Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) (41 Robertson Quay, Singapore), March 7–April 11, 2015
A speech during a show’s opening night may preface an exhibition—but usually only in that perfunctory, administrative sense. With Ryan Gander’s “Portrait of a Blind Artist Obscured by Flowers”, though, something else may be at work. Gander drily recites a maudlin tale of an inspiring young child he had met on the beach during his student days—that gentle uplift you might read in Upworthy and Humans of New York. As the story concludes, Gander’s halting cadence evaporates as he confessed that a ghost-writer crafted these bizarrely banal heart-warmers which he uses instead of speeches, and bids those assembled to enjoy the show.
Perhaps no more than a passing joke on the curious rituals of the art world, though one still suspects a deliberate diversion. Is this deviation from the norm an invitation to heightened critical awareness, or a warning against investing too much into the surfaces of Gander’s works?
As a whole, the works evoke an aggressive, exhaustive referentiality—a state of mind diametrically opposed to lofty contemplation. Instead, they lean towards the merciless algorithmic efficacy of a search engine, scanning the terrain of the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), its residency and related notions, aggregating all available material and fusing a number of unlikely correspondences and connections.
For the most literal execution of this presumed approach, one can point to either the Seriously Retinal / Serious Poke (2014) series—in which French curve rulers are repurposed as graphic elements in a harmoniously effervescent series of prints—and the series Crooked finance… Gradient economy… Every colour left… (2014). In the latter, inks and pigments are mapped in color swatches of serial intensity and laid out with rectilinear industrial formality, alongside a number of penciled-in annotations of initials and date ranges. The inks and pigments happen to be leftovers from previous resident artists, and the annotations hint at the histories of these materials, a detailed genealogy of a wholly fungible substance—in the manner of the interminable “begets” in the Old Testament—at once an instance and a negation of the sacralizing properties of artistic provenance.
Taking a similar tack is “Nothing without meaning” (2014), which seems at first to be an incongruously tatty pair of white pedestals supporting nothing, which are stained and scuffed like so many others hidden away in the back rooms of galleries. A second glance reveals the artifice—the stains and scuffs are printed onto the pedestals, perhaps to reproduce the patterns of wear on two specific pedestals in STPI’s store. Or they might be stand-ins for a general class of object, rather than faithful representations of something specific. In any case, the title might comment on little-noticed art-world infrastructure that silently inhabits the background, as the framework which lends support to the meanings and ideas that an artist might want to convey. Then again, the artifice seems a shade too clear—brittle, even, flaunting the very transparency of its glossy artificiality. Perhaps if we look at the title in a different light, it’s literally nothing, without meaning—a trap for those overly drawn to hidden truths and deeper meanings.
This storm of referentiality, though, gives pride of place to references—explicit and oblique—to works by other artists, with the eponymous “Portrait of a blind artist obscured by flowers” referring to Gerhard Richter, while “Hokusai’s blues” (2014), naturally, comes to us from the ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai. Given the overall allusive indeterminacy and rather mordant humor, it is hard not to wonder if the density of these references plays some part in some larger scheme, with the self-gratifying balm of recognizing Gander’s references serving as misdirection. Other titles in this body of work are less direct, with some from excerpts of conversations about those very works, as with “I feel like she’s throwing all these signs at me” (2014). Drive-by titles, if you will, forming—in concert with the rest of the show—something in between the perfect encouragement for finding significance in vague stimuli (pareidolia), and unstable conceptual terrain wholly unforgiving to lazy spectators.