On the floor at the centre of a bustling art fair, a small girl begins to emerge from a white wooden box, reaching forward tentatively and craning her head into the light. The girl is a bronze replica of one of Edgar Degas’ renowned ballerinas, and focus of a sculptural installation by British artist Ryan Gander. “She’s crawling out of the plinth, which represents the institution of art. She’s freed herself. But what’s she hiding from? Probably all the terrible contemporary art,” Gander jokes, cheekily gesturing from his wheelchair towards other works on display at Art Basel in Hong Kong. An elfin figure dressed in a velvet jacket, white beanie and blue polka-dot scarf, the artist has much in common with the little dancer. Despite his standing invitation to flashy art-world parties, he eyes the system with suspicion.
Known for his irreverent approach, Gander smuggles viewers into unexpected situations, opening them up to new ways of experiencing art. At first glance, some may read his works as abstract and difficult to grasp, but unlike many of his conceptualist peers, Gander infuses his work with a child-like wonder and curiosity that’s infectious. He once hid an exhibition in a London warehouse, leaving clues that forced visitors to take on the role of detectives to find it. For another work, he hired two bodyguards to escort curator Nicholas Baume around Art Basel in Miami Beach, raising questions about the cult of celebrity in the art world.
“I thought it would be really ironic if he’d allotted a budget and invited me to do whatever I wanted, and then I turned it back on him,” Gander says with a grin. “Bodyguards are a signifier of prestige, so you had people crowding around this curator and they didn’t know if he was important or not.”
Gander decided he wanted to become an artist when he was 16 years old, while working a dead-end job in a carpet shop. “I realised that having a job was really shit,” he says. “You end up doing the same thing every day. So it was a problem-solving exercise: trying to identify a job where I could have fun.”
Fame came fast for the young artist, who won a prize at Art Basel at the age of 30, and showed at the Venice Biennale just a few years later. It wasn’t long, however, before the London art world took its toll, and Gander moved to the slower-paced county of Suffolk. “Being in London was turning me into a right arsehole,” he says. “It’s so competitive. You’re looking at everyone all the time, gauging yourself against them. It’s not healthy.”
Today, he keeps the art world at arm’s length, regularly retreating to his rural studio while juggling a busy travel schedule. In recent months, Gander has had multiple shows across the globe, including Human / Non Human / Broken / Non Broken at the Cc Foundation in Shanghai, which wrapped up in May. He is currently showing at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and at Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Michigan. This summer, as well as participating in an exhibition at Beijing’s M Woods museum, he will install enlarged versions of tiny key rings used in his self-deprecating performance piece Earnest Hawker at The Contemporary Austin museum in Texas. For the original performance, staged in 2015, Gander asked an actor to pose as an obnoxious future version of himself – a failed artist in New York. He then tried to sell small key rings, featuring replicas of works from his more successful days, to the public.
Recently, Gander has been preoccupied with broader issues related to technology and growing egotism in society. “It’s a generation of the self, isn’t it? That’s what wrong with America and Britain,” he says. “There’s no longer society, there is only ‘I’, and social media obviously plays a massive part in that. It’s not very good for humanity. You lose empathy.” Among new works exploring the issue is a series of mirrors shrouded in cloth made from marble. They were part of his recent solo shows in Shanghai and at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, and he describes one piece, called I be…(XVII), as “an antique French mirror that is about 200 years old, but you can’t see yourself. It negates the self-image. People will probably take selfies with their back to it, which is a perfect contradiction.”
Gander also continues to poke holes into preconceptions of art through new works such as Strong Signifiers and Understanding Poetic Value (Dramaturgical Framework for Structure and Stability), which was shown in Shanghai and consists of a metal armature of a man facing a lightbox. “It’s basically from a kid’s stick drawing of a human,” Gander says of the work, which takes aim at the limits of contemporary art in galleries. “It’s the most basic figurative sculpture that you get, and that is looking at an illustration or pastiche of a contemporary artwork, which is just a lightbox.”
According to Gander, the world outside the gallery walls is infinitely more interesting than what’s inside. “In a gallery, you see stuff because the space charges you to observe,” he says. “You become a spectator, but as soon as you leave, spectatorship stops. But if you just wonder around with that [creative] valve open, then there is definitely more interesting stuff outside the gallery.”
Gander has made it his life’s work to keep the valve open, though he admits it’s increasingly difficult as he gets older. “You can’t control it, but it’s usually open when I’m driving between London and home, in the shower, when I’m about to fall asleep or wake up,” he says. “Or wheeling around a new city. But when you’re a kid, the valve is open all the time. There’s a cliché quote by Picasso about how it took him four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. It’s so true. Artists spend their whole lives trying to remain children.”
Lately, Gander has been prolific in his output. Not only does he create public works and shows in art institutions, but he also designs clothes (collections for Japanese clothing brand A.Four; Adidas shoes caked in fake mud) and advises companies on art and even landscaping. To juggle all his projects, Gander has an eccentric process that’s “quite anal and logical”. He begins by snapping photographs, colour-coding them with Post-it notes and grouping them with specific paperclips from Japan. They are then placed in box files on eight table-tennis tables. Like an external brain, of sorts, they serve as catalysts and reminders.
One of the latest ideas fastened together with one of those paperclips is a football kit he designed for the team of Chinese art collector and patron David Chau. “And I haven’t talked to anyone about it yet, but I want to make a feature film in 36 parts,” Gander reveals. “It’s just hard because films cost a lot of money. But that’s my guilty pleasure. In a way, it’s better than going on holiday: spending money on stuff that’s so bonkers no one wants it.”
Whether via experiments like his film project, or the little dancer who raises questions about the institution of art, Gander says his aim is to create cognitive works that trigger viewers’ imaginations and stoke their curiosity about the world, which he fears is on the decline. In today’s age of Instagram, retinal art (he gives the example of sad-clown and unicorn paintings popular on social media) is on the rise.
“But that’s just a fruitless adolescent shouting,” Gander says. “There’s no nuance to that visual language. There’s no intonation to the voice. Cognitive art gives you something that I would read differently to you, and we would leave it with different ideas. And that’s the expansive possibility of art. That’s what art is good for.”