Speaking with Darren Flook at the Maritime Hotel, New York, 5th May 2016.
For the past week I've been attempting to edit down the 8,000-word transcript that is my interview with Ryan Gander. On my desk is the catalogue for Culturefield – the 549-page book that is too big for my bookshelf that accompanied Ganders' show at Manchester City Art Gallery in 2014. The problem with editing our conversation is the breadth of topics and interests of this acclaimed conceptual artist. He has made clothing, films, chess sets, books, installations, paintings and even bronze sculptures. In person, his references are as promiscuous as his art. What follows is at best a sample of a conversation with an artist who defies limitations.
Darren Flook: The Tate have a slogan for the opening of their new building attached to Tate Modern: "Art Changes. We Change." This made me think about how art has changed, or how your practice has changed. How are things different from when you started?
Ryan Gander: I think then I was so young that I had no idea what I was doing and it was quite logical to just be like, "Oh, I have an exhibition. I have to make an artwork." And now, structurally, it doesn't work like that. I don't have to do anything logistical any more. I don't even run the studio or the company. I'm a creative director. Now, I instigate situations that work will become a fall-out of. I've just designed this kitchen sink, which is a proper sink that works. It's a company and a business. But I know that the fall-out of me researching Japanese sinks and using this sink will produce art.
So at the moment in the studio, assistants are working on multiple projects or lines?
In the studio we don't really have assistants or people producing work. We have producers who facilitate a production of the work to be made by other people, mostly. It ended up like that just because the stuff I wanted to do was so diverse. However, I couldn't employ someone that knew about bronze casting and also employ someone who knew about embroidery. It changes so quickly that there's no point having people that are skilled. It's almost like a process of finding people who are de-skilled but are light on their feet and adaptable, who can know where to go and find skills that I need. It's not very exciting or glamorous or romantic or artistic. It's kind of very dull.
I get that. I mean, the idea of running an international architects' design/art firm does sound quite glamorous from the outside.
Yeah, but everything sounds glamorous from the outside. Staying in a Premier Inn sounds glamorous until you get inside of it and have to do it a lot.
Where did you study?
I studied in Manchester. I applied to Goldsmiths and all those London colleges, but didn't get an interview. And then there was a new course in Manchester that didn't have its quota of students. So I joined that one. I did my degree very bitterly, with a massive chip on my shoulder about all my friends going to live in London and me not getting in. For three years I was really miserable, but just worked a lot. And then after that I went to the Netherlands, to van Eyck in Maastricht, and then right to the Rijksakademie [the prestigious Dutch art school] in Amsterdam.
Did your education and experiences gear you towards where you are now?
It was happenstance – I was super lucky. Because if I'd got into a college in London I'd be like all the other artists of my generation, And I think I'm not. I'm different to them because I was in Europe for the years that were the most informative for my making art. People in Europe didn't give a shit about money or having a big gallery or prestige. It's a totally different world. So I wasn't affected by the horrible hangover of Brit Art or the hysteria of London. There was no objective where I was. The only objective was to push the boundaries of visual language.
British institutions were very British at the point; the media and audiences were not that receptive to contemporary artists from Europe.
It shows how we're an island, doesn't it? It really makes visible how Anglo-obsessive we are.
Is that still the case?
Yeah. I have this tainted perspective because, firstly, I'm from the North and my dad calls London, "that London". So I always had this anyway in my upbringing. Secondly, I live in the countryside, going into London once a week. And when you live in the countryside, you realise how much more difficult it is to live in London. And then you think, "I'm so glad I'm not there."
The thing that strikes me about London is the impact of the expense of it on a lot of young artists and art galleries. It's become so money-obsessed. The art scene has become very conservative due to the pressure to sell.
I'm creating this show at the moment with this group of kids in Leeds. And a part of me thinks, "They won't get a shot at anything because they all live in Leeds." A part of me feels like saying, "Come on, guys, you've got one chance. Move to London and, make a go of it," But then I think, if they go to London, they'll just turn into arseholes. They'll be climbing over the backs of a million other people. There'll be this contagion of aesthetics that exists in London where everything looks exactly the same.
I go to shows in London of young artists and they're all going through this massive phase that's so obvious. There's no meaning to any of the work, it's just purely retinal. It's like the phenomenon of having pine or palm trees in shows; or the phenomenon of the colossal amount of artworks that contain water now.
Pieces with a cartoon sticker on it?
It's insane. Bumper stickers on artworks! Just visual stuff. It's something like gaga baby language.
But you don't think that that's always been the case? I mean, I remember having a conversation in the late 90s with someone. We joked, "What would be the perfect, most stereotypical artwork now?" And we worked out it would be a leather glove holding a fake diamond on a white fur rug.
That's perfect. Might need a scorpion or a meteorite in there as well.
Now it would be a bumper sticker on a downloaded porn image with an iPad slapped on the front? Actually, I think I bought that work.
But, you see, it's difficult for me to not be annoyed and embittered by all that, because the premise of what I do is that's it not merely retinal. It's nothing to do with the way it looks.
