melted wax crayons which she uses to write in it, usually,” he said.
“These are all my burners because sometimes when I do shows, I go put a billboard on the front of the museum with the phone number on it, and I carry a burner for the duration of the show, so people can call me up and send me stuff,” he said.
“This is money from Singapore that you burn as a ritual—you buy money with money and then you burn it,” he said.
“This is the urn of my auntie Eva—God rest her soul!” he said.
“Wait, those are actually her… ashes?” I asked.
“It’s a big responsibility collecting my work—there’s dead people in it!” he said, laughing (but maybe not joking?).
“This is a dildo that you fill with warm water, very expensive, made in Paris,” he said.
“Why do you fill it with warm water?” I asked.
“To keep your fanny warm!” he said. “Or, your bum? Fanny’s bum here, innit?”
“This is a selfie stick that’s been carved out of one piece of wood, with a Stone Age flint axe head that I bought off a stone dealer,” he said.
“These are some trainers I made for Adidas,” he said.
There was a brown smear on the sneakers.
“They’re like, ready-muddied, because it’s a big festival culture in Britain and everyone wears bright white clean trainers and gets them muddied,” he said.
“This is a zombie bat,” he said. “It’s about The Walking Dead,’ the series. The moment that I had invested 120 hours into watching television, that’s why I made that work. It took 120 hours to make, because of all the research. I’m going to start making works about Playstation as well, so I can play my Playstation as, you know, ‘research.’ ”
He was laughing, but I’m pretty sure he was serious about liking Playstation, and liking The Walking Dead.
“Ryan Gander: I see straight through you,” is up at Lisson Gallery in Chelsea through October 15.”