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Geoffrey Farmer's piece 'The Last Two Million Years' is pictured during a media preview of his upcoming exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia on May 28, 2015. Geoffrey's exhibition "How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?" opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery on May 30th.Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Geoffrey Farmer's work as a sculptor began to take a new shape after a worried walk through Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood. While trying to come up with ideas for a drawing show, he stumbled upon what he thought was a slab of marble. In fact, it was an old Reader's Digest book, with a faux marble cover, called The Last Two Million Years. "I thought, that's quite a statement," says Farmer, almost a decade later.

The ultracondensed history of the world inspired Farmer's first cut-out work, The Last Two Million Years (2007) – a sculpture created with scissors rather than a chisel. Farmer clipped out hundreds of images and installed the cut-outs – figures from ancient Egypt and Greece, the philosopher John Locke, a teeny-tiny Moses with his tablets – reordering them into categories that defy chronology. The work was installed at the Drawing Room in London in 2007 and is among the highlights of Farmer's new mid-career survey at the Vancouver Art Gallery, called How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?

The VAG survey, which opened last month, is just one project in what's turning out to be an astonishingly busy year for Farmer. Later this month, he will install a can't-miss public art piece for Luminato in Toronto, while his massive installation Leaves of Grass is on view at the National Gallery in Ottawa, after already wowing crowds and critics at dOCUMENTA (13) in Germany three years ago. All of a sudden, Farmer is proving to be the It Guy of Canadian contemporary art.

Theatrical and whimsical – and often painstakingly laborious – Farmer's work is at once fun and sophisticated; a mixed-media intellectual puzzle that is also playfully accessible with its dense and layered high art and pop cultural references. You need – and want – to return to it again and again.

Farmer garnered attention and accolades with Leaves of Grass in Germany, which featured some 16,000 two-sided figures (it's bigger now; Farmer is known to adjust work in its different iterations) collaged from 50 years of Life magazines from the collection of artists Vincent Trasov and Michael Morris.

"That was just a stupendous work. And I think that was another moment for him of international recognition," says Daina Augaitis, the VAG's chief curator, who was at dOCUMENTA. "I think it was one of those 'a-ha' moments that you don't often get in visual art. You came around the corner and it took your breath away."

Augaitis, who has been watching Farmer's career from the beginning, is curating his VAG show.

"How Do I Fit this Ghost in My Mouth? … is really a call to question how we embody information," she says. "What do we do with knowledge? How do we make sense of the world, finally? It's a very big question that he's asking."

Art by accident

Farmer, 47, was born at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver and grew up in West Vancouver – with no designs on becoming an artist. He did, however, enjoy looking at art; a family trip to Mexico City when he was 6 had a significant impact. At home, he spent a lot of his time in his bedroom with his World Book encyclopedia set.

He didn't consider himself to be creative, but as he grew up, he made videos, saving his money so he could rent a VHS camera from the corner store – inspired by the Canadian comedy shows SCTV and CODCO. "There was something about them that I understood; I felt it was some sort of creative expression, although at that time I wouldn't have thought of it as art," Farmer says during a lengthy interview on the VAG café's sunny patio.

He was 21, working as a lifty at Cypress Bowl, feeling a bit lost and "kind of receding into the mountain," when his sister invited him to sit in on art class she was taking at what was then Kwantlen College.

"I started to draw and that was it," Farmer says. "It was really like the sound of a bell. [I thought] 'This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.'"

That sister is honoured in the VAG exhibition with a set of black doors he's made leading into the space. Called Sister Doors, they represent an opening into a new world – the art world for a young Farmer; the exhibition for the visitor. When you open the left door, a bell rings.

Farmer enrolled at what is now the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, where he felt a bit out of place initially, surrounded by students who had for some time self-identified as artists. In first year, when students were making introductions, one classmate "described themselves as the Robert Bateman of their high school," Farmer recalls. "And I turned to the person sitting next to me and I was like, 'Who's Robert Bateman?' And they kind of moved away from me. Because I really had no clue," he says, squinting in the sun.

