N° 73 The death of Abbe Faria
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23 March - 25 May 2003
Hope all is well in Amsterdam. Thanks once again for the invitation to write about Ryan Gander's work for his forthcoming show at the Bureau. Before I begin I think it is probably worth pointing out that I have never actually seen any of Ryan's work in the flesh. This could, of course, be seen as a potential problem - after all, most writing about an artist's work, and the authority it aspires to, tends to come about through a degree of first-hand familiarity with either the artist or their work. (Ideally both). I'm still not really sure how to approach this dilemma, so I will begin anecdotally. The first thing I ever noticed about Ryan was that he uses a wheelchair. I mention this not in passing, nor as a gratuitous aside. Whilst I accept that some people might argue that this information is irrelevant, I would like to think that the fact that Ryan uses a wheelchair does - at least - have some bearing on my subsequent understanding of his work. Let me try to explain. When I first met Ryan - in a very crowded South London pub - I distinctly remember that in order for me to be able to talk to him properly I had to bend my knees and adopt a kind of crouching position. From this new perspective I became much more aware of my immediate surroundings: for example, people's crotches and backsides were now at my eye-level, literally 'in-your-face'. I felt slightly compromised by these new vistas - consequently I became very self-conscious about where I was looking and what I was looking at. In this slightly awkward and uncomfortable position I was obliged to re-consider my relationship with my own circumstances, with things I might otherwise take for granted. (A scenario that I believe Ryan actively encourages in the viewing of his work). I experienced a mild sense of both physical (and social) estrangement - a temporary interruption to the norm. It only occurred to me later that this slightly uncanny sensation - whereby the mundane things that surround us become somewhat unfamiliar - might also have something to do with Ryan's work.
I think it is fair to say that I have spent no more than one hour - in total - talking to Ryan. I appreciate that that is not really a great deal of time. Certainly not long enough for me to have any real understanding of what makes Ryan tick. To make up for my inadequate knowledge about both him and his work, I asked Ryan if he could send me some information. Ryan sent me a package that included a book about his work called "In a language you don't understand". At first I found the title a little off-putting - it could be interpreted as being a little pompous - but the more I thought about it the more I came round to the idea that maybe Ryan was trying to say something about both our understanding and experience of art. Art could be thought of as a 'foreign' language - even when it uses or employs vernacular forms. We are taught art, much as we are taught German, French or Spanish at school. There would appear to be some basic governing rules and principles. Art - like language - has its own nuance, structure, accent and syntax that can, at times, be perplexing. It requires translating. Which of course necessitates an ability - or willingness - on the part of the viewer to 'read' the work. Whilst I was reading Ryan's book and looking at the documentation of his earlier projects it became clear to me that Ryan seems most interested in art's discursive potential - in its potential to encourage or stimulate dialogue. His art would appear to be largely a way of pointing things out. (I think this was how John Baldessari once defined art). Ryan often creates 'situations': temporary sculptural, or social events that play with and amplify the context of their circumstances. Oftentimes Ryan will simply exaggerate the things that he finds around him, making them appear simultaneously both familiar and unfamiliar: that is, uncanny. In a text Ryan sent me entitled "The Approachability of the Object" he wrote the following: "In working with vernacular aesthetics there exists a possibility to play with the line between the staged and the un-staged; the action or event, inducing an audience into a position of uncertainty". Aside from confirming his interest in the uncanny - the desire to induce a sense of uncertainty in the viewer - the text also seems to suggest that Ryan's mimetic objects, situations and tableaux might themselves be thought of as uncertain. The mimetic, by its very nature, does not literally describe what it claims to represent. Rather it mimics, apes or lampoons its sources. Humour underpins Ryan's work - and, indeed Ryan himself - rescuing it from merely being designated as an off-shoot of 'institutional critique': a territory his work certainly engages with. The humour in Ryan's work is often 'dead-pan': a knowing, and sometimes self-depricating form beloved of the British. (As such Ryan's work shares something both aesthetically and emotionally with the recent British television situational-comedy The Office: a faux-documentary that charts the mundane - yet gently disturbing - goings-on in a generic suburban workplace). Sometimes it's hard to tell how serious Ryan is. This can only be a good thing.
I'm not sure what Ryan will be showing at the Bureau. I could have asked, but given that I have never seen any of his work, I could only have reinterpreted his words, taking his descriptions at face value. From what little I do know about his work, and from what little I am able to surmise I can only imagine that Ryan's show will amplify his ongoing (free) associative method. Establishing a situation in which the subtle (and complex) relations between the institution, its audience and the work will be drawn-out and resonate. I don't anticipate that I will get to see the show, so I will be probably be none the wiser. I hope one day to see Ryan's work. Should that happen maybe I will have something more interesting to say about it. In the meantime I hope that the show goes well. Please give my regards to Ryan, and no doubt see you soon.
23 February, 2003: Oakland, California, USA.
If we intend to visit the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam this spring to see arresting images, we will be disappointed. ‘The Death of Abbé Faria’, as Ryan Gander’s exhibition is called, perhaps suggests a great drama, but fiction is the key idea in this presentation. And at the most, the images occur in the viewer’s head.
Who is Abbé Faria, really? We know him a bit from the advertisements that Gander had placed in the newspapers. They tell us that he has a connection with a certain Spencer Anthony, someone named ‘Vivi’, and a book that is finished. On various occasions Gander has exhibited or published several pages that could possibly be from that book. There the missing Marie Aurore is presented in relation to an Abbé. Literati will perhaps recognise in Abbé Faria one of the main characters from Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo.
