Geoffrey Farmer

London, UK

Geoffrey Farmer: The Surgeon and the Photgrapher (2009-13): Installation view at the Barbican. Images courtesy the Barbican, London. Photos: Jane Hobson.Geoffrey Farmer: The Surgeon and the Photgrapher (2009-13): Installation view at the Barbican. Images courtesy the Barbican, London. Photos: Jane Hobson. By Andrea Carson-Barker

Geoffrey Farmer
The Barbican
March 28 – July 28, 2013

On a recent trip to London, I discovered that Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer was exhibiting his installation The Surgeon and the Photographer for the first time in the U.K. at London’s Barbican gallery. I had heard great things about his large-scale installation Leaves of Grass that showed at Documenta 13 last year, and given that The Surgeon is the final part of a trilogy that began with 2007’s The Last Two Million Years, I decided I had to see it.

Each part of the trilogy involves collage. For The Surgeon and the Photographer, the Barbican’s aptly named Curve gallery was theatrically darkened so that Farmer’s army of doll-like figures, crowded onto broad plinths at chest height, shone. The delicate figures – there are three hundred and sixty five of them – are what Farmer calls ‘puppets.’ Their kooky individualism is reminiscent of Paul Klees’ wonderful mixed-media hand puppets that he made for his son Felix in the 1910s and 20s, but, to me, Farmer’s figures are more three-dimensional collages, made up as they are of cut outs from books, some parts mounted on foamcore to create a multi-dimensional effect, each attached to a body of cloth.

The idea for the work came about when Farmer encountered a bookstore in Vancouver that was going out of business. He purchased much of the book stock to create this work. For Farmer, there is a relationship between the book and the hand that holds it, and again from the book to the easily reproduced image. There is certainly no question of the link between the puppet and the hand that created it. One lady, dressed in purple, holds a small blue flower and is surrounded by large birds. In another, disembodied limbs protrude. Another boasts the head of a golden calf and an arm reaching forward, grasping a pen.

Geoffrey Farmer: The Surgeon and the Photographer (2009-13): Installation view at the Barbican.Geoffrey Farmer: The Surgeon and the Photographer (2009-13): Installation view at the Barbican.The characters appear quite delicate and are extraordinarily detailed. Faces are often comprised of three different images, eyes and mouths cut out and replaced. The figures seemingly defy categorization but, typically for Farmer, nothing is haphazard. Like much of his work, this piece’s title serves as a framework with which to read the exhibition’s content. The Surgeon and the Photographer refers to an essay by the German critic Walter Benjamin, who describes the camera operator as a ‘surgeon’ who is able to slice through everyday life, as opposed to the painter who merely glides across its surface. This, of course, also reflects the act of cutting paper for the collaged figures. And yet, the display is fluid, all-embracing and cross-cultural, as if to convey the idea of humanity without emphasizing a single individual. Overall, the multifaceted installation brings to mind a phrase from Whitman’s famous Leaves of Grass, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Collage has been a popular art form in Canada in recent years, in part thanks to the popular, gallery-hosted public ‘collages parties’ put on by artist Paul Butler. It resonates, perhaps, not only due to its accessibility but also because of the way our 24-hour news cycle, Twitter and Instagram collapse information and images together into a steady stream. Farmer’s installation is paired with a computer-controlled montage at the end of the exhibition. Titled Look in my Face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell, its historical and modern-day images morph into one another, reinforcing the cacophonous effect of uniquely observed but similarly sized characters, crowded together in a cohesive group, but each retaining its own individuality, just like in the city of London, or the world.