Making the Personal Universal: Geoffrey Farmer at the Vancouver Art Gallery


Geoffrey Farmer, detail from The Surgeon and the Photographer (2009– ), paper, textile, wood, metal. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Purchased with funds from the Jean MacMillan Southam Major Art Purchase Fund, Phil Lind, Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund, Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program and the Michael O’Brian Family Foundation. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery

Internationally acclaimed Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer — familiar to National Gallery visitors for the astonishing Leaves of Grass, among other works — is the subject of an extensive mid-career survey in How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?, now on at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). Filling the entire second floor of the VAG, the exhibition occupies 10,000 feet of gallery space, in addition to site-specific works by Farmer that take over the stairs, the rotunda, and even areas in the VAG catacombs.

“Geoffrey was excited about this exhibition, partly because it’s for a local audience that has followed his work,” says exhibition co-curator, Daina Augaitis, who is also Chief Curator and Associate Director of the VAG. “He also has a personal connection, because the Vancouver Art Gallery was once the provincial courthouse where his father worked as a prosecutor. Geoffrey originally knew the building in a very different context, and wanted to unearth not only the history of the institution that occupies it now, but also the history of a building implicating his own personal history.”


Geoffrey Farmer, The Last Two Million Years (2007), exhibition copy, 2015 paper cut-outs from selected pages of The Last Two Million Years, foamcore plinths, Plexiglas frames, marble, incense. Tate: Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of the North American Acquisitions Committee 2010. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery

Part of the way Farmer has achieved this historical narrative is by curating items from the Gallery’s artist archives to create installations. He has also involved the catacombs, which will be viewable to visitors a few times a month through special organized tours. The show was developed with Assistant Curator Diana Freundl, although Augaitis says that Farmer himself has been instrumental in conceiving the exhibition as a whole.

“Geoffrey wanted to make the architecture, as well as the experience of going through the second floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery, feel very different and new,” says Augaitis. “He has placed objects in the rotunda area, where visitors first enter the gallery. These lead to the top of the stairs, where it almost feels like the back of a shop. After this slightly chaotic zone, visitors encounter the first organized piece in the exhibition with The Last Two Million Years (2007), which lays out the past two million years of art-making in his first cut-out piece.”

Farmer has made a number of works using cut-outs over his career. The awe-inspiring Leaves of Grass, on view at the National Gallery of Canada until September 14, 2015, features more than 16,000 images that were cut from some 900 editions of Life magazine published between 1935 and 1985. Each image was glued to a stem of miscanthus grass, and inserted into floral foam. The result is an installation measuring 124 feet in length, viewable from both sides, and chronicling five decades of social history.

A key work in the VAG’s survey exhibition is another cut-out piece: The Surgeon and the Photographer (2009), which was first shown at the National Gallery in Ottawa in 2009, and is now in the VAG permanent collection. The work is comprised of 365 three-dimensional collages. “Each one is a kind of a hand puppet with the head of the body collaged out of images Farmer got from books,” says Augaitis. “Because there are 365 of them, the work becomes a reference to time and the clock — and the clock is a frequent reference in his work.” 


Geoffrey Farmer, Notes for Strangers (detail) [1990], typewriter, typewritten notes, bus transfer. Collection of Laing and Kathleen Brown. Courtesy of the Artist, Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver and Casey Kaplan, New York

The NGC has loaned two works to the exhibition. The first is Trailer (2002), an elaborate life-sized facsimile of a transport truck’s trailer, complete with lights, wheels and mud flaps. The hollow shell of a trailer has been designed to act as a movie prop, made to look as real as possible. A film of dirt covers the white surface of the trailer, and mud is splattered across the gas tank in an effort to suggest the contradiction in cinematic special effects between what looks real, and what is real. Trailer has been exhibited in various contexts, depending on the institution.

When Trailer was shown in 2008 at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, for example, it was cast into a narrative that was very personal to Farmer. While living in San Francisco in the early 1990s, Farmer witnessed an accident in which a woman was run over by a white truck trailer. For the 2008 Montreal exhibition, Farmer spoke to that incident by including a figurative work with Trailer entitled: I am by nature one and also many, dividing the single me into many, and even opposing them as great and small, light and dark, and in ten thousand other ways (2006–08). The figurative work, in this context, served as a surrogate for the woman in the accident. The two will be on display together at the VAG in a similar manner.

Trailer is rather different than most things he’s done, in the sense that it’s not a cluster, but a single object that has a massive scale to it,” explains Augaitis. “In exhibition-making, it’s evocative. This connected piece is the first figurative work he did. A great many figurative works followed this one, from the puppets of The Surgeon and the Photographer to the much larger ones that will be present in the show. We thought it was important, in a survey exhibition of this kind, to present the very origins of his figurative work.”


Geoffrey Farmer, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black (2013–15), installation view, 2015, theatre and film props, platform, computer-controlled sound, lighting and kinetic system, sound library, written program generative composition by Brady Marks and Geoffrey Farmer. Private Collection. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery

Another signature piece in the exhibition is Let’s Make the Water Turn Black (2013–15). The work is based on Farmer’s research into the life of Frank Zappa, and is named after one of Zappa’s songs. Comprising more than 70 elements — including salvaged movie props, bits of theatre sets, and other found materials — the installation sits on a raised platform that takes up 1,200 square feet of gallery space. The audio track that is a part of the work appears to cause certain objects to move.

“Geoffrey Farmer is a mid-career artist who has been well-recognized internationally,” says Augaitis. “He’s a shining star, so there’s a lot of anticipation about his exhibition. The title, How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth? is something that Geoffrey came up with. It’s a question for visitors to think about when they go through the exhibition. If a ghost is of the past, is about history, perhaps this is a question about embodying history or embodying knowledge itself. It’s a kind of proposition for visitors as they go through the exhibition.”

How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth? is on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 7, 2015. For more information, please click here.

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