Geoffrey Farmer has become an international art world superstar working with found photographs.
Years ago, while out for a walk in Vancouver, he stumbled upon a discarded Reader’s Digest encyclopedia. From that emerged a seminal work, The Last Two Million Years (2007), a series of paper sculptures created by cutting out photos from the book. A few years later, his installation Leaves of Grass, made with thousands of photos cut out from old Life magazines, was a giant hit at Documenta (13) in 2012.
But the two photographs that emerged last April – well, this was the find of his life.
Add to the black-and-white photos Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and a bit of Venetian history, and Farmer found the spark for the most high-profile commission of his career: representing Canada at the Venice Biennale in this sesquicentennial year. In A way out of the mirror, Farmer has created a project that contemplates the damage that seeps down through generations. It pushes off from his own history and dives deeply into a more universal contemplation of truth and reconciliation.
“Really, what the project in Venice is about is this collision; almost like I’m citing or quoting from my life and bringing it together,” Farmer said during a recent interview in his Vancouver studio.
The e-mail from his sister arrived on April 14, 2016 at 6:24 p.m., as Farmer was casting about for ideas for the project. It contained scans of two photographs she had found in their parents’ basement. Both depicted the same accident scene: an old GMC flatbed truck inches away from a wooden stop sign, a railway crossing sign upended and lying on top of the cab, lumber scattered around. In one photograph, a train is whizzing by in the background. In the other, a boy in a short-sleeved shirt surveys the scene, holding a half-eaten apple.
The accident, Farmer learned, involved his paternal grandfather in 1955. Victor had been driving the truck for a lumber yard when a train slammed into it and pushed it down the track until it was halted by the sign. His grandfather walked away from the accident, but had a massive heart attack a few months later and died. Farmer’s father suspected the two events were related.
This was all news to Farmer, who had known nothing about his grandfather’s life or death. Nobody spoke of it.
“It wasn’t anything that we ever thought about as being something significant or important,” he said, the two original photos between us on a work table, protected inside transparent plastic folders. “I can only describe it as there was kind of a void there that had a shape, but we didn’t even know it existed.”
The photos provided a catalyst for Farmer and his sister to sit down with their father, and ask questions. They understood immediately that he had been deeply affected by the experience. They also learned about Victor. Impoverished, he worked as a labourer, delivering lumber by day and cutting up kindling in his basement at night for extra money. His life was hard.
Farmer started giving a lot of thought to intergenerational trauma, the “untold, unprocessed, untalked about story” that nonetheless seems to have affected, even infected him.
For instance, when Farmer was about the age his father was when Victor died, he changed his name. The young artist took his mother’s maiden name – Farmer – and discarded the names he had inherited from his father.
“I can only explain it this way: I remember my father sort of describing a kind of curse or something associated with our last name,” Farmer responded. “I remember there was some shame; I think I was talking to him about being chosen last on the sports team or something like that and he sort of explained to me in this kind of spooky way that there was a kind of curse to the name.”
It’s unclear who took the photos, but it was likely a news photographer. While the family also found a small press clipping about the accident, there was no photo. As far as Farmer knows, the photos did not make it into print – perhaps because his grandfather survived the accident, making it less of a news event.
“These press images never got a chance to fulfill their destiny as news,” Farmer said. Nor did his grandfather get to fulfill his destiny – living a full life. Perhaps his father didn’t either, being weighed down by grief. This was something Farmer began to understand only with the discovery of these photos.
There are more collisions and coincidences in the creation of Farmer’s Venice show.
When he received that e-mail, he was holding a copy of Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem. He had been reading about the students at the San Francisco Art Institute who had organized its first performance – in 1955, the year the accident happened.
Farmer also went to SFAI and there he heard Ginsberg sing Father Death Blues – which rattled him. That was 1991 – the same year Farmer first learned about the Biennale. He was 24, about the same age his father was when he lost his father.
With these photos alive in his brain, Farmer went back to Howl and other Ginsberg work, including Kaddish and Other Poems. Kaddish is about his mother’s death (Kaddish is the memorial prayer Jews say for immediate family members who have died). One poem in particular (Laughing Gas) resonated with Farmer, reflecting this revelatory series of collisions – and giving him the title for his Biennale project.
“A way out of the mirror / was found by the image / that realized its existence / was only … / a stranger completely like myself,” Farmer reads from the book.
“In a way this piece is a Kaddish for the grandfather I didn’t know,” he says.
These press images never got a chance to fulfill their destiny as news.Geoffrey Farmer
The Canada pavilion at Venice was built in 1958, but its beginnings are traced back to a letter written in, yes, 1955. The pavilion is built on a hill constructed of rubble created during Napoleon’s invasion of Venice, Farmer explains. Further, the pavilion itself was part of Italy’s war reparations to Canada, following the Second World War.
“So of course being an artist who works [with] context, these things have affected the project,” says Farmer. “Obviously I’m looking at my own family, but I believe the role of the artist is to make it significant beyond the personal.”
He has expanded on his personal story to incorporate other elements and narratives. We talk about truth and reconciliation.
“The sense of empathetic understanding, the ability to hear others’ experience of trauma or of understanding the kinds of collisions that occurred within the nation culturally, with colonization and the effects that has had on individuals and on communities.”
The one thing Farmer won’t say much about is the show itself; he, understandably, wants it to be a surprise for the May opening. He does say that the pavilion will be transformed – and perforated; that the show will open to the outside. “You could say that it’s powered by water,” he adds, laughing. And he talks about one element: a sculpture that draws from a centuries-old medical image Wound Man, which illustrated for physicians various wounds a man might get in battle – a club to the head, an axe in the shoulder, a sword pierce to the thigh.
The sculpture, Farmer says, is a portrait of his grandfather, his father and himself combined. But it is also a portrait of men in a larger sense and the battles they endure – in war and at home.
Farmer’s father is now 85; he and Farmer had a “very difficult” relationship in the past; they’re good now. This project has helped bring about understanding and reconciliation between them. Farmer, turning 50 this year (he was a centennial baby), says he didn’t comprehend his father before because he didn’t have a fuller picture of his experiences, especially the trauma that accompanied the loss of his own father and the poverty they endured. Farmer uses the term “misunderstanding” repeatedly. Listening to the story, it feels more like a missed understanding – now, with this project, being found.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article referred to a work as Leaves of Glass. It is actually Leaves of Grass.