A stranger completely like myself

The famous Giardini della Biennale, established by Napoleon Bonaparte by the end of the 19th century, are located at the eastern edge of the city. Well-known architects such as Alvar Aalto, Zeev Rechter or Gerrit Rietveld were given the opportunity to build national pavilions there representing their countries at the Biennale di Venezia.

Strolling around in the parks, visitors face a cross-section of 20th century architecture, starting from the somewhat clumsy Belgian pavilion (by Léon Sneyers, 1907) the Hungarian, German and British pavilion designed in 1909, the French and Swedish pavilions of 1912. In the following decades, numerous architects (e.g. Gerrit Rietveld, Bruno Giacometti) from different architectural streams (De Stijl, Minimalism) implemented their ideas. The International Modern Australian pavilion (by Denton Corker Marshall Architects) is so far the only one that was not built or re-built in the 20th century, and opened in 2015.

Architecture in general is, just like national anthems or the flags, an essential part of a nation’s constituting process (however, one can ask if those symbols are still needed today). Landmark buildings symbolise the social component of a nation. By the same token, they act as a realm in which identities are generated and expressed, and the national pavilions at Venice Biennale are no exception in this regard.

But here the architecture not only provides physical and ideological frames (and boundaries) for the installed works of art. Often enough the handling of the architecture becomes an actual part of them. The possibilities of dealing with the built world are, of course, countless.

In 1993, artist Hans Haacke won the Golden Lion for smashing Hitler’s marble floor in the German pavilion completely. With this act of re-shaping the building’s architectonic structure, he created a metaphoric description of Germany’s past. In 2009 (Germany won again), the artists (-as-curators) Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset transformed both the Danish and the Nordic pavilions (which includes Finland, Norway and Sweden) into domestic environments with living room, kitchen and garden plus swimming pool. Titled “The Collectors’”, the multinational work approaches the mechanisms and psychology of collecting (of both, art and ex-lovers’ swim suits, in this particular case) in an innovative and even entertaining way.

Elmgreen and Dragset translated the traditionally close cultural ties between the Nordic countries (and Denmark!) into an extensive installation. The artists did not just overcome but expanded the architectural boundaries of an international cooperation which, in fact, had never been done before.

The ‚Enemy Of The Museum‘ At The 57th Venice Biennale

For the 57th Biennale, curator Christine Macel issued the motto of “Viva Arte Viva”(or as they say now: #VivaArteViva) in order to explicitly “mute” issues of politics or society, but to address “arts for the art’s sake”. Some countries such as Nigeria and Brazil refused to follow Macel here (and they did greatly). But others, of course, did, which also led to extraordinary works. The Canadians for instance, selected Geoffrey Farmer, a Vancouver-based artist to exhibit his work in the pavilion and, well…

Farmer, infamously known as the “enemy of the museum” (a label given by Jessica Morgan, curator of the DIA Art Foundation) deconstructed the Canadian pavilion extensively: he opened the roof of the pavilion and dismounted parts of the façade and the entire glass front including the entrance. The whole work consists of a number of surreal bronze objects including a man-sized mantis and the Wounded Man, a wounded hall clock. In the center of the opened space, a fountain has been built, splashing nine meters high. 71 planks have been arranged in and around the pavilion, partly around the edge of the fountain.

By taking a closer look, the building appears as a spatial depiction of Farmers identity in the shape of a walkable Deleuzian rhizome. Deleuze developed his idea of a multi-rooted and non-hierarchical structure to describe the genesis of systems such as culture, knowledge or in this case: identity.1

The point of departure of A way out of the mirror is a photograph, taken in the summer of 1955. It depicts a collision of a Canadian timber truck and a train. The truck was driven by Farmer’s unlucky grandfather Victor. Geoffrey never got to know him in person since he himself was born in Vancouver in 1967. Victor indeed survived the crash but died soon after, probably due to the late effects of the accident. The planks in the installation were piled according this picture. The fountain resembles a fountain at the San Francisco Art Institute, where Farmer graduated. The Wounded Man, injured by tools such as an axe or a pickaxe, seems to represent the artist himself.

As does the mantis: sitting reading on a tree stump, a scissor in its back – a self-portrait (according to the artist) and alluding to La Mante, grande by Germaine Richier. The title, A way out of the mirror, was borrowed from Laughing Gas, a poem by Allen Ginsberg. And then, there is the water. And it’s everywhere, obviously interlinking the sculptures, it splashes and flows in irregular intervals and in a cheeky, cheerful and almost a bit stubborn way out of the installations, a striking metaphor for the life itself.

Farmer became an artist somewhat unintentionally. He started his career at the age of 21 when he attended an art class with his sister in 1988 and there is actually not much else to the story. He graduated from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver and San Francisco Art Institute. Farmers works are multi-media. He often uses photographs, sculptures or media art to create complex installations that interact with the space by making noise or moving. With A way out of the mirror, Farmer compiles manifestations of various events, stories, objects, feelings and deeds, he is publicly exhibiting the rhizome that literally shapes his identity.

Farmer transforms the formerly closed pavilion into an outward facing open space and arranges it around a personal story. In breaking up the given structure of the pavilion radically (which is also possible due to upcoming construction measures), Farmer’s work demonstrates powerful emotion, either aggression or indifference, grief or resilience. According to curator Kitty Scott, the work discharges emotion “in spurts and drips as tears, ejaculate and sweat”.

His work seems to be an attempt to overcome the era of the white cube which has often been declared as finally dead (since at least 1978), even though the 2017 Biennale proves overly optimistic seers wrong in this regard. Farmer does not, however, provide the most remarkable piece of art of this year’s Biennale. But he offers an interesting way to deal openly with the roots of his artistic work and last but not least of his own person. Therefore it fits precisely in the frame of Christine Macel’s bright and shiny proviso, “Viva Arte Viva”.

The opening weekend provided a remarkable episode to the visitor: as if the artist tried to give a fuller picture of the art world, a staff member (holding an arts degree, as he told me) had to be assigned to the Canadians to ensure from backstage that no water of the fountain would flow into the property of the British next door. His choice of arms: a wet vacuum cleaner.

Deleuze G, Guattari F. Mille Plateaux. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit; 1980.

This article was first published on ex-hibit.art on August 14th, 2017.


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