Magazines, Floral Foam and Dried Plants: Conserving Leaves of Grass by Geoffrey Farmer

Geoffrey Farmer, Leaves of Grass, 2012, cut-out images from Life magazines, archival glue, miscanthus grass, floral foam and wooden table, installation dimensions variable. Installation view, NGC. Purchased 2012 with the generous support of the Audain Endowment for Contemporary Canadian Art of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation. National Gallery of Canada. Photo: NGC

Think of a substance, any substance. Chances are that there is a work of art somewhere made with it, or with a similar material.

Many artists create with a sense of immediacy, choosing materials appropriate to the project — not necessarily materials that will last. Some artists create complex installations onsite in exhibition spaces that may change, depending on where they are displayed. This can make for excellent art, but often means challenges for conservators. Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass is one such work.

This monumental sculptural installation is made of 23,595 paper cut-outs from vintage LIFE magazines. The images have been glued to thin stalks of bamboo-like miscanthus grass, resulting in puppet-like figures arrayed in a 120-foot line of spongy foam meant for floral arrangements.

Geoffrey Farmer, Leaves of Grass (detail), 2012, cut-out images from Life magazines, archival glue, miscanthus grass, floral foam and wooden table, installation dimensions variable. Installation view, NGC. Purchased 2012 with the generous support of the Audain Endowment for Contemporary Canadian Art of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation. National Gallery of Canada. Photo: NGC

Since its creation in 2012, Leaves of Grass has been installed twice: first in Germany in 2012 for dOCUMENTA (13), where it was a critical and popular success. Two years later, it was featured at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in the Shine a Light biennial (2014–2015).

Based in Vancouver, Geoffrey Farmer uses materials and imagery from popular culture to create works combining collage, video, film, performance, text and sculpture. Often drawing from literature and theatre, his installations are frequently site-specific. Since his first show in 1997, the award-winning Farmer has garnered acclaim around the world. His most recent solo exhibition was at the Vancouver Art Gallery, which included works on loan from the national collection, and he will be representing Canada at the 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia in Italy in 2017.

The artist and his team installing Leaves of Grass at the National Gallery of Canada, October 2014

After the first installation in Germany, Leaves of Grass was completely disassembled and shipped to Ottawa, with each figure laid down and taped to corrugated plastic trays stacked inside crates. Installation at the NGC took almost four months of meticulous work — assembled one piece at a time, as the artist made deliberate and refined decisions about the placement of each figure. On display from October 2014 until September 2015 at the National Gallery, Leaves of Grass quickly became one of its most popular attractions.

It was also something of a work in progress during the first months of the Shine a Light biennial, with Farmer assembling it in the gallery space while it was open to the public.  Alongside his studio assistants, NGC technical services and conservators worked to cut and glue new figures to make the work taller in response to the size of the exhibition space. This made for a dynamic, almost performance-like experience for visitors, who often commented with delight on historical images they recognized, as well as some of the more eccentric visuals and the artist’s witty juxtapositions.

An example of worn out floral foam from the artwork

When it came to the conservation of Leaves of Grass, it was ultimately determined that its Achilles heel — the part that would lead to its downfall sooner rather than later — was not the paper, the adhesive, or the grass, but the floral foam.

The foam was not stable. It could be crushed with very slight pressure and, after a year on display, was starting to fail. The taller, heavier grass sections had begun to lean, and the outer surfaces of the foam had become scratched. Complicating matters, the 120-foot line of foam was actually composed of short (8-inch) blocks lined up end-to-end, with nothing pinning them together. It was clear that moving the work was going to be difficult.

Several preservation scenarios were considered. These included mapping and dismantling the entire piece; injecting adhesive into the existing foam to make it solid; and/or employing the artist to re-install the work each time. Following consultations with the artist, curators and exhibition managers, it was agreed that the ideal solution would involve minimizing the time needed for future set-up, while also retaining the artist’s original placement of figures. It was also important to ensure that the work could travel on loan, and that information be available regarding future replacement of cut-out images, should the originals be damaged.

Prototype of stable foam construction

The solution was to transfer the existing arrangement into a stable foam material that had some qualities of the original floral foam, but was sturdier and would last long term in storage and on display. Following several prototypes and final approval by the artist, a system was devised using ethafoam, matboard, Japanese paper, acrylic adhesives and latex paint. 

Given that the National Gallery wanted to keep this outstanding work available for loan, thought also had to be given to its storage size and format. Crates housing the stored work would need to fit onto standard trucks and aircraft. It was thus decided that the work should be stored in 20 modular sections, each measuring 72 inches in length. This would decrease installation time to an estimated three weeks, and allow the work to be securely stored and shipped.

NGC installation technicians moving the artwork section by section

The first hurdle was moving Leaves of Grass out of the gallery and into a large backroom. To secure the work while it was being moved, the floral foam was pinned together with bamboo cooking skewers, wrapped in duct tape, and tied to the tabletops. The foam was then cut at each table join, and the tabletops were individually moved.   

Over the next four months, technicians steadily and carefully undertook the colossal task of transposing the artwork into the newly fabricated foam sections. This involved observing the location, angle and orientation of each individual figure, removing the figure from the original foam, photographing it front and back, and inserting it into the correct location in the new foam sections. Over 47,000 photographs were taken to provide complete documentation of the work. These images will help conservators to evaluate and prepare for future repair and replacement of damaged or faded images, while also ensuring that the installation can be re-created in its original configuration.


Time-lapse video of conservation technicians photographing and transferring each figure into new foam

Another challenge involved shortening longer elements so that storage crates could fit through doorways. Stalks that were too tall were cut down, carefully labelled and packed flat in trays, ready to be re-attached whenever the work is installed again.

The 72-inch sections were bolted into custom trays with lattice structures at each end.  A lightweight plastic curtain was hung on either side, and the whole arrangement was gently compressed and held in place with cotton straps. 

Two sections of Leaves of Grass anchored inside their storage and shipping crate

Two trays were anchored side by side in crates. Afterwards, they were transported to an art storage vault, where they will stay until the next time the work is installed.

Conserving Leaves of Grass, essentially one blade at a time, was not only a labour of love, but a major undertaking. The artist, conservators, photographers, curators, technicians and others brought considerable dedication, time and expertise to bear. An undeniable highlight of the Shine a Light biennial, Leaves of Grass has been carefully preserved for generations to come, while also being comprehensively documented and stored until it is displayed again. Despite the work’s rich visuals and undeniable complexity, it is now relatively straightforward to re-mount Leaves of Grass in its original NGC incarnation. 

Stay tuned for additional NGC Magazine features on Geoffrey Farmer, in connection with his installation at the Canada Pavilion for the 2017 Venice Biennale. 


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