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Issue 209

Why Ryan Gander Encourages us to Listen to the Philosophy of Mice

The artist’s recent retrospective at Kunsthalle Bern wittily reflects on the circumvention of originality

BY Jörg Scheller in EU Reviews , Reviews | 05 JAN 20

It rarely ever happens that people kneel down to listen carefully to philosophizing mice. It is even less common for mice to share their philosophy with humans. At Kunsthalle Bern, however, mice listeners were a common sight during Ryan Gander’s solo show, ‘The 500 Million Year Collaboration’. Sticking its head out of a hole that the British artist had drilled into the gallery wall, a computer-animated robot mouse addressed the audience in a child’s voice (in fact that of the artist’s 9-year-old daughter): ‘You can be anything you want if you put your mind to it! But your achievements mean nothing if they are not of your own making’.

Ryan Gander, '‘The 500 Million Year Collaboration’, 2019, exhibition view, Kunsthalle Bern. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthalle Bern; photograph: Gunnar Meier

In choosing to have the mouse (2000 year collaboration (The Prophet), 2018) speak these lines based on Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), was Gander offering us a moment of ironic self-reflection? The artist has developed a multi-faceted, multi-media practice that provides a witty take on the disillusionment of post-conceptualism. Today, art has become largely indistinguishable from our broader cultural lives: as Hito Steyerl noted in Art as Occupation (2011) ‘nowadays, the invasion of life by art is not the exception, but the rule’. And Gander, who recently co-founded the homeware-design ‘lifestyle venture’ Otomoto with Tony Chambers, has certainly made his mark in this regard as a post-art artist. In this connection, he has refrained from developing a unique style or ‘brand’ that would make his work ‘recognizable at first sight’. What is original about Gander is his circumvention of originality.

This show is Gander’s most comprehensive to date and comprises 38 works, dating from 2006 to 2019, a number of which have not been exhibited previously. Equivalent Economies and Equivalent Means (2018) is a vending machine filled with stones, costing €9,999.99 each, which replicate ones found on the beach by the artist’s children; a lone slot contains a wad of euro notes totalling €10,000. A crossbreed of a schoolboy prank and what Marcel Duchamp termed ‘rectified ready-mades’, this patently ludicrous vending machine stands solemnly in the Kunsthalle’s stately interior.

Ryan Gander, ‘The 500 Million Year Collaboration’, 2019, exhibition view, Kunsthalle Bern. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthalle Bern; photograph: Gunnar Meier

I is ... (xii) (2015) is a marble resin sculpture replicating an assortment of furniture that the artist’s young daughter had covered with a blanket to make a den. A series of ink drawings depicts candles at the moment of their extinguishment (Embrace Your Mistakes ... Your Mistakes Are the Markers of Your Time, 2019). The installation Staccato Reflections (2017) contains a stele-like, reflecting flatscreen upon which some stream-of-consciousness text is floating, comprising phrases such as: ‘I see. I look. The look I see?’ Elsewhere, the undersides of an inverted Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer are covered with raised white marble bulges to appear snowed upon (Upside Down Breuer Chair after a Couple of Inches of Snowfall, 2017). The ostensible silliness of such works recalls early Romantic aesthetics, when silliness was associated, positively, with boundlessness. Every joke has a punchline. But silliness, a Romantic boundlessness shared by contemporary art, may go on forever.

Gander dives into the stream of life, picks out seemingly random elements, alters them or commissions new versions, charges them with new meaning augmented by shrewd titling, then dives back in again. What connects these heterogeneous elements is the artist’s selective process and what he invests them with: interest, humour, nonchalance. ‘Art’, Andy Warhol is alleged to have once said, ‘is what you can get away with.’ Gander’s tricksterish, boundless art, infused with ambiguous humour, perfectly encapsulates the freedom, openness and caprice of our neoliberal era. Resisting confirming his own position on neoliberalism – whether critical or favourable – Gander simply, strategically, embodies it. There’s a story, but it has no plot. ‘Defy expectation and allow your assumptions to be defied,’ as the mouse says.

Ryan Gander, ‘The 500 Million Year Collaboration’ was on view at Kunsthalle Bern from 19 October until 9 December 2019.

Main image: Ryan Gander, 'The 500 Year Collaboration', 2019, exhibition view, Kunsthalle Bern. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthalle Bern; photograph: Gunnar Meier

Jörg Scheller is an art historian, journalist, musician and contributing editor of frieze. He is a professor of fine arts and art education at Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland.