Critics’ Picks

Geoffrey Farmer, Boneyard, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Geoffrey Farmer, Boneyard, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Toronto

Geoffrey Farmer

Mercer Union
1286 Bloor Street West
November 1, 2013–January 11, 2014

“Are we really civilized? Yes or no? Who are we to judge?” The existential edge of these questions posed by Kenneth Clark in Civilisation, his 1969 omnibus broadcast-television journey through Western thought and culture, seems to have only gained momentum in the years following. Indeed, Clark’s thesis that the world as we know it sits perpetually balanced on a knife’s edge between the chaos of barbarism and reasoned refinement still carries a lot of weight when it comes to the accelerated uncertainties of our own time.

The centerpiece in Vancouver-based artist Geoffrey Farmer’s latest exhibition, “A Light in the Moon,” offers something of an extension to Clark’s rhetorical challenge. The installation, titled Boneyard, 2013, gathers a rambling menagerie of sculptural imagery, from Greco-Roman statuary and medieval reliquaries to works by Constantin Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, and Jacob Epstein, all painstakingly clipped from the pages of discarded art-history textbooks. More than five hundred cutout images stand atop a circular plinth, which could well hint at the titular moon (taken from a passage in Gertrude Stein’s 1914 prose poem “Tender Buttons”) or perhaps the face of a monumental timepiece, though it makes the most sense as a kind of theater in the round. Farmer is a wry prop master and storyteller, and there’s both a formal cohesion and an abstract tension—as seen in absurd tangents by a free-association “script” for forty-two of the images—that plays out across the differing scales and deft staging of his fragile dramatis personae.

Civilization is also depicted at the brink in the accompanying video projection Look in My Face; My Name Is Might-Have-Been; I Am Also Called No-More, Too-Late, Farewell, 2013, though this time with cues to the work of experimental filmmakers Bruce Conner, Arthur Lipsett, and Stan Vanderbeek. In an ever-shifting sequence of random archival images—battlefields, celebrities, snake charmers, glaciers—and sounds ranging from a speech given by Winston Churchill to gunshots and wind chimes, repeated ad infinitum by a computer algorithm, Farmer reshuffles the historical deck to an often frenetic, traumatizing effect. As with Boneyard, there is neither a beginning nor an end. What the cumulative furor adds up to remains a pointedly open question.