December • 6 • 2020

Tommy O'Rourke
Exhibition Review: Ryan Gander's 
These are the markers of our time.
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Ryan Gander, Bit Part Player (Balthazar, Merchant of Venice; Act 3, Scene 4), 2019–2020, graphite, fiberglass, resin, cotton t-shirt, and joggers. © Lisson Gallery.

Last week I was standing in a room that looked like a post-apocalyptic Gap outlet, complete with broken windows, a lonely mannequin, and bleached fluorescent lighting, when a little black mouse poked its head through a hole in the wall and said, “You cannot imagine a world unspoiled by interaction. Try it.”

The animatronic mouse was Ryan Gander’s The End (2020), the final installment in his trilogy of adorable, prophesying robo-rodents voiced by the artist’s young daughters. In its fifteen-minute homily, the mouse espouses on histories past and future, the attention economy, and the soon-to-be-snowless climate of the British Isles. The nine-year-old speaker giggles through certain phrases of artspeak, stumbling over its polysyllables, while, preciously, the mouse nods and gestures like a real human. The speech is as cute as it is zeitgeisty. It also reminded me that, according to neuroscientists, the perception of something’s cuteness is often accompanied by a perverse desire to destroy it. (1)

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Ryan Gander, The End, 2020, animatronics. © Lisson Gallery.

The End is a part of Gander’s solo exhibition, These are the markers of our time (2020), in Chelsea’s Lisson Gallery. On entering the space, one is welcomed by a hyper-realistic cat napping on a podium and a six-foot mirror nestled in a cluster of Monstera plants reminiscent of a shopping mall directory. The life-sized mannequin stands in one corner, with a facial expression that suggests it has dozed off on the job, though the long gray streaks on the wall behind it are signs of a struggle. The walls are also lined with pieces from Gander’s Broken Window series (2019–2020), in which the artist haphazardly smashes a piece of glass and then gaff tapes over its cracks. The tension between fragmentation and coherence is also present in the vinyl tape spackling the floor and the deep sense of historical disruption permeating the show as a whole.

On first appearance, it seems as though we’ve entered one of the countless retail outlets the Amazon-era has rendered obsolete. Upon further examination, however, it is difficult to tell whether we are in the past, the present, or the future: the defunct shopping malls of yore; today’s ghostly commercial retail (s)hells; or a distant future in which the traces left behind by consumerism have become sentient. 

Take Staccato Refractions (2020), for instance, the six-foot mirror that displays a cycle of animated texts over a reflection of you reading them. “Who am I?” the screen asks. It continues:

This is the soft fuck… 

that you requested.

Tame human with no intention to maximise your human potential,

Downgraded human in front of an upgraded machine,

You are domesticated docile cows,

You are destined for irrelevance.

I am animal, I am human, I am machine, I am black box.

I am annotations in Derrida’s margins,

before launching into a cybernetic “Song of Myself.” Derrida dedicated his final years to decentering any stable definition of the human in his Beast and the Sovereign seminars, and although Staccato Refractions raises questions about the human in relation to the technological and the animal, I don’t think These are the markers of our time is Derridean.

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Ryan Gander, Staccato Refractions, 2020, info totem sign, glass lens, and Monstera deliciosa plants. © Lisson Gallery.

Instead, Gander uses the technological and the animal as antitheses that serve to define humanity, reinstating an ideal conception of the human that has gone rancid. At the beginning of the mouse’s oration, for example, the human is defined as the speaking animal, a conclusion that would make Descartes happy but seems woefully inadequate to mark our time. If anything, Gander reconstructs the binary that Derrida disassembles. Moreover, it seems with the mirror and the mouse, he is articulating a humanism that attempts to ignore the distinctions our contemporary predicament has rendered hypervisual: those of class and race. These are cracks in the social world that cannot simply be taped over. Toward the end of the monologue, the mouse describes “a blanket of snow [as] a sculptural membrane that covers everything indiscriminately, equalizing, leveling out, flattening hierarchy, blinding us to what we might have known; it swaddles our world in a singular abstract uniformity.” Unwittingly, it is here that humanism most resembles fascism.

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Ryan Gander, By physical or cognitive means (Broken Window Theory 13 May), 2019–2020, ink on paper, emulsion paint, aluminum frame, reinforced broken glass, black gaffe/duct tape. © Lisson Gallery.

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Ryan Gander, These memories are not my own, 2020, vending machine, stones, jesmonite, graphite, graphene. © Lisson Gallery.

 

These memories are not my own (2020), a vending machine wedged in the gallery’s corner, does raise the question of money, randomly distributing a stone once $500 has been deposited into it. This sardonic machine is more a tongue-in-cheek nod to artworld decadence than a reckoning of our neoliberal hellhole. The awestruck mouse preaches the why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along humanism of wealthy liberals rather than the emancipatory futures imagined by progressive activists who spent all summer in the streets.

 

That post-apocalyptic Gap outlet mentioned above is not an imagined one. A couple of weeks into this summer’s anti-police protests, a Gap store in my neighborhood was looted, an act Vicky Osterweil defends as “a method of direct redistribution of wealth, from the store owners and capitalists to the poor.” (2) I spent the majority of my time at the Lisson Gallery trying to square these two moments: the cute talking rat and the real (and in Gander’s exhibition, unacknowledged) economic Gap at the root of its lamentations––the climate crisis, identity politics, and the end of the world.

 

So then, following the logic of the animatronic human, what is the marker of our time?

“Time,” the mouse concludes, “that is the subject of your time. The end.” A fitting proclamation for an artist who once traded a work for a collector’s wristwatch and called it art, renaming his new Rolex: Time is money, my friend (2011). (3)

• • •

Tommy O'Rourke is a poet, critic, and teacher based in Chicago. His writing has appeared in Hobart, why nICHt?, and elsewhere. He is currently translating a book of poems by the German Expressionist Georg Heym.

Endnotes

  1. John Hamilton, “When Too Cute Is Too Much, The Brain Can Get Aggressive,” NPR, December 31, 2018, Online

  2. Vicky Osterweil, In Defense of Looting (New York: Bold Type Books, 2020), 4.

  3. Ryan Gander, “Meet the artist — Ryan Gander: ‘Living is a creative act.” Interview by Adrian Searle. The Guardian, October 16, 2012, Online