There is a lot of art around that is about art, art-making and art history. I don’t care for it any more than I care for reading books about grammar or literary theory. But with art history as his subject, as well as sources from literature and popular culture, Vancouver-based Geoffrey Farmer makes us question what we expect of art in the first place. His solo exhibition ‘The Last Two Million Years’ – his first in Europe – was organized by London’s The Drawing Room and toured to the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sunderland, and then to Spacex in Exeter. The show made art-historical discourses its starting-point but took us somewhere else entirely. Farmer leads us to question how we look at objects, and what meanings they elicit.
Farmer, the press release tells us, happened upon an encyclopaedia called The Last Two Million Years lying in the street, and this provided the inspiration for the show. Originally put out by publishing giant Reader’s Digest in the 1970s, The Last Two Million Years isn’t in high demand any more. (I purchased a copy from Amazon for 72 pence.) But Farmer’s work isn’t just the result of chance: his text is selected and offers endless interpretations. Reader’s Digest’s attempt to encapsulate the history of the world in 500 pages was ambitious if not ridiculous, yet this exhibition – a myriad of images cut from its pages to make a collaged installation – reassembles history, creating a tension between truth and fiction. Accompanying the cut-out images with which Farmer constructed his own paper universe was a small booklet containing the titles of the works. It is unfinished at present; he changes and adds to it as the exhibition grows. The artist often does this, building in to his work a degree of openness, of instability, he doesn’t consider works complete when they enter an exhibition. The exhibition marks one moment in the art work’s life. The titles here range from a single word to a near page-long paragraph: many are found texts from the pages of The Last Two Million Years; others are his descriptions of the re-appropriated images. The encyclopaedia is at once the source and the condition for this project.
A cut-out of Mahatma Gandhi was taped onto a narrow, tall plinth in the foyer. Next to him was an animal depicted out of proportion. Titled with one of Gandhi’s most famous quotes – ‘When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end they always fall – think of it, always’ – this little Gandhi packs a conceptual, and political, punch. Hundreds more such instances follow. In the main gallery, plinths are assembled to create a stage for the images to enact history on. Like animal crackers lined up on a child’s table, the figures parade up an ascending platform guiding us through Farmer’s interpretation of time. He intervenes and plays God in this puppet show of history: Native Americans paddle a dug-out canoe next to Viking ships. Elsewhere, the most infamous image of the Vietnam War, Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked from a napalm bomb, is placed in front of an astronaut. Leeringly, the astronaut stumbles towards her. Scale is meaningless here: fleas carrying the bubonic plague dwarf figures cut from 15th-century Flemish paintings. Early flying machines leap off ancient masks. In this window of human history, stories we know in isolation collide in an abyss.
Which brings me to Aby Warburg. Born to a German banking empire, he is said, according to legend, to have sold the privilege of being the future head of the family in return for his brothers’ promise to support him as a scholar until the end of his life. Having studied art history and archaeology in Bonn, Warburg is best known for his founding work in iconology and innovative knowledge montages. What made him so extraordinary as an art historian was his interest in the way that types of images recurred across history, particularly as seen in his Mnemosyne Atlas, an archive of pin boards of juxtaposed images from across philosophy and image history. Of Warburg’s assemblage of images and objects, Philippe-Alain Michaud writes: ‘This is not a closed field of knowledge; it is a whirling, centrifugal field.’
This open system is where Farmer is so precise with his chaotic archive. The exhibition and the art work were one and the same here. A frontispiece of sorts hung at the entry to the main gallery. A mounted collage of text read: ‘from a cloud of / verfremdungseffekt / the last two million years / inhabit / an almost inconceivably incomplete / system.’ Verfremdungseffekt, a principle of historicization, is a process of emotionally distancing theatre audiences from the on-stage action. Coined by Bertolt Brecht, it points to Farmer’s interest in reality and artifice. By making an encyclopaedia his medium, he constructs a complex discourse about the act of exhibiting, and of what we hope to gain by going through this scripted role of looking at objects for enlightenment. And in so doing, Farmer poses questions far beyond art; he questions how art incites knowledge production, and vice versa, on a much broader scale.