When he was a little boy, Ryan Gander used to get up at 4.30am to wave goodbye to his father as he set off to work at a car factory. Those dawn farewells triggered Gander’s desire to be an artist. “I didn’t want to go to work to the same place every day,” he observes, in vowel-hammered tones that reveal his roots in England’s north-west.
Gander’s decision has paid off. At the age of 37, his comet-like career has won him a clutch of awards and a raft of solo exhibitions all over the world, including “Intervals”, a site-specific work installed at the Guggenheim in New York over the winter of 2010-11. He showed at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and, on the day I visited, was shortly to depart to see his latest work unveiled at the prestigious quinquennial Documenta, in Germany. His new show The Fallout of Living opens this week at the Lisson Gallery, which represents titans such as Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor.
Those achievements have rewarded Gander with a studio in Hoxton, the heartland of London’s contemporary art scene. A spacious affair, peopled by three young assistants and an armoury of Apple Macs, it’s a factory for concepts rather than craft.
“It’s fine knowing how to sand a … ” – there’s a fleeting pause while Gander alights on one of the quirky images that are typical of his kaleidoscopic imagination – “ … polystyrene maquette of a bull’s head. [But] there’s always people who can do that. You don’t need to know everything about everything.”
Such pragmatism, as much as his creative gift, has fed Gander’s success. Although he uses a wheelchair, he moves around so effortlessly that it is impossible to regard it as a handicap. A slight, bearded figure, dressed in a dark hoodie, jeans and electric-blue trainers, his manner is dry, laconic, benignly mocking of himself and everyone around him. “Oh, you’re recording already,” he teases, peering at my digital gadget. “And we are 27 [pronounced “twenny-seven”] seconds into the interview. Time is money!”
The deadpan wit fails to mask the inner potency. Nothing escapes his attention; from my Murano-glass earrings – “When you put [them] on this morning, it’s a creative act” – to a squealing car alarm. “Is that my car being clamped?” he calls out to his assistants. The tongue-in-cheek banter with the latter is constant yet the command structure is never in doubt. He is the first interviewee who has ever asked me for a copy of my recording.
That bedrock of self-belief, aided by the confidence instilled by quietly less-ordinary parents, fuelled his escape from the provinces. Nevertheless, there were obstacles. Following rejection from London colleges, he studied interactive art at Manchester Metropolitan University, followed by post-graduate studies at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, renowned for nurturing thoughtful progeny such as Fiona Tan and Shahryar Nashat.
By then, he admits, he had a “huge chip on his shoulder” about his failure to make his mark on the British capital. However, his outsider experience of witnessing art through images – in magazines, catalogues, the internet – produced an artist at the vanguard of the “tremendous shattering of tradition” – the dissolution of hierarchies, the loss of aura – that the German thinker Walter Benjamin warned would be the consequence of reproduction.
Today Gander’s whimsical practice is heir to sparky visionaries such as Alighiero e Boetti, whom he reveres, Maurizio Cattelan and Damien Hirst. Yet, while he shares these artists’ custom of ricocheting between media, Gander’s fantasy knows even fewer boundaries. His vast body of work – he describes himself as “ridiculously prolific” – ranges from the “Loose Association Lectures”, a compelling textual mosaic of art history and memoir by way of myriad detours, to “The Happy Prince”, a heap of fractured marble inspired by Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale and “I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize (2012)”, which is simply a breeze currently blowing through Documenta’s most important showcase, the Fridericianum.
A wind of change? A desire to cool down the over-excited art scene? Gander explains it as “a filtering-down of lots of my concerns [about] invisibility”. Invisibility is also a leitmotif in the Lisson show, where works range from marble sculptures based on photographs of his two-year-old daughter building dens to a transparent vitrine whose cut-out squares are empty of their original objects. When I admire its quasi-suprematist elegance, Gander – raised in an era when beauty was a dirty word in the art world – explains that it “wasn’t designed to be handsome. That’s just a consequence of me wanting to make something that’s full of meaning and then empty it of all its meaning.”
Tantalising the spectator with the mystery of what those voids might contain – Gander has designed them around real objects – the work is typical of an artist often dubbed a storyteller; a raconteur who disrupts narrative so that the viewer must fill in the gaps. (His “Locked Room Scenario”, for instance, saw visitors directed via text message and email to a location with enigmatic objects and situations.)
“If I [created the narrative] with a beginning and a middle and an end, and told it in the right order and didn’t leave anything out, it wouldn’t be art, would it?” he replies, when I ask him what lies behind this obsessive dismantling. “I might as well write a book.”
Yet, as critical theorist Gayatri Spivak pointed out, within every deconstructionist lurks a positivist. Gander in person is a storyteller of the old school and his company is a delight, thanks to his habit of launching into baroque strings of images like a jazz musician riffing on a melody.
Does he find such mental fecundity exhausting? “No,” he replies, quick as a flash. “ ’Cos I can turn it off.” Seriously? He nods. “I don’t usually turn it on here, do I?” He turns to his team who murmur assent. “Because I’m doing work stuff, making decisions. It’s usually turned on when I’m in my studio in Suffolk or in my car, commuting. That’s a good place.”
Gander moved to Suffolk three years ago. As well as his wife, Rebecca, who is director of Limoncello, a highly regarded east London gallery, and their daughter Olive, he has been joined by his brother and his parents. This communal lifestyle clearly thrills him: “There’s nothing nicer than sitting around a table with your family”. He likes to cook, to grow vegetables and to make clothes for his daughter. His latest scheme is to open an art school in Saxmundham, the business plan for which he outlines with piercing clarity in two minutes flat.
Right now, however, his career demands that he heads for the airport. He’s a little worried that his wind machines at Documenta might not work. “We haven’t tested them yet,” he confesses. Oh well, I say, if they don’t you can always change the analogy. Yes, he says. And giggles.
‘Ryan Gander: The Fallout of Living’, July 11-August 25, Lisson Gallery, London.