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An abandoned industrial warehouse in the east of London is the scenario chosen by the British artist Ryan Gander to represent his latest and until now most ambitious project, commissioned by the prestigious producer, Artangel. The choice of the verb “represent” is not incidental: “Locked Room Scenario” is a hybrid, somewhere between an art exhibition, a theatrical play, a mystery novel and a paranoid mental trip.
It’s quite likely that many of those who began to read in the eighties will remember the “Choose your own adventure” collection, those children’s books where the choice of different options/pages resulted in different outcomes, offering the intrepid reader several books in one. Its motto included suggestive phrases like, “the possibilities are endless: remember that you choose the adventure, that you are the adventure”, which fits perfectly to describe this project by Ryan Gander, where the visitor has to banish the cobwebs from the limits of his imagination to be able to navigate this disturbing installation.
To visit “Locked Room Scenario” one has to sign up for an appointment, given that only eight people can be in the space at one time. The day of my visit, early in the morning, I received a text message, in which a certain Spencer A. urged me to meet him in a nearby pub, ten minutes before my appointment. Of course, I realised this afterwards because initially, having not seen the pub on the way, I put the message down to a strange mix up. The information available beforehand about the project is at best limited: one knows the address and that one has to adopt a sort of detective mentality, when studying the objects and the people present, in order to unravel the mystery.
Arriving at the door of the warehouse I see a group of people waiting to enter. Furtive glances and direct stares are exchanged unashamedly. I suspect that some of them could be actors under Gander’s orders and I believe they suspect the same of me. Suddenly, one hears screams that seem to come from some wild animals or human beings. The barrier opens and little by little, they let us go in. Having entered the building I go down an unlit passage. Everything is black and I have to slide my hand along the carpeted wall to be able to proceed. I go slowly, blindly, frightened of bumping into the other visitors who have gone in before me. All of a sudden I hear the sound of a slide projector, that materialises in a hole in the wall on my right, at floor height, projecting backwards, as if designed to be seen from a central room to which – I soon discover – there is no access. I think of the labyrinthine installations of the artist Mike Nelson and for a moment, in the darkness, I worry about not being able to find the exit.
After stumbling and bumping several times into closed doors, I arrive at what I presume to be the main entrance. I see a double door, with a poster that informs me that we are in a gallery called Kimberling, to see the group exhibition “Field of Meaning”, with a list of artists as unknown (and fictitious) as the gallery itself; amongst whom one finds Spencer Anthony, who I now recognise as the author of that morning’s text message. The entrance to the exhibition is, of course, shut.
I manage to squeeze into another dimly lit passage, where I hear lounge music that makes me think of the ghosts congregated in the hotel bar in The Shining. While I advance, increasingly frustrated, I can’t stop thinking that someone is observing us, me and all the others, live through the installed security cameras. Are we lab rats in a sociological-artistic experiment? Is Ryan Gander laughing at my lack of astuteness, at my inability to access the closed room of the title? At the end of the passage, a window with half-open blinds allows me to see the back part of the room and a few pieces of the elusive exhibition: a giant furry toy in Klein blue signed by Santo Sterne, a sort of wooden altar with a collection of images, in which photographs by Lee Miller and other works in the Modern style abound, a pair of figurative paintings on wood…Beside it, a room, also closed, in which neon lights flicker incessantly, making me think of Martin Creed and his piece “The Lights Going On and Off”.
The clues or signs come rapidly, one after another. A chronology on a wall explains details about the lives of the artists and their participation in key 20th Century movements, such as Situationism, Conceptualism and Fluxus. At the exit, two adolescents sitting on the stairs smoking cigarettes vilify another visitor, who, indignant, returns the insult. “Actors”, I think, while my eyes light upon some Klein blue fake fur thrown in a skip, just like the stuff in the work I had spotted a few moments before. Hours later, consumed by the fever of coming to terms with what I had seen, I discover that Santo Sterne is a fictitious artist created by Gander, and that he has included his phantasmagorical presence in various previous projects. On the Internet, I discover dubious references to some of the artists in the list. I even visit the website of the gallery, to find myself in front of a mirage-page, empty.
“Locked Room Scenario” is the astute culmination of many of the concerns that recur in Gander’s work. The artist, obsessed with enigmas and story telling, has here created a scenario, frustrating at times, that forces the spectator to fill in the gaps that he refuses to cover. “Locked Room Scenario” is a piece where the susceptibility of the visitor is everything, where only those who use their imagination will fully enjoy (or suffer) the experience. It is a mystery, which will be resolved or not, depending on the desire to carry on investigating having left the area. Gander, fascinated by tangential associations, has managed in this project to materialise, on a grand scale, questions that he had already raised in previous pieces, such as his performance talks titled “Loose Associations” or his exhibitions “You walk into a space, any space” (Lisson Gallery, Londres, 2010) or “It’s a right Heath Robinson affair” (Gb Agency and Kadist Art Foundation, Paris, 2009), where large quantities of referents and signs insinuate themselves upon the spectator, who is charged with unravelling, not without effort, the proposed suggestive narratives.
Many could accuse Ryan Gander of being an opaque artist, difficult to read. And elitist, given that this reading can only be carried out with sufficient knowledge of the history (histories) of art and contemporary cultural production. It is not a democratic art nor is it accessible, and doesn’t for a moment aspire to be. As Gander himself explained in a recent interview: “Spectators need to invest their time and their energy in my work, in order to receive something in exchange. It is my way of filtering and encountering people who aren’t just looking for a dinner party conversation. The true value of the work of art resides in the experience that one has of the work once one has physically left it”. “Locked Room Scenario” goes way beyond achieving this aim. Ryan Gander, opaque, irritating yet brilliant, has done it again.