Ryan Gander, Manchester School of Art graduate and renowned conceptual artist, returns to Manchester for a major solo exhibition, Make every show like it is your last, at Manchester Art Gallery. The exhibition, which is part of an international tour, presents new and previously unseen pieces that explore the theme’s ‘Culturefield’ and ‘Imagineering’ that appear in Gander’s work. Luke Healy spoke to Ryan Gander during the install of his exhibition.
Luke Healey: You often like to incorporate artworld context into your work; what about the context of Manchester and Manchester Art Gallery will be on display in this show?
Ryan Gander: The work is made with a universal perspective…If I made something like robots of kittens in a bin bag, it’d be understood here because there’s that knowledge that people chuck kittens in the canal, but it wouldn’t translate at all in Japan. I guess it relates to Manchester because I lived here. So, the 38 years of life experience that the works are made up from come in a large part from here.
LH: The title – is that based on a Steve Jobs quote? What made you pick that out here?
RG: It’s actually a quote from a friend who works for us called John; we were drunk one night and I was moaning about how other artists had it easy with what they do, and how I envied how they could do so little and get so much critical acclaim and success, and John said “yeah, but you make every show like it’s your last.” So I stole it from him.
LH: As with all your work, I’m struck from what I’ve read about this exhibition by the profusion of things on display. When people write about your work, and when you talk about it, the emphasis tends to be on the way your pieces are supported by stories, and while you’ve said that you don’t like the word “secret” in relation to your work, there is a clear sense – I’m thinking here of the billboard you produced for Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery – that you like to present things whose conceptual extension stretches out beyond what’s actually seen or given. But your work is also full of thingliness – there is a real material presence here – and as an Art Historian it makes me want to connect your work to historic discussions of materiality and dematerialisation. What’s your take on this?
RG: I’m trained in a visual language going back three decades, and as egoistic as it sounds I would say that I’m particularly fluent in that language. With that comes a love of objects and physicality, and all the traditional characteristics of sculpture, like mass, colour, texture, form. But the work isn’t really that: it’s good that I know how to do that, and it’s good that I know how to produce thingliness that is seductive or charismatic, or is intriguing enough that people stay with the object for more than two seconds. But the work is the story, and the thingliness is just the fallout of the story. I don’t think about making a thing, and then think about the story to go with it. I explore the story, and then the thing falls out as a by-product or an off-cut from that story.
LH: I feel this interest, intentionally or not, positions you in a long lineage of avant-garde artists trying to blur the line between art and life; what really interest me about this is the way that those artists have tended to want to keep the line in place, however blurry, as opposed to simply trying to erase it. What is it that’s so compelling about that line?
RG: There’s not many people who lead massively creative lives; if you look at the British population they tend to be interested in very similar things, like Britain’s Got Talent, which is just “ga-ga” culture, culture for babies. I suppose as people who live creative lives we recognise that boundary between art and life, we see how blurred or exacting it can be. But if you look at the world, the total population of people interested in art theory is such that the line between art and life isn’t really significant for the majority..Some people like Formula One racing, I know nothing about Formula One racing, and I don’t go to my doctor and tell him what to do because I know fuck all about medical stuff. It’s not a case of creative people living more enriched lives, it’s just different, like wok cooking and cribbage.
LH: Going back to the question of dematerialisation, what is your relationship with historic Conceptual Art – is it something that you were ever really interested in?
RG: Well there’s hardcore conceptualism, conceptual art that looks like conceptual art, black and white text works, and you can think about conceptual art in those terms, what it historically looked like: quite dry, quite learned, a lot to do with semiotics and language. Or, you can think of conceptual art the way it is now and say that if a work isn’t conceptual it’s just decoration, because all art should be based around the formation of an idea, or ideas, or creative thought processes. At the beginning of my career I made a number of works that keyed into the look of older conceptual art, and people thought of me as a conceptual artist, but I’m not really a conceptual artist in that sense. When you know a bit about the whole practice, and spend some time with the work, when you invest some thought in it, research it and let it live with you a bit, it turns out that it’s pretty soppy and romantic and wet.
LH: Because it’s drawing on personal experience?
RG: There’s personal stuff in it, yeah, but not in all the works. I don’t want to be predictable. I hate predictable artists; I hate seeing art and knowing who it’s by.
LH: Could you say a bit more about the two off-site projects that are running alongside this show?
The exhibition at Castlefield has a work called Porthole to Culturefield Revisited. Culturefield is an imaginary state that I had a dream about, it’s at the bottom end of my primary school playing field, you climb over the fence and go through a little wooded area and over a stream, and then there’s a meadow full of interesting people to talk to, the radio’s playing and there’s never a bad song on it, there’s a lot of fit girls there lying on blankets. This is a real dream I had…
LH:…A recurring dream or just a one-off?
RG: I wish it was a recurring dream. The work and the group show are based around that – this imagined place that’s a kind of heaven for creatives, there are all these writers and historians and ceramicists and chefs, all these people who are just flashfire thinkers, with brilliant quick ideas, who are really exciting to be around, and they’re all in one place.
The Castlefield exhibition and the work Dad’s Halo Effect, which is set to be installed in Beswick in East Manchester, are both public engagement projects of sorts, in the sense that Castlefield as an organisation now exists in part to foster grass-roots talent in Manchester. But they seem like very different projects.
That’s my job, ideally you wake up and say “I want to make this”, and then someone at the gallery comes along and gives you the opportunity to make it happen, but it’s not always like that. You get asked to do things, and you decide whether it’s interesting to do them, but pretty much everything in Manchester is interesting to me.
