wed 25/11/2020

Ryan Gander: Locked Room Scenario, Artangel in Hoxton, N1 | reviews, news & interviews

Ryan Gander: Locked Room Scenario, Artangel in Hoxton, N1

Ryan Gander: Locked Room Scenario, Artangel in Hoxton, N1

Meaning, mystery and meta-detection in underwhelming scenario

What are the most common responses to a work of contemporary art? I can think of two: “A six-year-old could have done that” (feel free to substitute “I” or “anyone”) and “But what does it actually mean?” Ryan Gander is an artist who is rather exercised by the latter. He is interested in the way we piece together scraps of evidence – overlooked details, context, history – in order to create meaning. We try to fill in the gaps. And when meaning eludes us we are often dismissive, even rather angry. Hence the protestation: “A six-year-old could have done that.” And indeed, that may well be true.

Gander is the latest artist to be invited to create an Artangel artwork. Artangel has a reputation for working with artists to create intriguing, thought-provoking and engaging installations in unusual settings. The work is usually ambitious, the setting sprawling: a vast former Royal Mail sorting office in central London housed Kutlug Ataman’s Küba, and a vast former HQ for the Post Office Savings Bank - and current museums storage space - in west London housed Adam Phillips and Judith Clark’s Concise Dictionary of Dress, to name just two.


Locked Room Scenario invites us to a disused warehouse which is tucked in a side street between Hoxton and Angel. It invites us to play art detective, to piece together meaning from the “clues” provided. These “clues” may add meaning or may simply be red herrings. Perhaps they are all red herrings. Or perhaps it simply doesn’t matter if they are real clues or just leading us up the garden path. It is, after all, the viewer who decides. It is the viewer who makes the connections and creates meaning, isn’t it?

Artangel corridorLocked Room is an appointment to view work and when I arrive a man at the gate ticks my name off a sheet on a clipboard. But once past the gate it’s difficult to know where to begin: there are closed doors and locked doors and an unpromising staircase cluttered with rubbish. On my visit – everyone’s will be subtly different – I eventually settle on making my way past the rubbish and a sprawled teenage boy playing with his phone. There’s a book on his lap, whose title I should have noted, for it may be a “clue”. (The boy’s attitude is too eagerly nonchalant, so I’m pretty sure he’s an actor – plus his face is disconcertingly orange, which makes me suspicious). He barely moves his legs and as I awkwardly pick my way past him he warns me that there’s nothing up there to see. I tell him that I’ll have a look anyway and I try a door. It's locked.

I pick my way back downstairs and enter the building through the double doors to my far left. I walk through stark, well-lit corridors with rooms I can enter and rooms I can’t. I’m reminded of Gregor Schneider’s Artangel project a few years back, the two replica terraced houses in Whitechapel, but this has none of its menace. And there is no sense of trepidation, for the mise en scène is so low key that I wonder what I’m expected to look at.

Artangel frostGlassBehind some of the frosted panes I catch glimpses of human activity. In one room there’s a carousel of postcards, unopened letters scattered in a heap on the floor – all appear to be addressed to one person – and a timeline on the wall giving details of a few artists. This is clearly an abandoned art space. But did the documented exhibition actually take place - "actually" in this fiction, I mean - or did something bad happen to disrupt it? Why are there so many unopened letters? Who is the addressee? Have I missed something?

These are all questions I feel I ought to ask, but I admit I’m a little underwhelmed. We’ve been here so often that the “unexpected” has become the new predictable. I think of Paul Auster and of playing meta-detective, but why are we here now? I feel metafictioned out. (Don't we all?)

Out on the street I hurry along and suddenly I notice a woman rushing behind me. She appears to be deaf and tells me that I’ve dropped something. She hands me a piece of paper and I thank her warmly. It’s a neatly torn page from a book, but the text means nothing to me. Where did I drop that? I turn it over and see a name and the word "SORRY" in capitals. I fold the paper several times and put it in my pocket. I walk a little more. Wow, I think, that woman was convincing. Suddenly I feel I’m part of a John le Carré novel. I smile to myself. But it's a shame about the boy. And kind of a shame about the rest of it.  

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