Ryan Gander, The Boy Who Always Looked Up, 2003. 200 children’s storybooks on a shelf, 14 1/8 x 78 3/4 x 6 3/4 in. (35.9 x 200 x 17.1 cm)
The British artist Ryan Gander weaves subtle tapestries of fact and fiction. His idea-based practice, his handling of the details of life and his own biography, art history and the artistic process, even obscure fables and puzzles—all of these he synthesizes into myriad forms, from sculpture to installation, the printed word, performance, and intervention.
He has created, for instance, an installation in which viewers are positioned on the wrong side of a cinema screen, and a book on high-rise living that is positioned above the audience’s heads. In What the Postman Brought (2007), disparate items are loosely collected, and viewers are invited to complete the space between the (missing) objects.
Gander’s cerebral but playful puzzle incorporates various visual clues: the painting of the American artist Mark Tansey (whose work is similarly allusive, often exploring abstract concepts through somewhat realistic images), a children’s adventure-mystery book whose story develops as puzzles are solved, and the Irish comedian Spike Milligan’s ironic and emotionally raw writings.
An Incomplete History of Ryan Gander
by Jens Hoffmann
The London-based artist Ryan Gander connects what appear upon first glance to be prosaic historical facts and events with a large collection of fictional and semifictional elements. His works include photographs, drawings, films, installations, sculptures, and even lectures, all of them intertwined by a fractured, opaque narrative that threads through his entire oeuvre. The finished pieces are surprisingly minimal, but they suggest a variety of points of reference, from the utopian impulses of the early twentieth century to contemporary popular culture and mundane aspects of everyday life.
The Boy Who Always Looked Up (2003) exemplifies Gander’s approach perfectly. The primary component of the piece is a children’s book that the artist wrote himself about a boy in a small house across from the infamous Trellick Tower, which was designed by the British modernist architect Ernö Goldfinger in London’s Notting Hill. The story of the building and its creation is told through the eyes of the child, and a large number of exquisite illustrations show him watching its construction. A minimalist bookshelf holding numerous copies of The Boy Who Always Looked Up is installed high on the museum or gallery wall, out of the audience’s reach. Only in the bookshop can viewers actually handle and acquire the book so that they can finally read the story after leaving the exhibition space. The fact that Goldfinger was the neighbor of Ian Fleming (author of the renowned James Bond spy novel series) in London’s Highgate neighborhood and the inspiration for the Bond character Goldfinger is something that the artist carefully notes in a separate piece as part of his ongoing lecture series Loose Associations 2.1 (begun 2002). Both works are part of a larger group that Gander calls An Incomplete History of Ideas (2002–6).
Another work from this same group, also dealing with both the legacy of modernism and the world of children, is Bauhaus Revisited (2003), a chess set designed in 1924 by Josef Hartwig, a master craftsman at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. The chess set’s unique concept is that the shapes of the pieces indicate what moves can be made with them. It was originally intended to be mass produced but never went into production; Gander fabricates it as a unique piece of art using zebrawood, a rare, endangered wood found only in the rainforests of central Africa. The material’s black-and-white patterning makes it impossible to tell which side the pieces are supposed to be on, so the game cannot be played and the chess figures become, essentially, old-fashioned-looking children’s building blocks.
One of Gander’s most complex and yet most characteristic pieces is What the Postman Brought (2007), a subversion of museum display standards. It consists of four elements, three of which are missing. The fourth functions as a wall label, giving the viewer some clues about what might be going on in the absent parts. There are two nails in the wall, but the painting that is supposed to be hanging there (The Bricoleur’s Daughter  by Mark Tansey) is gone. There is a bookstand, but the book (The Adventures of the Black Hand Gang  by Hans Jürgen Press) has also disappeared. And the empty frame, we learn, was supposed to hold two documents from the unpublished writings of the Irish comedian Spike Milligan.
The film that Gander is presenting in his solo Passengers exhibition, Is This Guilt in You Too (Study of a Car in a Field) (2005), again employs a child as the narrator. In an enclosed space with white walls and white carpet, we watch a one-minute video loop of a car stuck in a snowy landscape near a group of trees. The camera slowly zooms in from above toward the car, and a voice-over by a young girl continues for about 15 minutes while the projection loops again and again. The girl speculates, just as we do, on how the car got there, describing carefully what we see on the screen.
Gander’s works are uncommonly hard to decipher. He sends us on a journey that is less about trying to arrive at an intellectual understanding and more about engaging in a form of detective work, which is often linked to the history of larger social structures and their relationships to the human condition. He lays out the evidence and asks us to study it carefully, connecting the different elements and forming our own personal relationship with them.