The Canadian Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale has been partially destroyed. Its roof has been punctured, so it seems, by some inexplicable disaster. On the ground, in the middle of the building stands a ruin of a fountain constructed out of wood and tile. At first glance, the fixture seems to repeatedly malfunction. Water shoots from its many spouts erratically, oscillating back and forth between unexpected geyser-like bursts and short, disappointing streams. The structure seems unsure of its identity: at times mimicking the sublime violence of Yosemite’s Old Faithful or, at others, performing the role of a neglected municipal drinking fountain. On the far east corner of the building, a crumpled duvet appears abandoned, sprawled out and folded as if to index the departed presence of a solitary inhabitant. In the north corner of the pavilion sits a statue of a praying mantis, its back turned away from the wreckage. On the opposite end, stands a wounded steam-clock with multiple axes stuck to its four sides – axes that also happen to project water out of their handles and blades. The general state of ruin of the pavilion, the strange collection of objects, the fountain’s unpredictable nature; all force its audience onto its back foot, often to the far edge of the structure in a state of absorbed bewilderment.
The complex interweaving of destruction, fear, collapse, and humor forms the central constellation in Geoffrey Farmer’s 2017 installation, A way out of the mirror. In a technical sense, the pavilion has not been destroyed (and in actual fact, the installation’s deconstructed appearance is also aided by an ongoing restoration project.) One comes to realize that the artist has removed the building’s windows in a gesture that actively collapses the distinction between inside and outside – an act that troubles the reinforced epistemological threshold between interiority and exteriority. Collapse is brought to a standstill. Cast in aluminum, brass, and bronze, the scattered objects – the ruffled duvet, strewn timbers, monstrous clocks – are choices that accentuate the work’s provisional monumentality, but also impart a reality effect upon a rather unreal scene.
Farmer’s installation has been predominantly interpreted through the artist’s own conceptual framing. As journalists and art writers have continuously emphasized, A way out of the mirror is premised on the artist’s relationship to two found press photographs that the artist’s sister discovered, depicting a car crash involving their grandfather, his subsequent death, and the familial trauma surrounding that sequence of events.
When encountering the work and coming to terms with this personal narrative, a significant gap exists between Farmer’s story and how the work exists in situ. As it stands, the current landscape of interpretation reads as thematically crude and conceptually impoverished. The coverage, so far, particularly in the Globe and Mail, has been promotional, studded with quotes from both the artist and curator, who have largely led the narrative on this work’s reception. However, recourse to biography and the authorial voice seems especially incongruous, given the title of the work: “A way out of the mirror.” On the whole, this title encourages the rejection of a reflectionist model of interpretation: one founded on the belief that the artwork simply mirrors the structures and motivations of society, national identity, or the artist’s own traumatized psyche.
Journalists and critics often characterize water metaphorically – and therapeutically. Farmer’s fountain is said to perform a cathartic role: working through and ultimately overcoming the inherited trauma of his past. This crude metaphor or syllogism (water = purification) runs aground with the actual mobilization of water within the pavilion. This ruinous geyser doesn’t bring catharsis to mind, nor does it help describe a neglected pooling of water on 17th-century Masegni stone. Failure, violence, obstinance, dissonance, and, ultimately, ambivalence read as more exacting descriptors. Water, here, is plentiful and promiscuous: neither consistent nor easily definable.
Perhaps a more precise way to interpret Farmer’s structure is as a disobedient object: an object no longer capable of fulfilling its function as a quaint domesticated fixture, nor totally convincing as a manifestation of catharsis or grief. Catharsis is often a word used to describe the artistic terrain of social practice. In contrast, the fountain is emphatically asocial. In its disobedience, the artwork seems more intent on erratically “acting out” its symptoms, rather than “working through” them. This is no Trevi Fountain, nor does it act as a “fountain of knowledge,” as one recent Globe and Mail article claimed. From most angles, the font simply reads as the source of the building’s breach. Its real pathology, if one can even use this term, is its compulsion to malfunction: a condition apparent in its incapacity to act decisively or harmoniously within the world. Sculpture has historically posed the object as either the product of the subject’s psycho-social disposition (Rodin, Giacometti), or as a uniquely haptic and intuitive product of a life lived with materials (Brancusi, Hesse). Volatile and contingent, Farmer’s work stands apart, in an ambivalent relationship to both these notions of corporeality.
