British artist Ryan Gander does the spread of contemporary art polysemy through objects, installations, paintings, photography and video. All is brought under the rubric of “conceptual” art, for which the catalog of “These wings aren’t for flying” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, names him the new “standard-bearer.”
To emphasize his creativity, the exhibition is prefaced with a fawning BBC documentary about the artist. Every time Gander appears in the film, little animated stars circle his head in what is referred to as a “mind whirlwind.” He is portrayed constantly envisaging exciting new ideas while conjuring the magical innocence of childhood.
While the exhibition catalog calls Gander’s pieces and processes “unique,” it is worth considering that this is a “made for Japan” tweaked version of his “Make Every Show Like it’s Your Last” exhibition that toured internationally in 2013-16. Characterizing Gander’s works and ideas as “recycled,” or even “up-cycled,” given that he confers additional values, is perhaps more apt. Indeed he conceives of himself as a modern-day Womble from Wimbledon Common, making good uses of the things that he finds.
Gander’s tale about his wristwatch is illustrative. While at an exhibition opening in Tokyo, the artist admired a custom-made Bamford Rolex watch that Masamichi Katayama, a designer and art collector, was wearing. When Katayama expressed an interest in buying an artwork, Gander, who was slightly inebriated, suggested he exchange a sculpture for the watch and Katayama agreed. Gander, having never owned a watch so valuable, felt a bit guilty, though wore it as his own. After returning to the U.K., he found out that if he listed the watch as artwork on his computer database, it would be insured. So he named it “Time is money, my friend” (2011) and called it a collaboration between artist and collector. Gander then maximized value further by making a steel copy of the watch as a bracelet titled “Clack, Clack, Thud” (2013).
Childhood recollection is a frequent feature of Gander’s works, seemingly indicative of a time of greater imagination and freedom from rules. Around the gallery he positions single black fiberglass balloons, which look like helium-filled ones that have sadly floated beyond reach up to the ceilings. A bronze realistic-looking ice-cream cone also appears to have accidentally fallen to the ground, while one work resembles a baby’s toy mobile. Five hundred 7.5-cm tall Playmobil figurines are lined up on a shelf, dressed for individuality by the artist. One undisclosed figure among them contains a 24-carat-gold skeleton component, kind of like an impossible treasure hunt.
When the artist needs further ideas, he sources those of his young daughter. One day, she draped sheets over furniture to create an indoor den for pretend play. Gander reproduced its form in marble in “Is be … (xviii)” (2014).
And while Gander’s works are often about himself, his personal belongings and experiences, they also draw on the history of art and ideas. “Tight and formless thinking, or Don’t you know it’s dark outside” (2010) is a bronze sculpture of a seated ballerina following the style of those fashioned by the impressionist painter, Edgar Degas. Here the girl attempts to perform an old tactile illusion named after Aristotle: When you cross your index and middle fingers and then touch your nose with your eyes closed, it feels like you are touching two objects.
Much of Gander’s work is also deliberately gimmicky, entwined with brand commissions, advertising and pop culture nostalgia. A pair of Adidas shoes are scribbled on to look like they came straight out of the 1980s “Take on Me” music video by Aha. “Yo-yo Criticism” (2014), another Adidas sneaker commission, is a pair of pristine white runners that have been painted in brown rubber to appear permanently muddied. Flitting between the mildly comical and opaquely serious is Gander’s preferred creative gray zone.
“Ryan Gander — These wings aren’t for flying” at The National Museum, Osaka, runs until July 2; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri., Sat. until 8 p.m.). ¥900. Closed Mon. www.nmao.go.jp/en/