However, Gander permits the curious visitor to his presentation no further information about the mysterious Faria. In the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam he has built an enclosed space that reminds one most of an office that has been emptied out. The view into this office is almost entirely blocked by cladding in front of the windows, and furthermore the largest part of it is veiled in darkness. Through a slightly opened blind we see still two more rooms in the distance that are indeed brightly lit, but these rooms also give little away. In the one we vaguely see, through a half-opened door, part of a minimally decorative tiled wall. Through small vertical windows in a fire escape door a minimal view through to a space where fir trees have been placed.
The space with the tiles is in fact a somewhat older work by Gander, ‘Spencer, forget about good’, from 2001. The other, with the trees, is a reprise of the exhibition ‘Mary Aurory Sorry’ that Gander realised last year in Manchester at the International 3 Gallery. Thus ‘The Death of Abbé Faria’ can be considered as a retrospective, albeit of an artist who has only just begun his career. (Gander, born in Chester, England, in 1976, recently rounded off his work period at the Rijksakademie.)
All in all, we know little more about Abbé Faria than that he is dead, and that Gander has stripped him of the last remnant of his identity by devoting such a completely anonymous space to him. In this sense he cannot be denied a certain subtle sense for design, though. It is the same ingenuity with which Gander produced earlier work that functioned not in exhibition spaces, but in the open, such as the earlier Banner for Europe: a banner that was hung on scaffolding at the swimming pool for the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 1999. Through the powerful yellow lettering on blue the word ‘optimism’ on this banner must have been very striking, and have put many on the wrong track. Does it report a fact, or is it an admonition? And if so then to who? Gander also makes objects that border on design, presented in surroundings that are innocent of art, like an automobile showroom.
That fits with a tried and true strategy followed by many artists in the 1990s when they, just as thirty years before, massively sought alternatives for the familiar exhibition spaces like galleries and museums. The gallery was often too commercial and made art into a commodity. Museums did not always pass the test either. That was demonstrated nicely by Hans Haacke in Rotterdam in 1996. There Haacke subjected the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum to a critical investigation, by bringing to the surface the almost repressive, capitalistic features from the history of this museal institution in his presentation of artifacts from its collection. The ‘white cube’, the neutral white space where the artworks automatically represented the good, the true and the beautiful, appeared to be a fiction. But because it is now clear that a not so entirely neutral exhibition gallery is still always far preferable over very coercive outside locations like houses, churches, bunkers, ruins and so forth, the movement toward 'exhibitions on location' is receding a bit again.
Gander seized the chance to show at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, creating a sort of metafiction there. He did this by making use of what in the film world is known as a ‘MacGuffin’. A MacGuffin is an object or person that fulfils a central role in the story but never comes into the picture itself (like the figure of Keyser Söze - even the name is never really clear - in The Usual Suspects, for instance, with Kevin Spacey). But in Gander’s exhibition even the narrative is missing: the drama of the elusive Abbé Faria is a part of the same shadowy dramas of the other, likewise elusive fellow actors.
What gives rise to these characters is, on contrary, sometimes disarmingly realistic, bordering on the banal. Marie Aurore, for instance, got a role in Gander’s work after he had seen the mysterious graffiti text ‘Mary Aurory Sorry’ on a wall along an Antwerp street. It is a phrase that evokes a story of betrayal and guilt. Spencer Anthony is such a perfectly British name that it is not surprising that it should surface in the ironically titled novel Mostly English; not too English. In newspaper advertisements Gander presents this character as a missing person, but he might also use an old photograph of his father, smoking a cigarette, as Spencer Anthony’s portrait.
Gander’s realistic and at the same time fictional characters show similarities with a certain John who was the only subject of Re-Magazine, which appeared last year.
It appeared to be a change of course in the concept of this experimental journal with an international reputation. ‘Beginning with this issue, every Re-Magazine will henceforth be devoted to the life of one person,’ the editorial commentary reads. For those who then want to know who John is, the magazine offers as little encouragement as Gander’s exhibition: ‘John is just a four letter word...’ It is true that John exhaustively tells us all sorts of details about his life and he surfaces in the dry photo reportages that come across as documentaries. However, the net effect of the texts and photos is to conceal rather than reveal. The farther the reader/viewer goes, the more elusive ‘John’ becomes. To an ever-increasing degree he appears to be the vehicle for a complex construction in which fiction and reality go hand in hand - a construction conceived and made by editor/designer Jop van Bennekom.
Working with such pseudo-identities is perhaps to be seen as a reaction to the quirk in the media, and in current exhibition practice, by which every realistic photographic portrait is elevated almost uncritically into an icon for a group or society, and to art. The uncompromising experiments by Gander and Van Bennekom go against this. Van Bennekom still allows portrait photography in his magazine, albeit in black and white and with the least possible iconic aura, Gander goes a step further, because such images are entirely absent from ‘The Death of Abbé Faria’ at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam. The exhibition is comprised exclusively of architectural design, and a minimal amount of text and typography, but nevertheless has a maximum of story. Such a presentation can confidently be seen as a radical stand against the omnipresence of a visual culture that is increasingly devoid of any meaningful context - in the media, but also in museums. It is precisely in the museums where we see how easily and uncritically the same sort of photographs as in the media, are hanging at aesthetically suitable distance from one another, as if there has never been any discussion about the ‘white cube’ exhibition model so reviled by many artists. It makes one wonder in despair if the museum isn’t indeed in a state of ‘crisis’.
It is certain that Gander’s work outside the exhibition space will go on. His projects extend from advertisements in newspapers, to a novel on which he is shortly going to be working (with 14 colleagues), from a lecture entitled Loose Associations which he recently gave at the Rijksakademie on the basis of a picture archive, to his newly published book, and perhaps even to the neo-punk rock of the art band from Manchester ‘Die Kunst’, of which he is the manager. It is a project that today’s white cube doesn’t know what to do with, unless it opens itself up for awkward ideas that are not easy to nail up on white walls.