Break­ing Through

Artist Ge­of­frey Farmer’s cre­ative process in­cludes chip­ping away at the ex­hi­bi­tion space it­self

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Caoimhe Mor­gan-feir

Last april, two weeks be­fore the open­ing of this year’s Venice Bi­en­nale, the Na­tional Gallery of Canada (NGC) an­nounced a $3 mil­lion restora­tion of the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing, sixty-year-old Canada Pav­il­ion. Vis­i­tors ar­rived at the event, which could be con­sid­ered the Olympics of art, to find a build­ing dis­as­sem­bled. There was no longer much of a fa­cade. Por­tions of the roof had been lifted off. A ter­razzo floor was cov­ered by a layer of masegni stones. Through­out the open­ing week, some vis­i­tors could be for­given for want­ing to com­mis­er­ate with the ex­hibit­ing artist, Ge­of­frey Farmer, on the seem­ingly dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances while also con­grat­u­lat­ing him on his achieve­ment. But this was pre­cisely the build­ing that Farmer had wanted — and helped cre­ate.

Farmer, fifty, is Canada’s fore­most in­stal­la­tion artist. In the past decade, he has filled a room at the Lou­vre with in­tri­cate fig­ures cut out from an art-his­tory text­book, turned odds and ends into an­i­ma­tronic sculp­tures, and col­laged bits of fab­ric and found im­ages into the most un­set­tling hand pup­pets you’ve ever seen. He re­shapes gal­leries to suit his ends, build­ing huge plinths and trans­form­ing rooms into new worlds for his projects. In an­other life, his ob­ses­sive­ness and ex­per­i­men­tal­ism might have made him a con­vinc­ing mad sci­en­tist, but art seems to have been his destiny in this one. In the early 1990s, Farmer found him­self in San Fran­cisco sur­rounded by coun­ter­cul­tural icons such as Kathy Acker and John Cage. Now based in Van­cou­ver for al­most three decades, Farmer has built an in­ter­na­tional fol­low­ing. “Ge­of­frey brings to­gether var­i­ous el­e­ments that can seem quite dis­con­nected, but he finds paths be­tween things and forges a kind of poetic struc­ture out of dis­parate sources,” says Eng­land-based Han­nah Rickards, her­self an award-win­ning artist. Farmer doesn’t re­ally make paint­ings or draw­ings or sculp­tures in them­selves, al­though they of­ten ap­pear in his projects. What Farmer makes, more than any­thing, is sense: sense out of oth­er­wise mean­ing­less ob­jects, sense out of a tan­gle of in­for­ma­tion.

When the NGC’S di­rec­tor and CEO Marc Mayer phoned Farmer in late 2015 to ask if he would carry the man­tle for Canada at the 2017 event, Farmer im­me­di­ately agreed. Twenty-nine coun­tries have per­ma­nent build­ings in Venice’s Giar­dini Pub­blici, a park cre­ated by Napoleon, and

ev­ery two years, each of them puts on an ex­hi­bi­tion, trot­ting out their na­tional best. Canada has ex­pe­ri­enced a rel­a­tively tough go in the fair over the years, in large part be­cause of our mid- cen­tury, nau­tilusshaped build­ing — widely con­sid­ered to be an un­wieldy place to present work — and a lack of pub­lic fund­ing com­pared to other na­tions. But in 2017, Canada had Farmer. And Farmer had some­thing to work with.

A year ago, Farmer’s older sis­ter, the Van­cou­ver artist El­iz­a­beth Topham, emailed him two pho­to­graphs. The pic­tures, which their fa­ther had found while sort­ing through their grand­mother’s ef­fects, are strik­ing: black-and-white shots of an empty GMC flatbed truck rammed into a ditch by a train. Lum­ber planks flung off the truck are scat­tered around the scene, and a rail­way-cross­ing sign, knocked aside dur­ing the col­li­sion, leans over the driver’s side of the dented ve­hi­cle. Their grand­fa­ther had been driv­ing the truck. It’s be­lieved that his chest hit the steer­ing wheel, and while he man­aged to walk away from the scene of the ac­ci­dent, a few months later, he died of a heart at­tack. This May, these im­ages, sixty-odd years old, took on an­other life as the cat­a­lyst for Farmer’s art­work in the world’s old­est and stateliest ex­hi­bi­tion.

