It’s hard to wrap a category around Geoffrey Farmer, the internationally acclaimed artist who is the subject of a big solo show at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
His mixed-media projects are often a mashup of found images and objects, together with elements of pop culture and high art, the historical and the contemporary, the photographic and the sculptural, the factual and the fantastical. His public persona is a bit of a mashup, too: vulnerable youth crossed with successful middle-aged man.
Sitting on the patio of the Gallery Café, Farmer lets his cappuccino go cold as he talks with the Straight about past influences, present projects, and the art gallery as a structuring device. “I love libraries and museums, places that people can freely enter,” he says. “I think of them as potential spaces of engagement.”
Farmer’s conversation bounces from the experimental music of 1960s rock legend Frank Zappa and the “cut-ups” of Beat writer William S. Burroughs to the Mnemosyne Atlas of art historian Aby Warburg, the essays of philosopher Walter Benjamin, and a monoprint titled Angelus Novus by the painter Paul Klee. As for the more immediate everyday, he recalls an idiosyncratically organized prop warehouse in Burnaby (now sadly gone) and a creative realization he had while browsing in a secondhand bookstore on Pender Street.
“I was holding a book and wondering what relationship might exist between an image in a book and the hand,” he says. “So I made a cloth body and started to glue images onto it.” This led to the creation of 365 such “puppets”, featured in his installation The Surgeon and the Photographer.
The artist’s boyish features seem to belie his age (he was born in Vancouver in 1967) and his accomplishments (some 30 solo shows in Canada, Europe, and the United States, more than 80 group shows and biennials, and three major art awards to his credit). Most brief biographies of Farmer describe him as an installation artist who incorporates elements of video, sound, lighting, and text into his practice. Farmer prefers to describe himself as an “arranger”.
It’s a term he came up with in 2012 when he was assembling his big, intricate, and labour-intensive work Leaves of Grass for dOCUMENTA, the prestigious international art exhibition held in Kassel, Germany, every five years. A lengthy procession of 16,000 shadow puppets, made up of images cut out of 50 years of Life magazines and mounted on dried strands of miscanthus grass, the installation required the aid of a huge team of volunteers and studio assistants to complete.
During the project, Farmer meditated on what his job description might be. “I just thought of myself as ‘the arranger’ of the work and that was very freeing for me,” he says.
During the interview, we leave the sunny patio and walk into the dimmer reaches of the gallery, to preview the eye-boggling enterprise that will become Farmer’s show. Titled How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?, it surveys the past 15 years of his career and features some three dozen works. Many of them are sizable installations with, again, many, many components: images, text, sound, photo-sculptural pieces, and ephemera.
At this moment, a week before the exhibition is scheduled to welcome visitors, there appears to be a vast amount of “arranging” to do. If Farmer is stressed about that, however, he doesn’t reveal it.
Although his show ostensibly occupies the VAG’s second floor, it has spilled down the marble staircase into the main-floor rotunda, to an installation that theatricalizes the history of the gallery. Located as the VAG is in the former provincial courthouse, the assemblage-style figures that Farmer is staging here allude to the scandal-ridden and violent end of the original building’s architect, Francis Rattenbury, who was murdered in 1935 by his wife’s 18-year-old lover. “I like the idea of the courthouse and the art gallery and their different kinds of storytelling,” Farmer says.
Visitors approach the rotunda through a temporary pair of sculpted doors titled Sister Doors. They’re a tribute to Farmer’s real-life sister, painter Elizabeth Topham, who encouraged him to study art when he was in his unfocused early 20s, unsure of who he was or what he might do with his life.
“Growing up in the ’70s with a certain kind of subjectivity—being gay but not necessarily out at that time and not having any role models—I just didn’t know how my being fit into the world,” he says. His sister, who was studying art at Kwantlen College (now Kwantlen Polytechnic University), invited Farmer to sit in on one of her classes. “I went and I always describe it as a bell going off in my head,” he says. “It was like, ‘This is it! This is what I’m supposed to be doing!’ And I never looked back.”
