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Art Review

Geoffrey Farmer’s art at the ICA: Once you’ve seen it, you can’t shake it

Detail of Geoffrey Farmer’s “Boneyard.”Casey Kaplan, New York

Modest prediction: A lot of people — teenagers, aunties, granddads, you name it — are going to come out of the Geoffrey Farmer exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art with a bit of an art crush.

I know I did. Even now, as I write at my desk just a few hours later, I can’t seem to shake it.

What have I just seen? Three bodies of work — or really, three works — in three medium-size rooms, all by Geoffrey Farmer, an artist from Vancouver in his late 40s who recently was selected to represent Canada at the next Venice Biennale.


All three of the show’s component parts are great to look at. But the first, in which Farmer has installed 365 handmade sculptures on a forest of tall plinths and on shelves stacked high on the wall, is by far the most impressive.

Each sculpture — one for each day of the year — resembles a puppet with a sacklike cloth for the torso. The head, limbs, and other appendages are made up of photographs cut up and pasted onto card-thin supports, to create collaged approximations of human forms.

They are superbly inventive: surreal, funny, psychologically jolting.

The cloths that form the torsos are simple, fastidiously tailored, and different in each case. The elements of photo-collage were all taken from books Farmer salvaged from a Vancouver bookstore that was going out of business.

Although they are two-dimensional, these cut-out noses, eyes, masks, arms, and fingers extend from the torsos at different angles, so that each figure must be perceived in the round. And since they have been culled from printed photographs, they each have their own discreet internal spatial logic.

The result, in each individual figure, is a furious little storm system of dislocated body parts, signs, and accessories, all somehow adding up to the same thing: a human figure.


We are used to seeing photographs, and even photographic collages, as illusions printed on a flat surface. What’s wonderful about Farmer’s sculptures is that they read in entirely different ways from different angles.

They’re like small-scale versions of Picasso’s sheet-metal sculptures, onto which he painted Cubistic two-dimensional designs, but updated to the photographic era. (Picasso himself made photo-collages, in some cases collaborating with his lover, Dora Maar, but never in three dimensions.)

As you circle Farmer’s figures, they keep snapping into resolution, breaking apart, then resolving into something else, something completely different. Each one is Janus-faced, almost digital. It beats a kind of pulse as you walk around it: on/off, meaningful/meaningless, coherent/discordant. The random texts that correspond to each numbered figure in an accompanying publication reinforce the effect.

Any of us might try our hands at something like this. But how many could pull it off? Farmer’s sculptures are like little pranks, perversely free, yet bound to bodily logic. Each one is at the same time languidly loose and bandaged tight, like a slurred sax solo in a James Brown jam.

The work touches simultaneously on what holds us together — our bodies, our common mortal fate — and what pulls us apart: an inescapable apprehension of meaninglessness and absurdity.

The threat of the arbitrary has probably always plagued human consciousness. But in our present era of rampant digital connectivity, moral fragmentation, and image glut, we are feeling it with special force. Farmer is fascinated by photography because the medium connects us to the arbitrary like no other. It’s ubiquitous, it’s easy, it’s determined to a large degree both by mechanical accident and instantaneity, and it is infinitely reproducible.


So the second piece of Farmer’s show is all about immersing us in photography’s meaninglessness. It’s a slideshow of more than 25,000 photographs rescued from redundant clipping libraries, digitally scanned, and projected sequentially onto a large screen. Each photograph has been tagged with various keywords, and the sequence and speed of the slide projection is determined by a kind of algorithm.

Thus, you might get a run of cute cats, titillating nudes, or war footage, or you might simply get a rapid sequence of completely random images. Certain images trigger prerecorded sounds, too, so the visual experience is accompanied by a soundtrack that is sometimes germane to the image, but more often not.

The idea of exhibiting a random photographic archive as art is not new. Gerhard Richter’s “Atlas” archive is perhaps the preeminent example. In a different vein, Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video montage, “The Clock,” organized random snippets from film and TV according to an intelligent principle that had nothing to do with the original context of the footage.

Farmer’s slideshow falls somewhere in between those examples, in a way that aligns neatly with the times: Its “intelligence” is algorithmic. We are in a world of likes, but not loves. The question of meaning is conveniently outsourced.


The show’s third component, “Boneyard,” is an installation of cut-out photographs of sculpture, carefully mounted on tiny supports and arranged on an elevated circular platform.

Each photograph is taken from a textbook on the history of sculpture, and represents the human body in various idioms, from the ancient and primitive to the virtuosic and idealized, and the modern and abstract.

As with the slideshow, there’s a kind of organizing principle, but the overwhelming impression is of crowding and randomness. A long, branching, and cumulative narrative — the whole history of sculpture! — is compressed into the flatness of an eternal, revolving present.

The idea of perceiving representations “in the round,” really the whole point of sculpture, is encouraged by the circular layout, only to be mocked by the two-dimensionality of each separate piece. The noble vessel that is the human body, and the sublime artistic tradition it has for so long inspired, are made to seem as fleeting, evanescent, and meaningless as clouds.

And perhaps, in the end, when we contemplate deep space and deep time, that is all we humans amount to — wisps of cloud.

Still, at least clouds are made up of air and water. Here, art itself is made to feel toxically cramped, a locked room crowded with people sucking in oxygen and breathing out poison. Nature is nowhere to be found in this sterile display. Man, it seems to suggest, is the measure of all things, including his own demise.

And yet at the same time, just like the Internet, Farmer’s dizzying display is more than a bit marvelous: Click, click. Scroll, scroll. Like, like. Wow, take a look at this!


Geoffrey Farmer

At Institute of Contemporary Art, through July 17. 617-478-3100,

Sebastian Smee can be reached at