Ryan Gander: Make every show like it’s your last

Centre for Contemporary Art Derry~Londonderry, October 2014

An exhibition review by Kevin Burns

Still from Imagineering, 2013. © Ryan Gander, Courtesy the artist. 

Initially sparse and underpopulated, Make every show like it’s your last dilates the eye, as if adjusting to the dark. Between an installation of bespoke light fixtures, a bracket-mounted Panasonic television, or small domestic images and fragments adorning the walls, the show falls visually somewhere between the Googleplex and granny’s front room.

Ryan Gander is an artist who embodies that maddeningly evasive tension between authorship and viewership, carefully balancing the ambiguous question surrounding who drives the narrative: artist or viewer? The works have a nebulous quality and function collectively rather than individually. This is why a review of Make every show like it’s your last does not benefit from a minute, close-reading of every object in sequence. These components – the show's discursive features – are signposts towards where we really ought to be going.

The video work Imagineering (2013) is a short television commercial developed by an existing advertising agency working to the artist’s brief, and is part of a larger advertising campaign of the same name 1 (not represented here in its entirety). The fictitious commercial promotes a return to childlike imagination among the British public, as though commissioned by the British government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills. What exactly happens when one sets in motion this chain of events? Bubbles happen. Lots of them.

Installation view, Ryan Gander: Make every show like it’s your last, CCA Derry~Londonderry. Image CCA Derry~Londonderry.

The commercial is a narrated montage of children at play, imploring the audience to make the world a better, more creative place by doing likewise. The disembodied voice of the narrator is female and gently authoritative, drawing on established tropes of 'matronly' authority in public spaces; we could just as easily be at a train-station or talking to Google as in an art gallery. Glossy bubbles emerge in increasing volume as the children set about their imagineering, and surge through offices and alleyways where bored-looking adults are enlivened by the experience. It is hard to imagineer a more literal visual metaphor for thought than thought bubbles, this symbolism deeply coded into entertainment and illustrative art. The result is vaguely comical, but like Leslie Nielsen in 'The Naked Gun' (and all those other films in which Leslie Nielsen plays Leslie Nielsen), the comedy is faultlessly earnest.

If Imagineering feels as though designed-by-committee, that’s because it is. This is a chain of events initiated by the artist, a process of relating to one party while addressing another, with creative agency passed further down the line from Gander, to ad agency, to government (fictionally), and ultimately to the public. Hinrich Sachs observed of Goldin+Senneby something I think aptly describes Gander’s approach:

". . . in this aesthetic strategy of distributing responsibility in such a way that intentions become invisible, the mind map of present day management culture is revealed."2

The keystone of Gander’s 'aesthetic strategy' is the collateral of these distributed responsibilities. In other words, the work collects the imprints of its contributors. Imagineering demonstrates this by the banality of its imagery and style, as though we have seen it innumerable times, because in one sense we have: the fonts, the prefab sound effects, the made-for-TV time scale (49 seconds), the use of children as a metaphorical device. These are instruments from the war chest of professional corporate storytellers whose industrial strategies are already deeply integrated with our daily experiences. In Imagineering, Gander draws attention to the strange convergence of political, economic, and charitable forces in one pedagogic guise, which collectively reflect and unaccountably construct and inform formulaic ways of thinking, as evidenced by the very fact that we already know this familiar story. 

Installation view, Ryan Gander: Make every show like it’s your last, CCA Derry~Londonderry. Image CCA Derry~Londonderry.

As It Presents Itself - Somewhere Vague (2008), is a claymation film shown in CCA’s Gallery 2 produced by Wonky Animations and Picture This (Bristol). A series of characters based on famous artists, comedians and others – including the artist’s mother – audition on stage for a piano concert. Internal monologues from each character detail their dread and anxiety at performance, questioning their surroundings, their roles and the audience. The script is written by the artist and all characters are performed by the now deceased actor Richard Briers.

Briers' performance is colourful yet regulated, with florid affectations of tone delivered in a steady rhythm. The thoughts of each character are delivered in the same voice and in the same style: it becomes difficult to discern where one character ends and the next begins. This builds on Gander’s aesthetic strategy of distributing responsibility 3, obfuscating what is said and who is saying it. In the mess of the characters intermixing monologue there is an overwhelming sense of uncertainty; the characters question their roles while simultaneously being robbed of them. From this we can discern Gander’s strategy of burying narrative in layers, and identify a circular logic at the core of the work.

