Entering the current Vancouver Art Gallery summer blockbuster, a solo mid-career survey of internationally-renowned artist Geoffrey Farmer, feels immediately intimate. The door chimes as you enter the space, and the grand rotunda is speckled with funny puppet sculptures and draped in dusty vintage stage décor. “How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?” is a carnival of our personal and collective memories, morphing and rearranging what we recognize into something difficult to decipher.
Sitting in the late morning sun at the art gallery café, the Vancouver-born and based Farmer reflects on his interest in the past. “Part of what I’m doing within the exhibition, with the work, is to do that labour and allow people to experience something that already exists but experience it in a new way,” he explains.
A seminal piece from the artist’s practice achieves this in a very literal manner. The Last Two Million Years is a work comprised of hundreds of hand-cut characters, taken from a Reader’s Digest anthology of the same title. Synthesizing academic rigor and mechanical precision, Farmer’s re-arrangement and re/de-classification of the history of the world propped up on tiny stilts reveals the absurdity of such an impossible statement. “I hope there’s humor in my work,” Farmer reflects. “I always feel like laughter has something to do with defying authority, and that is important. I feel that humor within the work is a way to defy my own authority, or to defy the authority of something. I think that there can be moment of that, but I want there to be lots of different kinds of moments. In that way I feel that my work is a bit kaleidoscopic. I want it to have everything.”
Farmer’s stunning and surreal Let’s Make the Water Turn Black is perhaps the most emblematic of his “kaleidoscopic” qualities. Based rather perplexingly on the life and work of composer Frank Zappa, the ongoing piece churns you through a playground of staggering audio and visual cues. “I chose Frank Zappa because he was an obscure figure to me,” Farmer says. “I didn’t know much about him, but I needed a structuring device for the work, and it’s a work that is still being figured out in doing research on him.” It’s not clear what elements of the piece are references to what songs or biographical turning points, but there is an overall clarity in the installation that comes from the relationships arranged within it. “It will take time, and continue to take time, to figure out how the piece changes,” Farmer notes. “I feel that the way the piece is now, it’s almost a placeholder, or like a ghost, or like a picture that is being filled in, and it’s not there, but I need it to begin.”
“How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?” starts as a benign, silly request and transforms into a real, palpable dilemma. Farmer’s funhouse mirrors are able to bend and morph the pieces, but the ghost is still whole. It’s probably best to just get started.
“How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?” runs through September 7.