Farmer’s fam­ily had never dis­cussed his grand­fa­ther’s ac­ci­dent, but its ef­fects were deeply felt in other ways. Farmer and his fa­ther had “a dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship,” Farmer tells me. (Since his early twen­ties, Farmer has used his mother’s maiden name.) But find­ing the pho­to­graphs made the dif­fi­culty of his fa­ther’s life pal­pa­ble. “Un­der­stand­ing my fa­ther and what he went through as a child, grow­ing up in poverty, in a work­ing-class en­vi­ron­ment, los­ing his fa­ther. It broke me open emo­tion­ally,” he ex­plains. “I have so much more em­pa­thy for what he went through.” It is a vul­ner­a­ble ad­mis­sion from the of­ten- elu­sive artist. Farmer speaks com­fort­ably and thought­fully with the press, yet he of­ten shies away from self-rev­e­la­tion. In Venice, though, the artist men­tioned this as­pect of his fam­ily his­tory at ex­hi­bi­tion open­ings and din­ners. Farmer, who has made a ca­reer of or­ga­niz­ing the out­side world, is now try­ing to make sense of his own.

Seventy-one brass “planks,” the only lit­eral con­nec­tion to Farmer’s source ma­te­rial, lean against the pav­il­ion’s walls and sit stacked on the ground and atop other sculp­tures. Most of the planks spurt streams of wa­ter without warn­ing, as if the pav­il­ion were alive but in­jured. The build­ing, as a whole, seems to have sprung a leak. A tiled foun­tain near the pav­il­ion’s cen­tre in­ter­mit­tently sprays a thirty-foot geyser of wa­ter, which glitters in the sun­light and sends li­nen-clad art pa­trons jump­ing out of reach through­out pre­view week.

The sculp­ture’s basin is mod­elled on the court­yard foun­tain at the San Fran­cisco Art In­sti­tute, a for­ma­tive lo­ca­tion for Farmer, who stud­ied there for a year in 1990. Other sculp­tures in the work, called A Way Out of the Mir­ror (the ti­tle a nod to Allen Gins­berg, a favourite poet of Farmer’s), loosely ref­er­ence col­li­sions in his­tory — Farmer’s per­sonal his­tory in most in­stances, but also the colo­nial his­tory of Canada and of the Venice pav­il­ion site it­self. A small bronze cast­ing of a hole that Farmer dug into the pav­il­ion’s foun­da­tion squirts wa­ter out front; a lit­tle bronze tur­tle car­ries a book and a bur­bling can of wa­ter on its back be­hind the cen­tral foun­tain; a rough, over­sized pray­ing man­tis (pur­port­edly a self-por­trait of Farmer dur­ing his awk­ward ado­les­cence) sits perched, pos­ing with two books, on a log in a cor­ner. An in­dex could be made of all the small ref­er­ences that Farmer has se­creted within each piece, but one al­lu­sion to fam­ily reg­is­ters plainly: next to the court­yard foun­tain, axes and a chisel punc­ture an enor­mous, wa­ter-spew­ing grand­fa­ther clock.

