The archive has been the inspiration and the raw material for many artists and curators, but few approach it with the dedication and whimsy of the Vancouver-based artist Geoffrey Farmer. Farmer, who will represent Canada at the 2017 Venice Biennale, is known for his labor-intensive installations and mixed-medium pieces. Among the three projects on view in his exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, for instance, was Boneyard (2013–14), an installation comprising more than twelve hundred images that he cut out of a 1970s book on the history of Italian sculpture. The nudes, saints, Davids, angels, Madonnas, and other figures and forms are arranged like paper dolls on a circular platform, positioned so they face outward. A slang term for a cemetery, Farmer’s title hints at the death, or at least outmoded-ness, of the Western sculptural canon, but the installation breathes new life into it. The sculptures are decontextualized and (in image form) thrown together cheek by jowl, allowing viewers to invent their own associations and narratives. Embodying ideas that Hal Foster discusses in his 2004 essay “An Archival Impulse,” Farmer’s work makes historical information physically present and creates space for new connections to be made.
Farmer also rummages through archives of images to invent his own worlds, and his meticulous, one might even say obsessive, approach brings to mind outsider artists like Henry Darger and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein. Farmer’s inventiveness is most apparent in The Surgeon and the Photographer (2009–), which consists of 365 handmade, three-dimensional puppetlike figures he assembled using photographs cut out of books; bits and pieces of fabric; and objects (a small American flag, say, or a paper flower). The figures, each of which is placed on its own plinth, combine different scales and species: an oversize hand juts out from a red robe; a bird’s head emerges out of a creature with human arms. There’s something both childlike and menacing about Farmer’s idiosyncratic cast of characters, who are as likely to be carrying a pistol as a basketful of ducks. Walking among them is a little like falling through the looking glass.
Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell (2013)—whose title comes from a poem by the nineteenth-century English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti—is a slideshow combining found photographs and sounds. Farmer has made different versions of the piece, drawing on various clippings libraries and archives. The imagery in the ICA version spans the past 150 years—roughly the history of photography—and ranges in subject from politics to people at play to agriculture and industry, while the sounds include wind chimes, choral music, and snippets of dialogue from old movies. Tagged according to various categories, the images and sounds are combined in different sequences using a computer algorithm, the resultant work resembling an ethnographic film gone pleasantly off the rails. Look in my face is about the elasticity of time, but also about the elasticity of photography, and its unreliability as a truth-telling mechanism. Whatever narrative unfolds in the work, it’s a mutable, subjective one, as much fiction as fact.
Geoffrey Farmer’s recent exhibition at REDCAT evoked some of the messier, more perverse doings of the 1960s and ’70s. The title, “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” (perhaps a reference to excretion or to overusing a bong), was borrowed from a 1968 Frank Zappa song recounting the activities of two boys, Ronnie and Kenny, “whizzing and pasting and poot- ing through the day.” The boys’ creepy adolescent world, filled with esoteric and unsanitary rituals (“Ronnie keeps his numies [boogers] on a window in his room”), captures the malaise of middle- class, suburban Southern California of the period. Kenny goes on to take pills while Ronnie joins the army; both “long to see a bomber burn.”
At REDCAT, as if entering a dream, viewers passed from the sunlit lobby into a darkened space, a world seemingly repressed and veiled from waking life. The gallery was populated with bewildering mechanized assemblages composed mostly of household objects (including many lighting fixtures, recalling the occupation of the song’s Daddy Dinky, who “went to work / selling lamps and chairs to San Ber’dino squares”). Arrayed across a large, low platform, they enacted an hour-long nonnarrative script. Assemblages temporarily came to life through lighting, motion and hidden speakers, their “performances” coordinated with an audio collage of found sounds and partial tracks by countercultural icons such as Kathy Acker, John Cage, Vito Acconci and Allen Ginsberg. Stage lighting temporarily flooded the set with color, isolated sculptural “char- acters” for “monologues” (though the relationship of word and object was not explicit) or left the viewer in near total darkness. In ritualistic fashion, audience members tended to circumambulate the square stage, adding another kinetic, theatrical layer.
Memorable passages of the audio related incidents of incest or abjection: a woman described an erotic encoun- ter with her father; a man repeatedly called out for mommy, daddy, brother, sister. Meanwhile, a fabric-draped form, sporting a Magritte-like bowler hat and a plastic plant, extended a mechanical arm that hammered a lightbulb on a can; a massive polystyrene replica of Isamu Noguchi’s sculpture To the Issei (1979) bowed repeatedly. (Noguchi designed the plaza of the nearby Japanese American Cultural Center, where the original sculp- ture resides.) This reminder of the 1942–45 internment of the Issei, the first generation of Japanese Americans, was one of many allusions to a darker, more complicated regional history than the warm California sun normally brings to mind. Farmer (b. 1967), who is based in Vancouver and too young to have experienced WWII or the ’60s, is known for his research-based, context-specific installations. The “sculpture play” he produced for REDCAT chimes with the Southern California art scene of the 1960s and ’70s, in which Bruce Conner’s assemblages and the sculptural vignettes of Ed and Nancy Kienholz expressed social concerns through an esthetics of decay. Farmer’s work is also indebted to contemporary instances of hybridized theatrical sculpture such as the Forcefield collective’s campy, uncanny tableaux. REDCAT itself, tucked in a corner of Frank Gehry’s luminous Walt Disney Concert Hall, must have likewise inspired Farmer to construct a repressed double within a city dominated by the movie industry. “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” performed a kind of archeology of recent Los Angeles cultural history, and the city is more interesting for it.
Photo: View of Geoffrey Farmer’s exhibition “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” 2011; at REDCAT.