2017 Venice Biennale: Collisions of Memory and History in A Way out of the Mirror
A 1955 collision, familial trauma, post-war tensions and narratives of desire converge in Geoffrey Farmer’s exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Water drips, spurts and runs through a fountain courtyard and sculptural garden in A Way Out of the Mirror, a title that borrows a line from the poem “Laughing Gas” by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. At this year’s Canada Pavilion, Farmer has sought to create an open, outward-facing exhibition rooted in the personal, looking beyond the pavilion’s walls and toward something shared.
“When I was walking towards the pavilion on my first visit, I had a vision of what looked like a long silver palm tree growing out of the centre of it,” Farmer told NGC Magazine. “I drew it on a paper napkin later that day, and realized that what I had drawn was a geyser. This led me to look below the pavilion, and the discovery later, of the former Castello that Napoleon demolished to create the Giardini and the hill that the pavilion sits on. It reminded me of the story of the World Turtle Chuckwa that holds the elephant, which then holds up the Earth. I thought, ‘What is the rubble that is supporting me?’”
Born in 1967, Farmer lives and works in Vancouver. He is known for his multifaceted and multidisciplinary works of sculptural collage, video and installation art, which involve meticulous attention to process, history, research and craft. He was selected by the National Gallery of Canada in December 2015 to represent the country at the world’s oldest international art festival, which is also one of the most prestigious venues for contemporary art.
At the juncture of memory and discovery, pieces of A Way Out of the Mirror emerge and take their place within a carefully assembled world. A departure point for the work was a group of press photographs from 1955 — fortuitously discovered by way of Farmer’s sister — picturing the aftermath of a lumber truck colliding with a train at a rail crossing. Unseen in the black-and-white photographs was his grandfather, who was affected by the collision and died some months afterward. The event cut a path across generations of Farmer’s family and formed a node in his life that had been previously unknown to him.
At the pavilion, seventy-one cast planks — replicas of the two-by-fours scattered by the force of the truck accident — sprawl alongside other objects animated by force, infused with water and emotion. Among them: a central fountain, a combination of two fountains, the one in Washington Square Park in New York and the San Francisco Art Institute, where Farmer studied; a praying mantis; parts of a destroyed school, and a grandfather clock. Water bubbles to the surface, spontaneously appears, and forms a current through the Boschian landscape.
Kitty Scott, whom Farmer chose as curator of the exhibition, and who has worked with him over the past two decades, said that the installation is a product of Farmer’s art practice, in which rethinking gives way to reinvention. “What is most exciting in Geoffrey's work process are its additive and associative qualities, with one idea or inspiration leading to the next. That sense of discovery is not only felt by the artist, but is very much a part of the viewer's experience as well,” said Scott in an interview with NGC Magazine.
Farmer’s 2012 installation at dOCUMENTA (13), Leaves of Grass also featured in the NGC’s 2014 Shine a Light Biennial — was a gargantuan sculptural collage comprising cutouts of more than 30,000 images from Life magazine. A 2015 mid-career survey at the Vancouver Art Gallery, How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?, featured works of three-dimensional collage, facsimile, and kinetic systems at play, including Trailer (2002), The Surgeon and the Photographer (2009), and Let’s Make the Water Turn Black (2013–2015).
Farmer’s exhibition in Venice sprang partially from reflection and homage to the architecture of the Canada Pavilion itself. The building was designed in 1956 by Italian firm BBPR, one of whose partners, Gian Luigi Banfi, died in a concentration camp at the end of the Second World War. Made of glass and steel, the pavilion was given to Canada by Italy as a war reparation. “I want to interact with the pavilion in an open way, with respect to Gian’s. I also wanted to think about Canada and the types of sacrifice that were made in the creation of our nation,” says Farmer.
“A Way Out of the Mirror really transforms the architecture of the Pavilion,” says Scott. “Geoffrey has opened it up into a kind of courtyard that evokes multiple sites tied to his own personal and familial history and, beyond that, to other charged spaces and memories. I think his ultimate goal is to make a very open space that can contain all of the multitudes he’s bringing forth.”
Farmer’s work for the Biennale also marks a departure from his previous methods, Scott adds, launching him into new ways of thinking as a sculptor working in bronze. “Some of the same logic that governed his well-known cut-paper works is extended here into three-dimensional objects — objects he’s selected, removed from their natural places, and brought together in surprising juxtapositions to create a new thing,” Scott says. “It’s a very open and permeable work; it brings many things into the fold. I think Geoffrey has been working incredibly hard to make something no one has seen before, something that speaks to an imagination at once very personal and profoundly public.”
A Way Out of the Mirror is on view at the 57th International Art Exhibition — La Biennale di Venezia from May 13 to November 26, 2017. Closer to home, visitors to the NGC’s new galleries, Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present, can see Farmer’s Trailer along with many other masterworks by Canadian contemporary artists.