It's a measure of the esteem in which Geoffrey Farmer is held in the art world – and the anticipation that attends the debut of a new work by him – that a pre-exhibition talk and "slide show" by the Vancouver artist at the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall drew more than 100 attentive attendees earlier this week. After, a reception in the gallery's Walker Court was cluttered with a who's who of prominent collectors, curators, administrators and fellow artists, Michael Snow, Scott McFarland and Shary Boyle among them.
The occasion was the world premiere of Every day needs an urgent whistle blown into it, described as both "a son et lumiere" (sound and light) by Farmer and "a generative composition" collaboration with fellow Vancouverite and electronics artist Brady Marks. Running through early September, the exhibition is Farmer's first at the AGO since 1998's Hunchback Kit and part of the honours package awarded the laureate of the annual $50,000 Gershon Iskowitz Prize, which Farmer won in June last year.
Now 47, Farmer's been something of an international art-world darling for a decade. Famous for the eclecticism and avidity of his compendious interests and a practice that has encompassed sculpture, found objects, video, sound, drawing, painting, performance and detritus juxtaposed in expressive, arresting configurations, he has been on an especially well-received roll the last two years. There was Leaves of Grass, his sprawling 2012 installation at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, featuring some 15,000 paper images – faces, animals, consumer products, machines – clipped from 50 years of Life magazines, arranged chronologically and categorically on stalks of dried grass. (It's now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada.) Last fall he turned an enormous gallery at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton into a spooky walk-through called The Intellection of Lady Spider House. Also last fall, in a ravishing piece titled Boneyard at Toronto's Mercer Union, he mounted hundreds of tiny figures, mostly images of sculptures cut from discarded art books, on a huge white circular plinth.
Alas, fans of those shows are likely to find Every day needs an urgent whistle blown into it more dry cup of soup than tall glass of water. The installation/environment is situated in the spacious Henry Moore Sculpture Centre on the AGO's second floor, where Farmer has positioned some 15 plaster assemblages by the famous British artist in pretty much the same configurations as they were when first installed in 1974. (Another six will be brought on-site once their use in the AGO's Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty show ends July 20.)
To help restore what he calls "the original mechanisms of the Moore space," Farmer has also screened off the northern view of the Galleria Italia designed six years ago by Frank Gehry – a fixture Farmer likens to a "glass-and-wooden battleship that has blasted a cannonball through Moore's thinking." Six speakers have been positioned at various points near the ceiling. Near the centre of the Centre, there's a cluster of 20-plus lights of various sizes, intensities, colours and ranges of motion, their automated actions on the Moores and exhibition visitors synchronized to produce "a series of vignettes" in tandem with a rotating potpourri of short audio clips. (During my one-hour visit the other day, I heard, among other things, crickets chirping by a stream, artillery explosions, garage-band rock, sound poetry, bird songs and the voices of Winston Churchill and a woman claiming to be Jackie Onassis "looking for some action" in Times Square. Outside the space one finds three vitrines with Moore-themed objets – a photo of a slag heap, the light for a miner's helmet lamp (Moore's father was a coal miner), a book of Etrsucan sculpture, a reproduction of a de Chirico painting with a Moore-like sculpture reclining in a piazza.
If all this sounds rich, dense, sophisticated, well yeah. Unfortunately, the execution is such that Every day needs an urgent whistle blown into it never achieves the lyricism needed to alchemize concept and constituent elements into a satisfying whole.
Part of this has to do with the space itself. The natural light coming down through the AGO skylights, especially at this time of the year when days are long, is simply too strong. As a result, the shadowy and luminous effects created by Farmer's light station on Moore's bodies and those of the exhibition's visitors register more as evanescent gliss than "urgent whistle."
Then there are the Moores themselves. In deploying sound and light, it's clear Farmer wants to tease out whatever animative/animistic/amatory possibilities are latent in Moore's Neolithic forms. But finally, for the most part, they're simply too grounded and solid to get up and dance. One exception is Two Piece Reclining Figure #1, whose sexual content Farmer makes cheekily explicit with the help of a quilted blanket used by conservators.
In a recent e-mail interview (Farmer prefers them to in-person interviews, and, boyishly handsome though he is, doesn't like to have his picture taken), Farmer said the Moore Sculpture Centre was not his first choice as the locale in which to realize the Iskowitz commission. "We were originally going to show a mechanical play that I produced last year … a musical of sorts about the life of Frank Zappa. [Titled Let's Make the Water Turn Black after a 1968 Zappa compostion of the same name, the sound sculpture marked Farmer's first solo presentation in Switzerland.] For various reasons it wasn't possible, and then Kitty Scott [the AGO's curator of contemporary and modern art] and I began to talk about the Henry Moore space. It is a space that I have always been interested in; I think a lot of artists are. … There is a clarity there."
The clarity, unfortunately, doesn't extend to the room's acoustics, which are on the cavernous side. Then again there seems to have been some intentionality to this. According to Farmer, "I wanted to return the space back to its original configuration to hear how it might have sounded in 1974." Another Farmer intention was to scatter platforms throughout the space to permit visitors to "recline, rest or sleep" as the vignettes rolled through the day.
Alas, that part of the installation has been "reconsidered," an AGO spokesperson says. Now there are just a couple of squishy faux-Mies backless couches near the space's entry. It's too bad: The platforms could have helped make the Moore centre into a kind of Platonic cave, the recliners immersed like Plato's prisoners on the border of art and life, alternately entranced and bored by the play of light and shadow, sound and silence.
Every day needs an urgent whistle blown into it opens Saturday at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto for a run ending Sept. 7.