But pathology – with its emphasis on pathos – might also be the wrong frame for understanding Farmer’s work. Bathos, the opposite of pathos in literary studies, might be a better conceptual anchor: a concept that describes an amusingly anticlimactic scene or device. The bathos of the fountain is encountered through the object’s incapacity to render its own effects sublime. Perhaps, then, water does read as an appropriate aesthetic material, since bathos is often associated with the vertiginous experience of drowning (In the work of Alexander Pope, for instance).
The bathetic sinking feeling also aligns with Farmer’s own title. “A way out of the mirror” is the title from a fragment of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Laughing Gas,” from the book of poetry, Kaddish and Other Poems 1958-1960. The poem describes multiple visits Ginsberg took to his dentist office where he was administered nitrous oxide – laughing gas. Amid drill sounds, Mickey Mouse cartoons, and Muzak, the poem productively tarries between conscious and unconscious states. In particular, Ginsberg lingers within that moment of wakefulness, that indistinct point in time when consciousness seems to stumble in-and-out of awareness. The full line from which Farmer took his title reads:
History will keep repeating
itself forever like the woman
in the image on the Dutch Cleanser box
A way out of the mirror
was found by the image
that realized its existence
a stranger completely like myself
A way out for ever! has not been found
to enter the ground whence the images
rise, and repeat themselves.
What is the mirror that the poem describes? Is it consciousness itself? Self-awareness? Or something more material? Despite the opacity of the question, the poem provides a clear answer: the way out is through an estranged image – an image not harnessed through conventional means. Indeed, the image reflected will always be strange; in the case of Geoffrey Farmer’s work, the image and its world will also be shattered.
This foregrounds a neglected question: what scenario has caused this irreparable break? Coincidentally, another piece that helps navigate the structure of Farmer’s pavilion is right next door: Phyllida Barlow’s installation, folly (2017), in the British pavilion. Here, the artist constructed a sprawling anti-monument to the provisional – a perilous construction built with interweaving scaffolding, cardboard, plywood, and fabric. Folly courts danger as an aesthetic condition. Barlow’s work produces a split in the spectatorial encounter, one that assumes the look of disaster but also the appearance of reconstruction – albeit one gone awry. In interviews published online, Barlow spoke of the importance of going outside the building, “to spill its guts.” As with Farmer’s pavilion, we encounter the forceful collapse of the interior onto the exterior, a gesture that violently exposes the support structures of the building, but also objectifies them, rendering them strange and obtuse.
Barlow’s large-scale sculptures are best understood as anti-monuments: works that assume the scale and stature of the commemorative monument but ultimately undermine its logic and thrust through material and conceptual precariousness.
Mining a similar vein, Farmer’s own work forces us to read the fountain’s “disobedience” as a form of irreverence towards history, identity, and conceptual solidity. Any metaphor crudely fastened to Farmer’s installation simply fails to stick. The world of the work is broken, and obliges its audience to navigate the conditions of calamity. Speaking of this fragmented and destructive aspect, Farmer has associated his method to the operations of a kaleidoscope, a luminous medium subject to chance and fragmentation. With each rotation, a new mode of sensory perception and embodiment arranges itself. Considering the predominantly immobile nature of the work, it might be more appropriate, however, to read Farmer’s kaleidoscope as smashed, its mirrors and colored glass scattered across the ground as a resplendent but broken field of vision. The mirror still exists, but now in a dispersed form.
Near the end of his life, Walter Benjamin wrote a fragment where he associated the movements of capitalism to the turns of a child’s kaleidoscope. “The course of history, seen in terms of the concept of catastrophe, can actually claim no more attention from thinkers than a child’s kaleidoscope, which with every turn of the hand dissolves the established order into a new array. There is profound truth in this image. The concepts of the ruling class have always been the mirrors that enabled an image of order to prevail. The kaleidoscope must be smashed.” A broken kaleidoscope scatters into a brilliant constellation. Benjamin and Farmer both cast destruction in an affirmative light, as a founding political and aesthetic gesture capable of activating the world’s deadened and reified objects. Illumination is brought to a standstill.
I don’t want to rain on your parade, but I found that calling a stick a work of art made no difference to the stick, it remained a stick no matter who claims otherwise.