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Geoffrey Farmer first learned of the Venice Biennale at Emily Carr University. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Geoffrey Farmer first learned of the Venice Biennale at Emily Carr University. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

visual art

Vancouver-based installation artist Geoffrey Farmer to represent Canada at Venice Biennale Add to ...

The first time Geoffrey Farmer visited Venice he was 19, backpacking through Europe and experimenting with collage – not that he would have put it that way. Collage would later become central to his artistic practice, but at that point, Farmer hadn’t even considered the possibility of being an artist. He was just keeping a journal, and the little hardcover notebook was getting thicker and thicker as he taped stuff into it: shards of sculpture, pop-up images from postcards. When a fellow train passenger had a look, she asked if he was an artist.

“I was surprised by her question,” says Farmer, whose sister, after he returned home to Vancouver, also saw the journal and asked the life-changing question: Did he want to go to art school? For the first time, he thought that “maybe that could be a possibility.”

Farmer, now an international contemporary art sensation, has visited Venice many times since, but when he goes back in 2017 – the year he turns 50 – it will be the most triumphant of returns: He will be representing Canada at the Venice Biennale.

The announcement, made on Friday by the National Gallery of Canada, caps off a tremendous year for Farmer, who had a comprehensive mid-career survey at the Vancouver Art Gallery and a public installation for Toronto’s Luminato Festival, and whose group shows include an exhibition on now at the Louvre in Paris.

He will participate in the prestigious event during an auspicious year: Canada’s 150th anniversary.

“It felt like the right time for me,” Farmer says during an interview in his East Vancouver studio, where incense burns, mint tea brews, Harold Budd plays over the sound system and his broom collection hangs on one wall. “It’s something that I’d never really thought about, but when I was asked, I thought that could be an interesting proposition.”

The Canada Pavilion at Venice, which opened in 1958, is a notoriously challenging space because of its shape and structure.

But when asked about the venue, Farmer, rather than focusing on those complications, launched into an animated discussion about Canada’s Biennale history and the site’s context.

He immediately mentioned Emily Carr, one of Canada’s Biennale artists in 1952, the first year this country participated (in a different space). Their connections include shared British Columbia roots, Farmer’s education at what is now the Emily Carr University of Art + Design and his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, which Carr herself attended. There’s also dOCUMENTA (13): When Farmer made a huge splash with his monumental Leaves of Grass installation in 2012, Carr’s work was in the next room.

Farmer first became aware of the Biennale at Emily Carr University, watching a documentary about Michael Snow, Canada’s Biennale artist in 1970. He first visited himself in 2001, when Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller represented Canada.

This October, Farmer toured Venice with a group of National Gallery patrons, learning about Venetian history and architecture, meeting with the architect whose father’s firm designed the pavilion (as part of Italy’s Second World War reparations to Canada), visiting the Biennale and checking out the pavilion, which he calls “delicate and porous and complicated.

“It’s almost like a nautilus shell if you look at it from above,” he observes. “So it’s definitely a kind of puzzle to be solved … almost like a Rubik’s Cube or something.”

Farmer, who learned in late August that he had been selected, chose the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Kitty Scott to curate the exhibition.

“Geoffrey has a very beautiful, large expansive creative mind, so it’s wonderful as a curator,” says Scott, who has known Farmer for nearly 20 years and has worked with him on several projects, including his seminal dOCUMENTA triumph. “I think he’s one of the best we have.”

Scott was on the selection committee, as was the National Gallery’s Josée Drouin-Brisebois. “One of the things that really stood out was the fact that he’d had so many successes recently … and he has an international reputation already and something to kind of build on,” says Drouin-Brisebois, who will act as project director. “It was a long discussion and a daylong deliberation, but definitely everybody felt strongly that this was the right moment to give Geoffrey the opportunity.”

For the team, discussions are already under way and there’s planning (artistic, logistical) and fundraising ahead, but for now Farmer is immersed in some contemplative time in his studio – playing around and imagining, he says.

“I feel like having the survey at the Vancouver Art Gallery gave me this moment to reflect on the work that I’ve made and the work that I’m making and right now I feel like I’m sort of in a breath before the next project,” says Farmer, who has been trying to find that old journal (he thinks it might be in his parents’ attic).

“I felt the survey was a kind of rite of passage and it transformed me and … I feel like I’m sort of sprouting again but in a totally different way. I could kind of see in that exhibition what kind of plant I was then and almost, like, watching it go through its full life cycle, with the leaves dropping off. But I feel somehow quite different and I think I needed this time to just kind of gestate in the ground in silence, in solitude, and think about the kind of work I want to make in this time.”

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