Geoffrey Farmer’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale, “A way out of the mirror,” runs in, through, above, and around the Canadian pavilion. It is moving, strange, and a little frightening, and it is one of the best shows being presented in the Giardini this year.
The 60-year-old pavilion is currently undergoing restoration (it will be ready for the 2018 Architecture Biennale) and much of it is missing right now, including a good chunk of the roof, so the Vancouver-based artist was able to create a powerful fountain at its center that shoots up jets of water, soaking unsuspecting viewers and sending refreshing mist through the air. Water collects on the half-built roof and rolls down to the edges. It’s lovely.
There is also a cast of a Germaine Richier sculpture of a huge praying mantis, La Mante, grande (1946–51), with a book balanced atop its head; a kind of grandfather clock-turned-waterworks that recalls a Jean Tinguely kinetic piece; and a number of brass versions of pieces of lumber scattered about. It is a surreal scene, made all the more surreal by the large tree that has long emerged from the ground inside the structure and gone through its roof. Now that tree is exposed to the elements.
Even after a fair bit of observation, the rhythm of the fountain is hard to discern, so you have to move through the pavilion carefully, alert to the possibility of a geyser. Once you navigate it, though, you are rewarded with a sunny balcony that features sneaky little views of the waters of Venice, as well as a poetic text by Farmer that explains the origins of the objects in the show—the lumber, for instance, is based on a photograph the Farmer found showing his grandfather’s truck after being hit by a train in 1955, with lumber scattered across the ground.
The feeling of the show is of a work in progress, or even a life in progress. Farmer has collaged various moments from his life, and his family’s life, alongside the history of the pavilion and the history of 20th-century art. This is a show about in-between moments, about how artists—and all people—piece things together, how we invent ourselves moment by moment. Intriguingly, if his text is to be believed, he wanted the show to be even more raw. He mentions at one point a “struggle for the removal of the Canada sign; if it is still on the front of the pavilion; if it is still on the front of the pavilion, I lost.”
The sign is there. But hidden in the ground not far from it is a miniature geyser—a drinking fountain that shoots up from amongst pebbles if you place your feet just right.