“Grow­ing up gay, and feel­ing like I ex­isted out­side of so­ci­ety, I al­ways had a de­sire to be part of so­ci­ety,” Farmer says. “In the be­gin­ning, my in­ter­est in art was to some­how be­come part of the world.” One way to do that: take con­trol of the im­ages that de­pict it. For the 2012 edi­tion of the ma­jor Ger­man ex­hi­bi­tion Doc­u­menta (13), Farmer em­barked on an epic in­stal­la­tion ti­tled Leaves of Grass. Work­ing with a team that at one point in­cluded some ninety

vol­un­teers, he cut out more than 23,000 im­ages from an ar­chive of fifty years’ worth of Life mag­a­zines, glued each one care­fully to a piece of mis­cant­hus grass, and stood them upon a long, nar­row ta­ble, cre­at­ing a stag­ger­ing over­view of the world in pic­tures. “Af­ter the Doc­u­menta (13) project, I re­ally felt that I had en­tered into the world some­how,” he says. It was time to find new ground. “I be­gan to think about my own his­tory. I just felt that it was time to be more in­tro­spec­tive.”

But Farmer was also rep­re­sent­ing Canada dur­ing the sesqui­cen­ten­nial, and found him­self grap­pling with the coun­try’s colo­nial past. “This project has made me un­der­stand that I am com­plicit in his­tory, and com­plicit in the events of the world, whether I’m touched by them di­rectly or not,” he says. So, in early Fe­bru­ary, Farmer flew up to Nu­navut. He had read re­ports from 2015 about the ar­son at Peter Pit­se­o­lak High School in Cape Dorset, a ham­let that also houses a world-renowned co-op­er­a­tive that pro­duces Inuit prints and draw­ings. Dur­ing his four-day visit, he spoke with lo­cal artists and com­mu­nity mem­bers and even­tu­ally made a re­quest: that they al­low el­e­ments of the school’s wreck­age to be in­cluded in his fi­nal piece for A Way Out of the Mir­ror. With their per­mis­sion, Farmer ven­tured to the dump with James Alar­iaq, the deputy mayor, and used a di­a­mond-tipped saw on the school’s re­mains. He packed the warped re­bar pieces into aduf­fel bag, dragged them back to Ot­tawa, and shipped them off to Switzer­land and then to Venice, where they were nes­tled into a trough at the pav­il­ion’s rear.

The col­li­sions — cul­tural, fa­mil­ial, and his­tor­i­cal — evoked in A Way Out of the Mir­ror have lit­tle in com­mon, save for Farmer him­self. “It’s my cre­ation myth of how I be­came an artist,” he says. Born in 1967 in Van­cou­ver, Farmer found him­self aim­less in his early twen­ties, un­til his sis­ter brought him to an art class at a lo­cal com­mu­nity col­lege. Some­thing clicked. At the urg­ing of the col­lege’s teach­ers, he ap­plied to the Emily Carr In­sti­tute of Art and De­sign (now Emily Carr Univer­sity). Dur­ing his time there, he formed a last­ing friend­ship with fel­low stu­dent Brian Jun­gen, who has him­self earned plau­dits for his bound­ary-push­ing sculp­ture. To­gether, they de­voured hours of film (a con­tin­ued pas­sion — Farmer’s per­sonal In­sta­gram feed is a cu­rio col­lec­tion of rare and old movie clips), learned from such in­struc­tors as the famed photo artist Ian Wal­lace, and be­gan build­ing art be­yond the large, beau­ti­ful pho­to­graphs Van­cou­ver artists had be­come known for in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Farmer be­gan ex­hibit­ing shortly out of school and, al­most im­me­di­ately, started tak­ing gal­leries apart. He pierced the walls of Van­cou­ver’s Or Gallery in 1996 and strung lights through the holes to give the space a ce­les­tial ef­fect. A black steel fire­place sus­pended in a 2005 ex­hi­bi­tion at the Power Plant in Toronto fed a flue up through a cored-out por­tion of the ce­ment ceil­ing. Walls that had never been touched at the Van­cou­ver Art Gallery were taken out for his 2015 ret­ro­spec­tive. “He’s some­body who has spa­tial am­bi­tion,” says Kitty Scott, a cu­ra­tor at the Art Gallery of On­tario, who over­saw the Venice piece and has worked with Farmer for twenty years. “He was al­ways mov­ing into places where maybe he shouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily be.” At the VAG, Farmer also avoided the cus­tom­ary ex­hi­bi­tion tour: do­cents brought vis­i­tors down into the cat­a­combs of the build­ing — a for­mer court­house — to ex­plore the ar­chives, a fre­quent source of in­spi­ra­tion for the artist. “It’s al­ways a new way of do­ing things with Ge­of­frey, so noth­ing is stan­dard,” Daina Au­gaitis, chief cu­ra­tor at the VAG, tells me.

