The Story Behind Ryan Gander's Night in the Museum

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Art belongs to everyone, not just the experts, at the new ‘Night in The Museum’ exhibition from the Arts Council Collection and Birmingham Museums Trust.

Have you ever looked at a sculpture and felt, just for a moment, that it was looking back? This fanciful notion is the inspiration behind Night In The Museum, a touring exhibition that began in Leeds and is now on show at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s Gas Hall until February 2017.

Curated by contemporary artist Ryan Gander, Night In The Museum imagines what it might look like if the pieces in a gallery came to life after hours. Ryan has taken sculptures and paired them with other works of art, creating the illusion that they have stepped down from their plinths and are having a look around the gallery, just like any other visitor.

“Usually when you go to a show, you have the spectacle and the spectator,” says Ryan. “So now you’re a spectator, looking at another spectator, looking at art.”

Think of it as like Gogglebox, but for modern art. Even with the more abstract sculptures, which don’t necessarily have faces, you find yourself projecting emotions or ideas onto them. They feel like your fellow guests in the gallery. “It’s funny,” says Ryan, “when we did the show in Yorkshire, people didn’t want to get in between the pairs, almost as if they didn’t want to block the sculpture’s view. It’s like there’s an invisible force field there.”

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The whole exhibition is incredibly playful. This light-hearted, simplistic concept immediately makes the works themselves feel more accessible, even to someone who has never visited a gallery before. “It’s a really British thing; the stigma attached to people feeling dumb when they go to a museum,” says Ryan. “A five year old kid will tell you what they like. It’s only the grown-ups who are scared.”

Things couldn’t be more different on the continent, where people are extremely vocal about their opinions, regardless of whether or not they’ve had training. “You don’t need to study art to buzz off it,” says Ryan. “People go to the cinema excited — they should come to museums excited too.”

When Ryan was asked by the Arts Council Collection to curate a new exhibition, he thought he’d get it all done on a Friday afternoon, but it turned out to be a much bigger undertaking than he expected. Selecting pieces for the show from an archive of nearly 8,000 works acquired over 70 years was, as he puts it, “a bit like Supermarket Sweep.” But the Herculean nature of the task actually helped to shape the theme of Night In The Museum.

“I wanted a formula for selection, to narrow it down, because the collections are so vast it would take me a year to look through them,” he says. “But also I wanted a strategy that wasn’t elitist; anyone can come in and understand, whether they have any knowledge of art history or not. They can come in and immediately say ‘I get it’.”

The exhibition itself is like a living thing; constantly changing, as each of the touring show’s four venues creates different atmospheres, and paired pieces are switched around. Ryan has worked in Birmingham before, having taught in the city and exhibited at the Ikon Gallery. He notes that the city is vastly different from Leeds, where the tour began, and Birmingham Museum will surely have an influence on the stories that visitors tell themselves about the pieces in the exhibit.

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Night In The Museum brings together works from the Arts Council Collection and the Birmingham Museums Trust for the first time, with Ryan playing matchmaker. “I’m getting away with blue murder here,” he says. “If I were a curator, I’m not sure I could take these liberties.” As a creator himself, however, Ryan has the trust of the artists whose works are being exhibited. “Essentially I’m creating a new artwork out of two existing artworks, because I’ve forced this relationship between them that creates new meaning.”

He’s the first to admit that the British still subscribe to all kinds of clichés when it comes to contemporary art, but to Ryan, the value of organisations in the UK like the Arts Council Collection and Birmingham Museums Trust can’t be overstated. “You go to other countries and there are no collections, just rich people who like to buy art,” he says. “There are not many places in the world where you can go into a museum and get to see all this stuff. We’re incredibly lucky in Britain. Essentially, all of this belongs to the people. Anyone who comes into the museum, it’s theirs.”

If people walk away from Night In The Museum having learned just one thing, it should be that there is absolutely no reason for anybody to feel inferior or unqualified to have a relationship with art. “Creativity is an innate instinct, it’s part of being human,” says Ryan. “The way that people arrange ornaments above their fireplace, or choosing what to wear; that’s making and curating art. These are all creative choices. It’s in everyone, and so everyone should be allowed to come to a gallery, and not feel intimidated.”

‘Night In The Museum’ is exhibiting in the Gas Hall at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until 12th February 2017.

Words: Philip Ellis