British artist Ryan Gander’s wildly non-signature conceptual undertakings explore order and chaos phenomenologically, and always find a looming kismet in unknown quantities. The artist’s inventive, resolutely multi-media works play on the Duchampian interrogation of art as the thing yet to be named, and include the invention of a new word and the exaltation of the artist’s lecture.
COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PUBLIC ART FUND
On Wednesday, Gander unveiled his first public work at Doris C. Freedman Plaza in Central Park. Based on Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale, “The Happy Prince,” Gander’s statue is a sculptural interpretation of the story’s climax. The tale sees a dandyish, peripatetic swallow protagonist invited by the story’s gem- and gold leaf-encrusted prince statue to pluck off his jewels and distribute them among the city’s poor. The prince becoming frailer and less visually appealing in the process. By the end, the swallow learns what it means to love, via the statue’s kindness: Then the statue crumbles and the swallow drops dead at his feet.
The story has a personal strand for the artist: “I had an audio book of the story as a child, and every night before bed my mum and dad would play it for me,” says Gander. Commissioned to create a piece of public art, “It made sense to me to do this about the story because The Happy Prince is about what public art should be. There’s a lot of public art that’s much more like public decoration, not really public art. A lot of them seem to be really garish, and they catch your attention, but they don’t seem to mean much. So I like the story because it was talking about the value of public art in terms of it looking really bad, but meaning a great deal. The value of it is more than the visual.”
The chaotically crushed columns of Gander’s sculpture, adorned with the dead sparrow and the prince’s lead heart—while far from looking “bad,” is also not asking to be thought of as winsome. In doing so, it helps to articulate the contemporary peril of artists whose personal work is challenging, yet who kowtow to a mass audience and produce public artworks that are instant crowd-pleasers. “You’re liable to a public when you make a public artwork,” says Gander. “Art in a gallery or a museum is something you choose to go and see. You don’t approach art in a public domain; it approaches you. It’s there whether you want to look at it or not. And so [to make public art] is actually quite scary.” LEFT: PORTRAIT BY MAARTEN CORBIJN
Opening in October will be another narrative-driven, chaos-hewn installation that the artist will be creating in the Guggenheim Museum’s Reading Room. Within the space, the artist create a scene based on the infamous quarrel between Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, wherein the two De Stijlists fell out over Mondrian’s disavowal of the diagonal line, the piece illuminates the passions and quixotic encounters that define art history. “I liked the idea that there’s a lot of examples within art history where people have collaborated, and then falling out and having an argument. And the trajectory of art history changed because of these relationships, the way that they were made, and how they were broken,” says Gander. “Van Doesburg and Mondrian’s relationship is a really good example of this: the history of art now exists the way it does because of this argument. I really like the trajectories that go off on these funny tangents. It’s like Back to the Future, you get these sort of impossible moments occurring that change history.”
Adding to the impossibility is the fact that the two artists will fictitiously crash through a stained glass window, into the home of Frank Lloyd Wright. “Mondrian and van Doesburg were having this argument about vertical horizontal and diagonal lines. And the strange thing is, about seven years before, Frank Lloyd Wright was making stained glass windows that had vertical, diagonal and horizontal lines. But they of course didn’t know what was going on over the ocean, necessarily.” This tapestry of narratives elucidates the parallel lives of great artists, and highlights the intensity in which artists used to collaborate in times less defined by personal agenda.
Asked whether the piece exalts a forgotten time of collaboration, the artist responds, “In Britain, there’s a lot of artists in London making works that I call ‘leany bits,’ because there’s always seems to be something leaning against something else. So similar stylist signatures exist, but I think artists now don’t want to be seen to be contributing to each other’s work. Before when there wasn’t so much money involved in art, and when it was more educational, then these ideas would creep in. It was a common voice, not everyone for themselves.”