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The Vancouver artist brings his multi-faceted sculptural installation exploring interwoven personal and historical narratives to the 57th Venice Biennale.

You’ll find Geoffrey Farmer somewhere between here and elsewhere. At this moment, the Vancouver multi-media artist, whose installations and assemblages combine elements including video, performance, sculpture and found objects, is in the heart of Toronto’s financial district at an event hosted by the National Gallery of Canada to celebrate Farmer’s role in representing Canada at the Venice Biennale in May 2017. He’s backlit by a black and white photo from 1955 depicting a collision between a train and a lumber truck. The photo, he explains, is a core inspiration for his upcoming exhibit, A way out of the mirror, to be unveiled in Venice in May.

Revered Canadian artist Michael Snow, who exhibited at the 1970 Biennale, is just steps away as Farmer speaks. But in Farmer’s story, it’s suddenly 1991, and he’s a 24-year-old student at the San Francisco Art Institute picking up a 1970 copy of artscanada magazine with an article about Snow’s exhibition at Venice that year. Farmer deftly weaves these moments together, telling us that in 1991, he’d first heard poet Allen Ginsberg sing “Father Death Blues.” And last year, when he received the peculiar photo behind him, he was holding Allen Ginsberg’s Howl when the email arrived from his sister. The parallels are dizzying.

“The absent figure in the photographs, beside the photographer, is my grandfather Victor, who walked away from the accident only to die a few months later,” says Farmer. He knew nothing of the accident, or his grandfather. “The Venice Biennale project is anchored around coming to understand how the accident documented in the photographs impacted my life, and in some sense ordered it without me being aware of it. The work in the pavilion springs from this discovery.”

This is what Farmer does: he rearranges the here and the elsewhere, fractures and reduces a world to abstraction – whether that world is the photographs inspiring his Venice work or, for instance, the collection of 900 Life magazines he used in his acclaimed 2012 work, Leaves of Grass. He dissects that world, and rebuilds it in rare and idiosyncratic ways, often creating sprawling works of assemblage.

Delving into the archives

For Leaves of Grass – now a part of the National Gallery of Canada’s collection – Farmer cut 16,000 figures from the magazine, mounted them on dried-grass sticks, and arranged the figures chronologically along a 124-foot table. Farmer has likened the work to a conveyor belt, a portrait of “history emerging out of a factory.”

Farmer’s artwork is somewhere in the “realm of the archival impulse,” says Kitty Scott, Farmer’s curator for the 2017 Canada Pavilion and the Modern and Contemporary Art Curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She’s pointing to American art critic Hal Foster’s term for works that make historical information physically present through found image, object and text. Scott, however, stops short of calling Farmer’s artistic work predominantly archival.

“Research is very important for Geoffrey. So much of what he does comes out of a long period of research,” observes Scott. “And sometimes certain opportunistic moments, like receiving a gift of Life magazines, brings about a work like Leaves of Grass.” The artist also has a penchant for revision. In an essay, curator Jessica Morgan facetiously called Farmer the “enemy of the museum,” teasing his tendency to adjust his works over the duration of the exhibit.

But Farmer likens his creative process to building an engine, then trying to get it to run on its own. “There is a lot of tinkering, fine-tuning and work to make that happen,” he says. “My process varies, but I place a lot of importance on experimenting, and risking failure, and the importance of learning from those things that in the end didn’t turn out.”

Looking to the future

The Venice Biennale comes with a unique set of challenges. “It’s a privilege to be asked, but it’s also a challenging project for an artist to undertake,” says Farmer. “There is an enormous amount of pressure you begin to feel, especially around the idea of representing the country.”

“The Biennale is like the Olympics of the art world,” says Robin Anthony, art curator for RBC. “It takes many people to make it happen, and a lot of financial support.” The RBC Foundation has supported Farmer throughout his career, including publication of the catalogue of his 2008 exhibit at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and Anthony has watched as Farmer’s creative practice has evolved. A few years ago, RBC’s curatorial department acquired a piece for its corporate collection by Geoffrey Farmer, which is 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.

Farmer agrees, saying that such support is critical to artists, both morally and financially. “Fostering culture and supporting artists at crucial points in their careers is a vital bridge to the success of culture and society in Canada,” he says. “I mean this in a holistic way, and in an economic way, as cultural activities create jobs and contribute economically to Canada – so it makes sense that RBC would be involved in fostering that.”