The NGC’S team ini­tially sug­gested to Farmer that they could start pre­par­ing for the planned re­fur­bish­ment of the Venice pav­il­ion by de­con­struct­ing a few por­tions of it dur­ing his project. Maybe they could take away a lit­tle glass, they thought, or re­move some of the in­te­rior. Farmer wanted to go fur­ther: he wouldn’t just make sculp­ture — he would make the pav­il­ion dis­ap­pear. “He ac­tu­ally pushed us on it,” says Gor­don Filewych, the ar­chi­tect

“He’s some­body who has spa­tial am­bi­tion. He was al­ways mov­ing into places where maybe he shouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily be.”

lead­ing the re­fur­bish­ment. “We told him what we thought was pos­si­ble, and he said, ‘Well, can we take most of the roof off? Can we take the fa­cade off?’” In a hand­ful of months, while at the same time try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate dra­co­nian Vene­tian her­itage reg­u­la­tions, Farmer and the NGC’S team equipped the pav­il­ion — a space without so much as a toi­let — with an in­vis­i­ble wa­ter reser­voir, a pump room, and a com­plex wa­ter-con­trol sys­tem. While plans for the site were be­ing de­vel­oped, Farmer headed to the Kun­st­giesserei, a famed foundry in St. Gallen, Switzer­land. Nine months went into per­fect­ing each of the in­stal­la­tion’s sculp­tures. When the holes drilled into the brass wooden planks were first tested, the wa­ter pres­sure was too low, re­sult­ing in a clean stream — un­ac­cept­able. The holes were re­shaped, welded in a jagged, or­ganic fash­ion, so the streams of wa­ter trav­elled along in var­ied paths. Noth­ing was stan­dard, and noth­ing was over­looked. “I think it’s the best Cana­dian Pav­il­ion ever,” Ber­lin-based Cana­dian artist AA Bron­son told me af­ter see­ing Farmer’s work. It was cer­tainly the best at­tended — a record 41,770 peo­ple vis­ited the site in May.

Un­der one of the trees in A Way Out of the Mir­ror, an alu­minum sculp­ture of a crum­pled du­vet lies heaped on the ground. There are no clues about its mean­ing, with the ex­cep­tion of one sen­tence in Farmer’s poetic, el­lip­ti­cal ex­hi­bi­tion text: “Adu­vet freshly slept in by Karl af­ter an LS D trip in the rock for­ma­tions of the Maggi River, I had to drive us to the air­port the next day.” The text feels like an in­ti­mate ad­mis­sion, un­til you re­al­ize that none of the par­tic­u­lars have been given away. Who is Karl? When did they do LS D? Why does the du­vet mat­ter? It sums up the or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple of the piece, which lay­ers au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails that feel re­veal­ing, but keeps the fully fleshed-out sto­ries just be­yond reach. Farmer may have en­tered the world at large, but his own world, for the time be­ing, re­mains just out of view.

At Farmer’s in­stal­la­tion for the Venice Bi­en­nale, which closes on Novem­ber 26, a grand­fa­ther clock leaks and brass “planks” spout wa­ter.

Farmer’s in­stal­la­tion for the Doc­u­menta (13) ex­hi­bi­tion in 2012 fea­tured more than 23,000 im­ages culled from vin­tage Life mag­a­zines.

Exit de­tails at the Canada Pav­il­ion in­clude a metal du­vet and an an­tique trough con­tain­ing ma­te­ri­als from Cape Dorset.

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