London and Suffolk-based artist Ryan Gander makes artworks that materialise in many different forms from sculpture to film, writing, graphic design, installation, performance and more. Here he discusses ‘welcoming’ visitors to his degree show at Manchester Metropolitan University in the late 1990s, and how ‘what you make’ is more important than which college you attended.
My strongest memory of my degree show is the smell of emulsion, which I always equated with enthusiasm. Even now when I go into someone’s flat and they’ve had it decorated, that smell is one of excitement and optimism, and an unjaded view of reality, which maybe when you get to 40 you tend to lose.
I applied to Goldsmiths, and then I applied to Chelsea and didn’t even get an interview. I felt a little bit weakened by the authority of London art schools after being turned down twice. Manchester Met was my third choice but I loved the city and it was also only 40 minutes away from my parents’ house so I could do my laundry.
I knew from the first week that the course would only give me what I put into it. I realised on the Friday there was only half as many people at the studios as there was on the Monday. This sounds like I was the work ethic kid, but I was consistently in and out with the cleaners every single day.
I didn’t do any of that student union crap, I just wanted to make art. I thought it was amazing that the studios were so empty and that people didn’t bother going in. We had so much space and facilities that I could use. For me, going out and getting pissed at the student union just wasn’t fun, but it seemed that’s what everyone else was doing.
What’s always been fun for me has been making art. If I’m making it, I’m happy. It’s like going on holiday. I’d rather spend money on that than anything else. So yes, my degree was ace, because I got to make art and not work at Allied Carpets.
For the actual show, I took over the entrance foyer. I made the word ‘welcome’ in all the languages of the world and the colours of Europe and made this weird abstract composition of fire extinguishers, sand bags and burst balloons.
The thing that it had in common with what I’m doing now is that I identified a need and a gap, and that I wanted to defy expectation. The need was that everyone was arguing about what space they were going to have for their degree show. They wanted the biggest space, and nice white walls etc etc. Instead of playing to that, I understood it and acknowledged it. The response was to resist expectation. I did the thing that would be the complete opposite, which is usually the way that creative solutions happen. I just chose the shittest space in the college, which was the entrance hall. It was right at the front by the café, before you even got into any of the degree shows. This is where I began to learn about context and the benefits of restrictions.
I also rented a Portakabin and put it out the back by the bins in the car park. I used the same typographical style, signage and colouring as the front entrance and commissioned 10 essays from writers about visibility and approachability. These were available as print outs in this kind of information bureau. My mum and dad gave me £1,000 to help out, and I paid the writers £100 each.
In terms of the response from my fellow students, I don’t think many of them really understood what I was I was doing. I find it insane that of all the areas in the world, art is the place where things that are completely mad and bonkers can happen. It’s the only place where things that you don’t understand and make you feel uncomfortable can exist. That’s what art is. Yet, most art looks like art and conforms to its own set of rules.
Most people would enter the show and walk straight past my work, not even realising it was art. Maybe because it wasn’t framed. I wasn’t trying to make a statement, and I didn’t have a pile of business cards… obviously.
The degree show didn’t feel like the end of something – more like the start of something better. I knew that as soon as I was gone I’d be making something else, I just wouldn’t be in that situation anymore. It felt like the beginning of the rest of my life.
I think a lot of young artists lose traction as soon as their course finishes and it’s because they are at university or art school just to get a degree. It’s the difference between wanting to be an artist and wanting to make art. Some people can’t do anything but make art, it’s all they are interested in. If you don’t have a reason to make art without the validation of getting a piece of paper, then you just stop.
It doesn’t really matter what you do at university or art school. The only thing that matters is what you do the day that you leave.
In terms of whether art education needs to change, I just think it is what it is. There are better models than what we have got in this country in places like Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and France. It comes down to there being fewer students and more elitism. There’s also worse models, like the United States and it’s obviously getting much worse in Britain.
You can go to art school and leave and still go on to do anything. You may not end up being an ‘artist’ but because of art school, you will intuitively think and perform differently. It’s about having the creative value in your brain opened. Art schools don’t just make artists, they make creative bankers, creative firefighters and creative criminals etc. They produce ‘difference’ and with the increasing monotonisation of the world, any difference is positive.
Some institutions in Europe are a little bit like art finishing schools that produce really eloquent visual linguists who have great common knowledge of their visual language. They have great intonation and vocab, and I don’t think art schools in Britain necessarily are doing that.
The direction of art education in this country is towards mass class prejudice. There’s a lot of talk about prejudice, inequality, gender, sexual preference etc but actually the biggest inequality in the world is money, it’s not any of those other things. Money provides the worst instability and the worst inequality.
In the art world, you can be a fantastic artist who just makes enough money to pay the rent but has a load of shows. There’s so many levels of being a good artist. Not everyone’s ambition is to be Damien Hirst.
The funny thing about art and education is that no-one can identify whether art is good or bad. I can go to a gallery and see an artwork that I really detest and hate and then be driving home and I can’t stop thinking about it. Actually, the mark of quality with an artwork isn’t whether you really like it, it’s how long it stays in your brain for. Those are the ones that are probably better artworks.
If I was to give one piece of advice to a student finishing their degree, it would be that it doesn’t matter what college you went to or course you did, or even whether you get that little bit of paper at the end. All that matters is what you make. The more you make, and the more shit you throw away, the better an artist you’ll be and the more eloquent in visual language you will be. That’s why it’s called an artist’s ‘practice’, because going to art school is practice. No-one can judge whether you are a good artist or not. Some of the best artists I know didn’t even go to art school or get a degree.
The big currency for young artists is time and space and not having a job. The paradox of being an artist is not always based around money but needing space to make art and time to make art, but needing to go to work to pay for it. And if you are at work you can’t use the space. It’s a self-defeating circle.
The objective of art school isn’t to get a degree. No-one’s ever asked me whether I got a 1st or not. The only thing that matters is how long you get to be an artist for free.
I didn’t bother going to any of my graduations. I didn’t see the point of shaking hands with someone who didn’t know any of the art I had made. Most people that did go were the people that were never in their studios making art. That’s the paradox of education. For young artists reading this that are going to make art the day after they leave art school and are not hungover because they didn’t yet feel like they had anything to celebrate the night before, getting a degree means fuck all. They are the ones that will do really well.
Ryan Gander was speaking to Jack Hutchinson.
Ryan Gander has exhibited internationally for over a decade, with recent solo exhibitions at Lisson Gallery, London, National Museum of Art, Osaka, Japan, Hyundai Gallery, Seoul, South Korea and Manchester Art Gallery.
For the Great Exhibition of the North (22 June – 28 August 2018), he is showing To Give Light (Northern Aspirational Charms), in Baltic Square, Gateshead, consisting of pared down sculptures depicting various objects, originally designed to emit or to shine light, each with a historical link to the North of England. These include one of the first functioning incandescent light bulbs, developed by Joseph Swan (b 1828, Sunderland) in the late 1800s, and the Geordie lamp, a safety lamp for use in inflammable atmospheres, invented by George Stephenson (b 1781, Wylam) in 1815.
For Liverpool Biennial 2018 (14 July – 28 October 2018) he has devised a collaborative project Time Moves Quickly, working with five children from Knotty Ash Primary School in Liverpool (Jamie Clark, Phoebe Edwards, Tianna Mehta, Maisie Williams and Joshua Yates). Ryan Gander will produce a series of artworks for a group exhibition at Bluecoat, as well as a series of five bench-like sculptures at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, and an artistic film exploring the activities carried out in the workshops.