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.