In Ryan Gander’s installation Fieldwork (2015), viewers sat in a chair facing a square window in an interior gallery wall, through which a procession of objects on minimalist white plinths could be seen scrolling endlessly past by way of an automated conveyor system. The full cycle, lasting about half an hour, consisted of 32 displays of both found and fabricated objects. Some were single pieces, such as a shiny funeral urn, or a crazy-looking lamp assembled from bits of junk. Others were more like collections or mise-en-scènes: an array of money boxes, for instance, each identically constructed but using different materials, or a tiny taxidermied bird on a dinner plate next to a napkin printed with Picasso’s signature. One plinth, even, featured nothing at all—offering only an empty space, briefly illuminated by a popping flashbulb as it trundled past the window.
For British audiences, the installation’s format inevitably recalled “The Generation Game”—a mind-bogglingly vacuous TV game-show that had roughly decade-long runs in both the ’70s and the ’90s, and whose finale consisted of contestants attempting to memorize a conveyor-belt sequence of prize goods. A more contemporary association might be with the online retailer Amazon and its vast warehouses constantly processing and channeling disparate products. There was a similar intimation of grandeur to Gander’s project—a kind of mesmerizing pleasure in the objects’ stately passage. The difference, of course, was that Gander’s items weren’t presented as mass commodities, but as something more singular, like puzzles or personal relics.
To gain insight into most of the displays, viewers had to turn to a publication placed on a side table. The plated bird, for instance, was revealed to be an ortolan bunting, an ostentatiously expensive delicacy that here—alongside the evocation of the apocryphal tale about Picasso’s paying for a meal using a signed napkin—suggested ideas about rarity and value. Gander is an amusing and thoughtful writer, and his essays, stories and other texts in this book virtually all contain elements of personal, and often quite poignant, reminiscence, frequently involving his family in some way—describing the assemblage lamps, for instance, that he keeps making for his wife but that end up selling as artworks, or the urn that used to contain his fascinatingly eccentric aunt’s ashes. Sometimes it felt as if the main point of an object was to justify the literary meditation, rather than the other way round.
It’s a common criticism of Gander’s work, that it relies so heavily upon complex backstories to provide meaning, using them as explanatory scaffolding. A counterargument, of course, would be that the significance of even the most quotidian object in the world is determined by such sociocultural frameworks, although these are usually so readily understood as to appear natural, or to not appear at all. It was precisely around ideas of visibility and understanding that Fieldwork seemed to be structured, with the installation acutely revealing the gap between personal significance for Gander, in the form of the book’s texts, and the pure, self-contained spectacle of the objects themselves; between, in short, being on the inside of a thing’s meaning and being on the outside, gazing in through a window.
Other works in the show continued the motif of visibility. Drapery, hung across gilt mirrors or crumpled around pedestals as if discarded by absent statues, was rendered in marble—so that the element that usually distracts or obscures became the main attraction. The gallery’s basement, meanwhile, appeared to be filled almost to the ceiling with stones—though perhaps this was only an illusion, the stones merely a layer covering an unseen raised platform. And outside the gallery, a giant billboard displayed Gander’s phone number—an image that, unlike the objects in Fieldwork, was both highly visible and personal in an immediately apparent way.