‘I ask for your patience,’ wrote Victor Burgin in 1984, appealing to his readers’ better nature, ‘there is no other route.’ The setting for this journey was an early survey of the Conceptual art of the late 1960s to early ’70s, organized at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Titled ‘The Absence of Presence’, Burgin’s catalogue essay provides an archeology of a period of dematerializing objects, situating it against the return to painting of the early ’80s. His request for patience affirms the (unfortunate) commonly held idea that Conceptual art is for intellectuals – that those who wish to pass by the route must first have learnt to read the sign posts. But forget the threat of painting, could Burgin really not have anticipated how Conceptual art would come to be fleeced and pastiched?
Revelation and concealment, visibility and invisibility are recurring motifs in Ryan Gander’s work. For I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize (The Invisible Pull) (2012), installed at dOCUMENTA (13), the ground floor of the Fridericianum remained all but empty, as rigged air conditioning whipped up a gentle breeze that the artist intended should guide visitors through the galleries. Meanwhile, back in London, two air-conditioning units expelled chill air in a room of the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Invisible: Art of the Unseen’. Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin’s Air-Conditioning Show (1972) was accompanied by a dense wall text explaining the work’s ambition. Gander’s work for Documenta implicitly invited a prestige association with Art & Language (who, incidentally, are also represented by Lisson Gallery); the inverse relation between volume of space and quantity of work in the Fridericianum indicated quite how seriously the still-young British artist was being taken.
Gander is that breed of artist that Burgin was unable to imagine: a ludic, style-hopping fleecer-pasticher of Conceptual art strategies. Last year, his site-specific Artangel commission, Locked Room Scenario, presented a ‘para-possible’ group show of invented artists the visitor was denied access to. Gander described this possible other world as the ‘fallout’ from a novel. What exactly was the one referred to by the title of his Lisson show, ‘The Fallout of Living’? Installed behind the gallery desk, Investigation #64 – Phenomenomenomenomenology (2012) comprised two flip switches labelled ‘guns’ and ‘bombs’. Not only is Fallout a popular post-apocalyptic computer game, nuclear fallout is the residual activity of a blast, usually dust and ash. In ‘The Fallout of Living’, the material twixting of visibility fascinates Gander: images of smoke and fog are a thrilling contrast with substantial delicate forms.
A series of four layered clear Perspex sheets lined the walls of the main ground-floor gallery. Numbered apertures of various shapes and sizes referred back to inventory-like fragments of text. These texts, inscribed on the reverse of the Perspex, referred to objects barely there. For example: ‘024 A standard yellow Post-it note measuring 13 x 8 cm on which the word “Ghost” has been written with a chisel-tipped black permanent marker pen in large capital letters.’ Titled Associative Ghost Templates #2 – 5 (2012), these works are a continuation of Gander’s idiosyncratic method of association most vividly articulated in his 2007 book Loose Associations and Other Lectures. (‘Hello, I’m Ryan,’ he begins the first lecture, ‘Erm ... all these things are linked somehow, but at times the associations may be a bit loose.’) Elsewhere, he has called this method ‘spastic association’. However idiosyncratic, Gander’s interest is in the relationship between the spectator and the spectacle, where interpretation, as such, is a unique event for each individual. There is nothing ‘to get’.
Though sometimes gratifying, one-linerish art works can do themselves out of the job by making us feel we do actually get it. Two works in ‘The Fallout of Living’ almost did this. The Best Club (2011) consists of a blackout curtain covering the entrance to an installation, while a plaque to the side describes the work screened, a 16mm film transferred to digital video by the (fictional) Austrian artist Georg Paul Thomann. Pulling the curtain back to enter the darkened space reveals only the wall on which it is mounted – Tommy Cooper slapstick illusionism. The joke was on me: I walked into the wall. The other work is Kodak Courage (2012), an oak vitrine with ‘smart glass’: enter the gallery space and the glass fogs the colour of a light-exposed Polaroid, obscuring the small object inside. It is as if the assemblage were coyly self-aware, caught doing something it shouldn’t be doing. The identity of the hidden object is itself quite fantastical: a stone carving of Gander’s nose in the style of Rodin (who broke his nose several times). At Lisson, Gander seemed perhaps too preoccupied with such playful apercus. This mattered little in his Artangel piece, which aspired to a total para-possible world proceeding from the art world. But, isolated in the white cube, it approaches solipsism. Inevitably the fallout of art history, as Burgin feared, has enervated Conceptual art’s political project. Gander is its fallout – that brand of artist unimaginable back in 1984.