This circularity bears comparison with Willie Doherty’s film At the End of the Day (1994). Doherty situates the camera on the dashboard of a vehicle looking onto a rural backroad, driving towards the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. After a short, rickety journey the vehicle stops at a roadblock of concrete barricades marking the border, and a disembodied voice intones bleakly a phrase culled from contemporary political discourse: “At the end of the day, there’s no going back”. Then the film resets and renews the failing journey, and ends again: “There’s no future in the past”, but there is, and the film inevitably begins again.

The symbolic devices in Doherty’s film: repetition, the border, the darkly ironic language; serve to root the work at a specific historical moment, that period of intensive ‘talks’ at the apogee of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Doherty’s excavations of language are not an artistic conceit, but derived from the material of the time. An awareness of Doherty’s insight into this ritual recycling of rhetoric could aid in contextualizing Gander's work. The visible pixels and the grainy texture of At the End of the Day are what Hito Steyerl might describe as “poor image” 4, the film materially and symbolically altered by reproduction. This is in contrast to the slick aesthetic favoured by Ryan Gander: Imagineering is an image of invisible pixels and computer generated graphics, and is reflective of the use of contemporary technology in Gander's oeuvre. Although stylistically different, both artists share overlapping interests. Their use of imagery is recycled, but differently so: Doherty takes a unique image and reproduces it in a never ending narrative, Gander takes derivative imagery and condenses it into something at once unique yet inconsequential.

Installation view, Ryan Gander: Make every show like it’s your last, CCA Derry~Londonderry. Image CCA Derry~Londonderry.

Gander's ability to condense and repurpose the material of his time insightfully reflects contemporary concerns. When I consider Ryan Gander’s work, I think of the churning mass of big data hoarded in cyberspace, fuelling the information economy. Like an advertising agency signed up to Google AdWords, Gander’s practice relies in part on acquiring and refining pieces from the hordes of junk-thought and junk-image we produce.

Culturefield is a book published on the occasion of this exhibition, a hefty pictorial monograph on Gander’s work with accompanying essays. It would be a luxurious but otherwise standard item were it not for the the treatment of this word ‘Culturefield’: on the cover of the book and every time it is repeated within (most prominently throughout the essays), the word is printed not as plain text but as a graphic image my word processor is ill-equipped to recreate. This deliberate visual consistency positions the word as a brand, rather than a title alone. ‘Culturefield’ is a recurring term in Gander’s practice, and previously featured in the work Porthole to Culturefield Revisited (2010), which consisted of a trapdoor in the corner of a gallery ceiling, with the ends of colourful ribbons poking temptingly out from whatever realm lay beyond.

'Culturefield' is this domain beyond the door, the virtual space outlined by Gander’s outwardly disparate projects and works. What, if any, meaning or characteristics this place has is surely besides the point: the journey there is its discursive feature. Gander works through promoting ideas and concepts with a method comparable to the maintenance of a brand, a conceptual singularity delivered by means of all shapes, sizes and locales. 5

Please be eager - It's just a picture of you in green with a smile... You're most welcome, 2013. © Ryan Gander, Courtesy the artist.

Just as child obesity billboards or television commercials for ‘Stoptober’ 6 are fragments of economic or ideological campaigns, the things and objects in Make every show like it’s your last are signposts. But signs can lie: they can give direction, maybe misdirection. You have to trust who put it there, but in a society organised around distributed, invisible responsibilities, how can you know? The ambiguous and deliberately inconclusive nature of Gander’s practice begs this question of the artist and his myriad collaborators, cultivating in the viewer an appreciable and productive scepticism.

Ryan Gander pokes and pulls at our trust in branding and the information delivered by it. This is a subject that has been the target of many moralizing, comfortable critiques from populist artists, critics and other forgettable commentators: Gander has no discernible interest in comfort. His ability to make the very production of the work the discursive point is subtle, surprising and singularly impressive. In that order.


1    ‘Imagineering’, Ryan Gander, Amanda Kirke & Paul Hodgson

2    “Hydra, the Chicken and the Egg”, Hinrich Sachs Goldin+Senneby, Headless. Toronto, Canada: Power Plant, 2009

3    Ibid.

4     ‘‘In Defense of the Poor Image”, Hito Steyerl. Journal #10: e-flux, November 2009.

5    ‘Make every show like it’s your last’, Ryan Gander, Manchester Art Gallery 4 July - 14 September 2014, FRAC (Paris) 19 September - 17 November 2013

6    ‘Stoptober’ 2014, NHS.