Ryan Gander
Photo by Linda Brownlee

Ryan Gander: “It wants your attention”

Short Profile

Name: Ryan Gander
DOB: 1976
Place of birth: Chester, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Artist

Ryan, as an artist, how often do you find yourself daydreaming?

The places where I am most creative, I think, are in the car, in the shower, when I wake up in the middle of the night, or doing the washing up. Those are places where I don’t have my telephone, and that’s when I daydream. That’s the great thing about life, isn’t it? Our ability to imagine. It’s what separates us from animals. The other day I gave a talk in the art class of my eldest child, she’s nine years old, and the first thing I asked was, “Who here is a daydreamer?” And one of the kids said, “Oh, it’s really bad to daydream, the teachers and my parents always tell me to stop it.” That is mad! (Laughs)

There seems to be an unwritten rule that once you become an adult, daydreaming is considered a waste of time.

And ironically, when we think of the values of things in our lives, we think about money and space as being two of our greatest assets. But in fact, our greatest assets are time and attention! Not everybody is born with the same amount of resources, money, privilege, but everybody is born with the same amount of time. It’s what we do with our time, it’s what we give our attention to that’s important. If you look at social media and all the big subjects of today, when you take them back to their bare bones, all they are doing is trying to manipulate us, or to distract us to take our attention and to take our time.

“There’s almost like a disease of self-perspective where everybody sees the world from their own point of view, individually, not collectively.”

Have you noticed this economy of attention in art as well?

The art world is changing, no doubt. It’s becoming more visual, more retinal, and less cognitive, less based in ideas, less conceptual. I think that we’re used to contemporary art, more so now than before, as being attention-seeking. It wants your attention. There’s so much competition visually because there’s so many artists now — I mean, I think there are more artists than teachers in the world! We’re a generation that’s very “self” everything, you know, we use the word self as a prefix: self-motivated, self-disciplined, self-obsessed.

It’s now even become a term on its own: selfie.

There’s almost like a disease of self-perspective where everybody sees the world from their own point of view, individually, not collectively. It sounds very grand, I guess, but that’s something that I’m preoccupied with a lot at the moment. It’s a completely different way of looking at the world.

Your animatronic mouse at the Some Other Life exhibition at Esther Schipper earlier this year attracted all the attention in the room…

I think people really related to the mouse because it’s like an insecure character: it should be scared and want to run away, but it stays, and when it tries to speak, it can’t find the words.

But couldn’t that be considered attention-seeking, or at least attention-grabbing?

That work started with me speculating that we live in a world where everybody wants to speak, but nobody wants to listen. For me, art is always the idea. The final “thing,” that’s just the vessel that holds the idea: the receipt, the by-product. But it’s not the idea. For instance, for the Documenta 13 exhibition, I had this idea that the room in the Fridericianum Museum should be left empty so there was no conflict, or no strong message, but rather a space for the spectator to project their own ideas into it. And I thought that what says the most about change and renewal is the idea of the wind or the breeze: wind moves things, it changes the air in a space. So we created a silent, pulling wind feel through the museum space.

And did people notice it?

Well, most people would notice it after few minutes when they realised that it was quite cool and breezy. But because that work was so subtle and it was not shouting for attention, it was dismissed by quite a lot of specialists for a very long time!

So it seems like people still expect to see the “receipt.”

In this case, you were essentially left with yourself. Think about emptiness and absence — there’s not a lot of opportunity be alone nowadays. A lot of us live in built up places and a lot of us live with technology. We are always connected.

When was the last time you were truly alone?

Actually it was the other night when there was a power cut due to a series of storms here in Britain and all the mobile networks went out and I felt intrinsically different. I felt alone, and I hadn’t felt like that for such a long time! So yeah, maybe we do find it more uncomfortable than we did 10 years ago or 20 years ago.

“Being an artist and making art are two entirely different things! And I’m interested in artists that want to make art.”

You once said that you don’t feel like you are making artworks, but rather exhibits for a museum of sociology. Do you still stand by that idea?

Absolutely. That’s why we make art rather than just write down ideas. There’s no option to control the reading of your work when it’s out there, and I think that’s fantastic. That’s something I love and I embrace. That’s what makes the history of art so rich: when you look back, you can read it in the context of today, but you can also speculate on the context of when it was made. The privilege of hindsight is quite a unique and beautiful thing. And ultimately, the art world can be elitist like anything else, but what’s really important is that people without any knowledge of visual language or semiotics or the history of art can take something from it and don’t feel alienated by it. That’s a really big motivation of mine.

How do you keep that balance between elitism and approachability?

By living a very normal life. My wife and I left London because we were too embedded into the art world, and I decided not to do that anymore. To come back the idea of attention economy, it depends where you want to put your attention and what you’re willing to allow yourself to be distracted by. And the thing that I love about my life is that I get to make art. The thing I don’t like about my life is that I’m an artist. It’s funny because when I teach, it’s one of the first question that I ask my students, “Why do you want to make art?” and a lot of them reply, “I want to be an artist because…” But being an artist and making art are two entirely different things! And I’m interested in artists that want to make art.