"Perhaps that's why so much of my work began as found material – because I didn't identify myself as an artist. So I didn't really have this idea [that] I would make something, [but] I would go out and find it."

In third year, he went to the San Francisco Art Institute – a hugely influential opportunity that led to a radical shift in his experience: the exposure to gay culture, important literature, visiting intellectuals (Allen Ginsberg, John Cage). He also discovered there a box of Canadian Art magazines from the 1970s, which helped him understand from down in California what had been going on conceptually in Canada. Little did he know how much he would contribute to that very scene.

A place in the world

How Do I Fit this Ghost in My Mouth? is a "very meaningful" show for Farmer, who grew up visiting the gallery at a previous location with his family, and whose father, a retired lawyer and former crown prosecutor, worked in the building when it was a courthouse. (It was renovated by Arthur Erickson Architects in the 1980s to become the art gallery.)

He has created a new work for the VAG's rotunda, which references the building's beginnings, and its previous life as a courthouse – specifically a sensational murder case involving Francis Rattenbury, who designed the building. Four Frankensteins (2015) includes four kinetic, freestanding sculptures representing Rattenbury, his wife, Alma, their chauffeur, George Stoner, and a character Farmer calls the Judge. After Rattenbury was killed in 1935 by a blow from a carpenter's mallet, Stoner – Alma's young lover – was convicted of the crime. Alma was acquitted but killed herself a few days later. Some believe she may have been the real killer.

With sound elements (including an old recording of Alma, a musician, playing the piano), the installation serves as a theatrical prelude to the exhibition.

Upstairs, among the show's highlights is the monumental The Surgeon and the Photographer (2009-2013), the first work of Farmer's acquired by the VAG, and the impetus for the show. It is fantastic and fantastical: 365 hand puppets stand tall on little stands mounted on plinths, each two-sided figure astonishing in its intricacy and detail. The head of a lipsticked woman with her eyes cut out and a beauty mark is perched on a fan of U.S. fighter planes, her white gloved hand holding a trophy up against her black tattered dress. Elsewhere, a woman with a bicycle wheel for a head wears a cheery two-toned red dress and in her arm – a man's, in a blazer – she cradles a black cat. (In guide books available in the gallery, the annotation for this particular figure reads simply, "They escaped.")

Let's Make the Water Turn Black is a large installation that Farmer calls a sculpture play. Using Frank Zappa's life as a structuring device, Farmer offers a retelling of the musician's life by referencing contemporary events – the declaration of war, the Watts Riots – using figures sculpted from old movie props (fake trees and boulders, a ladder) and a soundtrack created with thousands of audio files. The play runs the duration of a day in the gallery, beginning with Zappa's birth year, 1940 (with some pre-1940 sound elements), and ending in 1993, when he died.

The exhibition also includes a version of the work Farmer will install at Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park this month for Luminato, Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell. The work is constructed from thousands of discarded images that once formed an image bank at the Vancouver Public Library. A computer program generates a never-ending sequence, in which the photos are shuffled based on associations – subject matter, colour, era, what have you – and creates what Farmer calls a "ceaseless, endless fountain." It will play continuously at Trinity Bellwoods from June 19 through June 28.

Farmer's desire to create this sort of public sculpture, and his enthusiasm for having it installed in an urban park in which he imagines people hanging out on the grass and watching this computer-generated world go by, reminds me of something he said about working on the mountain.

Even if he was lost, his time on Cypress allowed him to look out at the world – and this ultimately found its way into his work in a profound way. "I didn't really know how I fit into the world," he says, pointing out that this was a particularly significant problem for a gay guy in a conservative city in the 1970s. "And I think a lot of the work that started in the beginning were these kind of overviews of the world, and this sort of searching for my place in the world."

Here in his hometown gallery among this spectacular cacophony – with everything from Egyptian mummy cut-outs to a sea monster prop with blue light bulbs for teeth – the view is so clear: Geoffrey Farmer has found it; his place in the world is presenting the world to itself.

How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth? is at the VAG until Sept. 7. Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell is at Trinity Bellwoods June 19-28. Leaves of Grass is installed at the National Gallery of Canada until Sept. 7.

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