LH: What does the title Halo Effect refer to?
RG: The Halo Effect is a term that’s used by auction houses to describe an inherent added value that comes about because of an object’s history. So if I bought a painting and sold it at Sotheby’s or Phillips and it was worth 20, because I’d owned it and am an artist it would maybe be worth a little bit more, because it had been in the collection of Ryan Gander, but if Kate and William had owned it, it might make 30. It’s value added through ownership, that’s the halo…
LH: …So the halo in this case is what?
RG: The halo in this case is my dad, because the work was my dad’s idea. So for me it’s more valuable, because he’s my dad and he’s not visually trained: he’s an engineer.
LH: Do you care about the trajectories that people make out of your work?
RG: No, I care that they have done…
LH: …but you don’t vex over what sorts of experiences people are having or not having around your work?
RG: No, not at all. I don’t fetishise the objects I make. I’m really happy if they sell because it means I get the money to make another work. As soon as the work’s finished, before it’s even installed, as soon as I have the crate made, I forget about it. I’m always thinking about the next thing. Again, that’s the job. Although it’s not the job for everyone: some people obsess over the work they’ve made for years, but I like to forget it, remember what I learned from it, and get on with it. I have a list of hundreds of things that I want to make.
LH: I felt that Locked Room Scenario, your piece for Artangel, crystallised something about your work that you might call its polyvocality. Your practice covers such a wide range of different processes and materials, and if we go back to what you said about not liking it when you recognise an artist by their work, it begs the question: would you prefer to be lots of different artists, as opposed to just one?
RG: Yes. I have eight or ten fictional artists’ names that I make work under. There were two in the Artangel show that were invented about twelve years ago – one was invented sixteen years ago – and they’re called Aston Ernest and Santo Sterne. I invented Aston Ernest first to be the artist that I would like to be, that I would aspire to be like but would never be able to achieve that goal, because he’s so brilliant. Santo Sterne I developed later when I was a little bit angry and bitter about other artists from the same world as me that were doing very well by doing very little. Santo was developed as the opposite of Aston: an artist that’s not just shit in terms of what he made, but in terms of his ethics and morals and attitude. He’s a kid with a trust fund, from a rich Spanish family in Mexico City, he went to Royal College of Art but his dad knew a tutor on the course so he didn’t have an interview, he just got in, he drives around in a nice car, takes curators out to dinner, goes to the right bars where all the art people hang out, buys them drinks, makes friends with fashion people, throws some paint at a canvas on Monday morning, networks his ass off: you know people like this. They don’t have to worry about money, they’ve not worked at Allied Carpets, they don’t know what work really is, they don’t understand how lucky they are to be making money from doing exactly what they want every day. I invented him, and then I had to make his work: I had to make horrible leopard-skin paintings with neons that mean nothing, and prints with day-glo spray-paint, work that makes your heart really sad.
LH: Have you ever made work by Aston Ernest?
RG: Yeah, but it’s never good enough. It’s good making work by both of them because one gets all these hideous aesthetics out of you and the other makes you realise that you’ve got a long way to go and a lot to learn and you’re not by any means brilliant. It’s quite a healthy thing to do.
LH: Finally, I notice that you’ve decided to give gallery invigilators copies of William Morris’ News From Nowhere to read throughout the show. Why this book?
RG: It’s a utopian novel about Britain in the future…I studied on a course here called Interactive Art, run by a guy called David Smith; it was meant to be called Creative Futures but the University changed its name to Interactive Art because they thought it would sound better. But it wasn’t “interactive” or “art” at all, it was about quick thinking, being inventive and intuitive, and thinking around problems: being creative. Imagining the future, thinking about things that don’t exist yet, what will they be, we decide what they are. It was a brilliant, brilliant course, but of course nobody came in because they were all drunk…
LH: …I think I have a friend that crashed out of that course after a few months…
RG: …it’s a course that really should only take people aged thirty and above, it’s just too complicated, too genius for be written for young people to understand. So I struggled through it. And the course on paper is exactly the same as News From Nowhere. On the course we had this trading system called “bobbins” – we thought it was a good name for a currency because of Manchester’s association with the textile industry – and we swapped work for work. So you’d get playwrights who would help you with a text you were writing, and in exchange a graphic designer would lay out a book for you. everyone had different skills: someone who knew CGI would make a model of a sculpture in return for a lesson in how to do art welding. And News From Nowhere, which was written 120 years ago, by this liberal who wandered around London giving out socialist manifestos out of a satchel, with a big beard who was into arts & crafts, had already set all this down in the form of a novel about a parallel reality of Britain where one guy makes pipes and one guy milks cows and everyone is really happy. Culturefield is kind of a parallel to that. And of course it’s daft, because it would never work.
Coinciding with Make every show like it is your last, Castlefield Gallery is working with Manchester Art Gallery to explore the concept of ‘Culturefield’, artist Ryan Gander’s imagined place with the perfect conditions for creativity. Alongside Ryan Gander’s piece, Porthole to Culturefield Revisited, CG will present new work by Robert Carter, Helen Collett, Monty, Lois MacDonald, and Joe Fletcher Orr, five Northwest–based artists who like Gander, continually restructure, critically yet positively, the many art worlds they find themselves working within. I would like to join a club abd hit myself with it opens on the 11 July and is on until the 17 August 2014.
And on Thursday 17 July Video Jam return to Manchester Art Gallery to curate a special programme of short films with a variety of live musical accompaniment that responds directly to Make every show like it’s your last.
Image: How the past can pierce the present, 2013, Image Ken Adlard, Courtesy Lisson Gallery