And anything that ends up being an artwork is just a by-product of an idea that makes it happen. And I don't really have that much control over what comes out physically, over what it looks like.
So when you're thinking about a show, you don't think about what it's going to look like?
Really? Is that true?
I start with a theme or a perspective. It's quite calculated and strategic. I usually build the show and then take things out. And make things invisible. And then make works incomplete or make them more complicated, to entertain my mind. It's like making something very logical and then trying to make it into a puzzle.
Is that part of the process that keeps it interesting for you?
I also like to make it more complicated for myself, because I know all the usual answers because I've asked those questions of my own work before.
You seem to have found a very personal way of dealing with exhibitions and production that works well for you. Would you encourage younger artists to work in similar ways?
Actually it doesn't work for other people. When I was at college my work looked like older artists I liked, but it's very dangerous to build a practice out of things you like. It's like, you know that lad from the Arctic Monkeys?
He said something like, "People from the North model themselves on things that they hate, not the things they like." And what he meant by that, I think, is by knowing what you don't like, you're definitely not that. But it leaves everything else open for things you could be. But if there's something that you like and you emulate that, you just become their carbon clone.
You need your own motivation that goes beyond any idea of success or career.
There is a massive fickleness in the art world so it has to be interesting for yourself or it's not going to be interesting to other people. Considering artists are meant to be very, very creative and inventive, because their occupation, most artists are in fact massive conformists. When you go and see an artist's show, I always think a really great value or currency is to defy expectation. I reckon 99% of shows that I see are exactly what I expect as I go into the show. I think that's weird. And then I also think it's very weird that, well, art can be anything, right?
You can make whatever you want.
Anything you want. It could be like a uniform for a McDonald's drive-through. Or it could be a donation to a sperm bank. Or it could be a box full of sound, or anything. And still, 95% of art goes on the wall?! And that artists don't even question that I find pretty weird. I value and judge people on how creative they are and not how good their work is. Often some of my favourite artists are the artists who make bad work as well.
I think you have to make bad work every now and again though.
Oh, absolutely. I don't trust genius pieces whatsoever. I just think the whole point of making art is to learn, to evolve and to develop language and as a person. You only do that by making bad work you throw out. Or people see it and you're embarrassed by it. And that's good practice.
It's like with studios. Do artists need studios? What is a studio? A studio's just another conformity that's been handed down through history. It's a place to work. Well, does it have to be a studio? Living in the city. You don't really need to live in the city.
So I just bought this sports centre in Suffolk, like a community centre, but it's now my studio. It's magnolia and it has lines on the floor, and I actually work better in that environment than in a nice white studio.
I think one of the great pleasures of working with other artists is discovering possible models of living. Because most of us go through our lives thinking, "You go to school, you go to university, you get a job." And then you get artists who show you these other possibilities. You don't have to live like that. You don't have to live here in the city. You don't have to operate in this way. You can disrupt that. And find other ways and other economic models. Situations for living and ways of working and ways of displaying that are not the norm.
That's a double-edged sword because there are artists I can identify who become artists because they think, "Oh, yeah, it'd be a really good lifestyle. I'd get to go to loads of parties and fly around first class." It's a good part of the job but it's not a reason to become an artist.
And the parties get dull.
It doesn't take long. It takes two years. But the artists I'm really interested in and really admire are the ones whose creativity, inventiveness and lack of conformity goes beyond their work. It's not like, "I make art. I will be inventive and creative in my art-making." It's in their whole lives. Their life and work is seamless and they live creatively: from the clothes they wear you can see that they make their own clothes, or they write cookbooks, or they – I mean, the list's endless. They need a chair, so they make a chair. You know, their whole life is a massive creative adventure. They're the good artists.
To me, good artists are where the boundaries between practice and life don't exist. You're in their house. And, as you say, you suddenly realise a chair they're sat on is something they've made…
And they serve you some food and you've never had anything like it before and they've invented it. But they also, you find out, hand-made the dish to serve it on because it complements the food that they're serving. That act of being interested in the world around them, not just interested in the art world around them.
The artists I've worked with, the ones who fascinate me, are the ones that are like a stick of rock – you can break them anyway and it's still the same thing going through the middle. How do I improve this, or alter it, or disrupt it? Someone like Carol Bove: she couldn't find a school for her kids so opened one. Her art and her life are one.
I was just going to mention the Carol Bove example. My ideology of that reminds me of the Good Life. They're not self-sufficient, but creatively self-sufficient. So instead of chickens you're talking about how to make money on real things.
I like the Good Life idea. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?
I was going say something about the economy of giving back as well. I think it's important to give back and that doesn't happen enough. If artists are in significantly privileged positions because of the work that they make, then they should. I want to see more artists having, I don't know, like scholarships in their name. Or opening art schools. Or publishing young artists' books, because that's all totally doable by me and my contemporaries. It's easy. It just doesn't happen enough and that's a bit rubbish.
[The photographer wishes to photograph Ganders outside the hotel where we're speaking in a basketball court.]
Shall we go to the basketball court? Going for wheelchair basketball.
Photography: Keith Morrison
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