After a term at Kwantlen, Farmer enrolled at what was then Emily Carr College of Art and Design, but his truly revelatory education occurred during an exchange year at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1990-91. There, he was exposed to a who’s who of conceptual and performance artists. One of his teachers was the experimental writer and “sex-positive” feminist Kathy Acker, who introduced him to a wealth of literary expression and cultural analysis, including French psychoanalytic theory. “That was a perfect fit for me because already I was wondering how my subjectivity was different,” Farmer says. The year in San Francisco was also “a big awakening to gay culture and gay history”. He came out, worked with queer theatrical productions, and participated in political protests and social actions around the HIV crisis.
“My work radically shifted,” he says. He abandoned painting and committed himself to a more concept-driven practice, one that folds elements of theatre, fantasy, history, culture, metaphysics, sexuality, and identity politics into its use of collage and assemblage techniques.
“What speaks to me about Geoffrey’s art is the magic of the transformation that he undertakes with found images and objects and archives,” says VAG chief curator Daina Augaitis. She joins us briefly, mid-interview, then speaks to the Straight later by phone. “They become installations and sculptures that ride the line between fact and fiction, between the gravitas of life and the humour of fantasy.”
Although Farmer’s early exhibitions in Vancouver appeared inauspicious—a show of sexualized and antiheroic drawings and ET figurines at the Or Gallery in 1996, a cheesy sci-fi video installation at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in 1998—they marked a break from the large-scale, meticulously composed, photo-based art of the straight men who then dominated the Vancouver art scene. By 1999, Farmer was exhibiting internationally and becoming known as one of Canada’s most interesting emerging artists. He was identified, especially, as someone whose art employed the gallery rather than the studio as a space of creative engagement.
“The work usually grows out of a place and a circumstance and a site visit and a conversation,” he says. Over the years, Farmer has landed an unexpected array of objects and installations in fine-art or museum spaces, including an airplane fuselage, an internment-camp style laundry facility, a movie truck trailer, a hanging fireplace burning chopped-up pieces of secondhand furniture, and a Halloween-style haunted house.
Augaitis observes that, presently, Farmer’s art practice demonstrates two distinct approaches. “One has to do with the cutout works and the other with more theatrical installations.” The cutout works consist mostly of multitudes of either two-dimensional shadow puppets constructed of images excised from books and magazines—as seen in Farmer’s installation The Last Two Million Years—or more three-dimensional little figures whose cloth elements are affixed with collaged images, again drawn from books and magazines, exemplified by The Surgeon and the Photographer. The theatrical installations are larger-scale sculptural works using found objects and materials in ways that frequently evoke human figures and narrative relationships.
Taking its title from a patter song on a 1968 Mothers of Invention album, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black is what Augaitis describes as “the culminating piece of the theatrical stream”. An ambitious mechanical performance work located at the end of Farmer’s show, it is structured on the life of Frank Zappa, although it does not employ his music. Its physical components—found objects assembled into a disorienting assortment of sculptures—will be animated by computer-controlled sounds, lights, and movements. The algorithms programmed into the computer mean that the performances will be different every day. They also mean, Farmer says, that the work will “pulse” between order and chaos.
The soundtrack draws inspiration from experimental music such as acousmatic sound and musique concrète, and plays over a theme-park-like crowd of sculptures. Component parts, many of them derived from old movie props and theatre sets, include ladders, loudspeakers, broomsticks, the hairy trunks of fake palm trees, the severed limbs of pseudoclassical statuary, giant fruits and vegetables, urns, wheels, wires, wigs, hats, and the head and neck of what might be the Loch Ness monster.
Kabuki theatre, Disneyland, the stage workshops of Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, the paintings of the surrealist Jean Tinguely—Farmer names these as some of the work’s influences.
“I’m hoping that when you come out of Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, it will be like when you come out of the cinema, out of the theatre,” he says as he mimes the condition. Disoriented, dazed, and thoughtfully confused.
How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth? runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery from Saturday (May 30) to September 7.