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The Canadian artist Geoffrey Farmer has transformed his country’s national pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale into a watery spectacle.
A way out of the mirror is an exhibition that lays bare not only the architectural structure of the 60 year-old pavilion but also the complex layering of identity on an individual, collective and national level.
As the Canadian pavilion prepares for a $3 million restoration, Farmer has been able to completely strip back the space, removing parts of the roof to create an open courtyard where multiple sculptures spray water.
Known for his multi-media work that incorporates collage, drawing and sculpture, Farmer has made a slight creative departure from previous work for this presentation that is inspired by the emotive work of beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the discovery of photographs that showed his paternal grandfather’s lumber truck after a collision with a train in the 1950s.
The pictorial ‘collision’ became the catalyst for Farmer’s Biennale project that unearths numerous histories including how the Canadian pavilion sits on Napoleonic rubble.
Here, Culture Trip’s Art & Design editor Freire Barnes spoke with Farmer during the biennale’s opening days about his extraordinary pavilion.
Culture Trip: What made you deconstruct the pavilion for your project?
Geoffrey Farmer: I was allowed to take parts of the pavilion apart because they are restoring it next year. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the pavilion to be the work, and that I wanted to grow the work out of the site,like the trees are growing out of the pavilion. And in that process I discovered that the pavilion is sitting on the former Costello that Napoleon tore down. That the architects from BBPR were creating architecture as a way to battle fascism and were resistance fighters during the war. And I really wanted the pavilion to be the work and open it to the Giardini but also as an expression of what was occurring within myself in that process of making the work for the Biennale.
CT: Why is water such a focus of the piece?
GF: I work kaleidoscopically. As a person I’m associative of the way I think and then I try to use something to bring all of that together and in this case I used water as the connector of all the different elements. But also to represent the universal force that is undefinable or is redefining itself in many facets. I guess it defines our planet, our bodies, our being and existence and to power the works and to bring the pavilion to life.
CT: The fountains recur throughout the pavilion. What is the significance of the main fountain?
GF: It’s actually a replica of the Washington Square Garden fountain in New York City which has been combined with a fountain in Chicago from the art institute where I was a student. I see water in this project in a sculptural sense so that the scale of this piece is constantly changing. For me, the geyser (a vent in the ground that periodically ejects a column of water) is emotional catharsis but it also functions like a clock.
CT: Can you talk about the many components at play, from personal reflection to national identity?
GF: The whole project is a series of different moments that I’ve brought together to coexist simultaneously. I’ve written a text, which stitches everything together and is about a collision that occurred in 1955 in which my grandfather’s lumber truck was hit by a train. This was a grandfather I didn’t know and in some way the piece has been an archeology of self, in coming to understand my family’s history and my father’s trauma which I never knew about.
It’s created so much more clarity about the dynamics of our own family and in a sense an empathetic viewing of. This can then extend to a sense of Canada as a kind of family and trying to understand how we function to define ourselves and what stories are being told and which stories aren’t being told and the different hierarchical power structures. Because being in the Biennale there is the question of nationhood which is such a question in our world right now. And I think the pavilion can be an expression of openness while also examining the traumas that have occurred in the nation’s creation.
CT: What does it mean to you to have been selected to represent Canada?
GF: It’s impossible for me to represent a country, I can represent myself. I think there is a responsibility to acknowledge the complexities of nationhood in the work and it’s a difficult and onerous task to take on. So I respect every artist who’s ever had to make their work in this context. I much prefer to be water in an undefinable sense. I think most artists would not want to be solely defined by the country they come from certainly in this time when there is so much mixture and need for us to be open and empathetic.
CT: What do you hope people will walk away with?
GF: I hope people get wet.
CT: What has it been liking working towards showing at the Venice Biennale?
GF: It’s been so amazing to have conversations with the different artists who have come to participate in the Biennale. Meet the people they are working with and the camaraderie that exists for the year that I’ve been coming back and forth, has been a really great experience. I think though, the idea of national pavilions is something that might need to be questioned and for most artists there is a sense of uncomfortableness and perhaps it feels somehow unnecessary in this moment. So I have some conflicted feelings.
CT: What do you love about Venice?
GF: It’s an extraordinary city. The way it’s surrounded by fluidity and the history in architectural form, and art and culture. I think defines complexity. It’s such a complex city.
CT: Do you have any rituals when you come here?
GF: I think walking at night is one of the most beautiful experiences you can have. The fact there are no cars, that you can hear your footsteps, the reflections on the water. I love getting up early in the morning running through the streets. I love Sant’Elena and the park there and I think obviously getting out on the water to get a sense how it exists with the other islands surrounding it.