A few years ago, an older man who introduced himself by the name of Ryan Gander began to strike up conversations with onlookers at an art event in New York City. He was British, mousy, bespectacled. He had an awkward air about him, projecting a sense of discomfort in his own skin. Unprovoked, he offered up his story to somewhat reluctant passersby, describing a failed career as an artist, a life in disarray, and creations he’d wanted to make but never had. At some point in the conversation he would open a worn shopping bag and pull out a selection of small brass key chains (for sale, of course). He characterized these tchotchkes—comprising a tumbling ballerina, an architectural model of a school, and a geometric shape—as representative of everything unrealized in his career. In order to make ends meet, he was offering them to anyone interested for the completely affordable price of $20. As it turns out, his name was Earnest Hawker, and he was entirely made up.

With a name to match his occupation—“hawking” his wares vociferously in public spaces—Earnest Hawker is just one persona, one story from the endlessly playful and inventive mind of (the “real”) conceptual artist Ryan Gander (British, born 1976 in Chester, England). The character of Hawker, played by a British actor, is an idea of the artist’s failed, future self, and the key chains in his hands are both prototypes for future sculptures and excuses to share stories. Gander is an inventive polymath, a creator of worlds and teller of tales, whose making takes forms as varied as a lecture series entirely based on “loose associations,” a nonlinear narrative of wildly disparate ideas and images found and collected by the artist; re-creations of children’s tent-forts sculpted in marble; the construction of complex mechanisms to generate a gentle breeze that wafts through a gallery; a conveyer belt carrying sculptures that can only be seen through one window; or detailed designs for an art school that may never be realized.

A stalwart conceptualist who is both ephemeral and concrete, Gander bubbles over with ideas, connections, and possibilities. He is a consummate storyteller whose tales are alternately confusing and comprehensible, revealing the artist to be an intentionally unreliable narrator, someone who revels in what he calls the “para-possible” and “the uncertainty of fact and fiction.” His art and his life are intertwined in a mixture of art historical idea-based critique, Disney-esque “Imagineering,” and a healthy dose of British wit and mischief, à la Roald Dahl and Monty Python.

In September 2017, The Contemporary Austin presents The day to day accumulation of hope, failure and ecstasy, three newly commissioned, site-specific outdoor sculptures by Gander. Taking the form of a ballet dancer, a model of a school, and an architectural tetrapod, these large-scale key chains are part of an ongoing series of works based on those used by Earnest Hawker, noted above. Rendered in cast bronze, the sentimental, hand-held forms have been enlarged, then suspended improbably from the trees of the museum’s sculpture park at Laguna Gloria, near the contemplative site of the historic wishing well. These oversized sculptures realize what the imaginary protagonist could not: while Hawker (who is an imagined version of Gander in the future) had failed to produce anything at this scale, in this parallel narrative these projects have finally manifested.

Gander describes his use of the key chain as a simple “vessel for communicating something of greater value, a signifier for the story.” The objects depicted and enlarged on the key chains suggest narratives, snippets of which come from the artist’s history and biography, while the viewer imparts his or her own projected meanings, sparked by the works’ incongruous scale and placement. Timelines, chronologies, and realities conflate, spinning with possibilities: How did these get here? How big would the keys be? Did the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk come by and accidentally drop these in the trees? Are the key chains larger than life, or have I suddenly become smaller? This playful interrogation of the viewer forms the nexus of Gander’s work.

The first sculpture, a bronze dancing figure subtitled The zenith of your career (The Last Degas), hangs upside down by the loop of its chain as if leaping or falling through the air, and relates to Gander’s ongoing reimagining of Edgar Degas’s iconic bronze ballerinas. Intrigued by the strange interplay between spectator and spectacle, Gander describes looking closely at one of Degas’s sculptures for the first time years ago and seeing her interacting with the art around her: “I understood that it was her who was doing the watching.” Continually in motion, mysteriously sized (much like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland), and hovering just out of reach, this dancer poses human scale and perspective as yet another question to the viewer—who is big here, and who is small?

The second work, a circular disc subtitled A bright spark in a dim world (Panopticon Art School and Museum), represents an ideal architectural model designed by the artist for a combined art school and museum. Gander has built, and attempted to build, many different kinds of art schools over the last decade, in support of his belief that “life should be an art school that you never leave.” This sculpture takes the form of a panopticon—originally an eighteenth-century model for a prison in which the residents can be continually watched from a center point—but in Gander’s revision the setting of education and art breaks down barriers between public and private realms, and turns spectator and spectacle into a positive, supportive relationship. Installed, appropriately, on the grounds of The Contemporary Austin’s Laguna Gloria museum site that also houses its Art School, it seems possible that Gander’s vision can be realized.

Perhaps the strangest, most immediately unrecognizable key chain of the three is the geometric, stepped shape, subtitled An institutional maze (Steptrapode), which is based on a heavy concrete erosion defense structure called a tetrapod or a dolos. Evoking a giant’s game of jacks, these shapes are commonly scattered along coasts in Wales near where the artist grew up. The multi-footed, hammer-head form absorbs the physical shock of the ocean’s waves, preventing long-term coastal decay. A “Steptrapode” is Gander’s tongue-in-cheek name for this “stepped” object. It is probably not accidental that tetrapod also refers to any four-footed, vertebrate animal, or that Dolos is the Greek god of deception and trickery. With Gander, when one question seems answered, another is posed.