Fillip 5 — Spring 2007

There Is a Horizon
Colleen Brown

In all of Geoffrey Farmer’s continually shifting installations, a visit to the gallery on any particular day would be a visit to a completed work. Although the exhibitions are in constant flux, open gallery hours are moments of stationary display. The completion is similar to the compositional whole of a carefully selected film still. Farmer acts just outside of the viewer’s direct experience while the gallery is closed. Some of his actions, intended for the camera, explore the physical possibilities of objects. The recordings of Farmer on video are limited to limbs entering the frame or as an off-camera animating force. Evidence of other actions can only be accessed by witnessing the daily expansion and contraction of the exhibitions. Successive alterations of these works offer a direct expression of time not often afforded to matter.

The exhibition began with a minimalist appearance. The opening view of a whole object was constructed from a section of a commercial jet abstracted by removing the exterior fuselage in order to expose its serial construction. The plane had been used as a film set that Farmer found, long abandoned, in a barn located in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. Farmer used only the section of the jet most familiar to travellers: the passenger cabin with its rows of seats, tray-tables, luggage holds, and windows. A platform raised the set to waist height. From the rear of the plane, where the tail would have been, a long view down the aisle of seats was exposed. Raising the floor of the plane provided a view of the cabin from a low and unfamiliar angle. A close look at the set gave the impression of revealing secrets of filmmaking and planemaking. Although I relish having movie magic undone, I do not actually want to know about plane magic. I prefer to continue to think that real planes are held together with magic bolts, not the real bolts I could see all too clearly from my low view into the plane.

Plane anxieties range from niggling thoughts of technological hubris to persistent visions of crashes and explosions. Plane anxiety is about expansion. Even if travellers have overcome these fears, they must embark knowing that they will inevitably arrive at their destination with parts of themselves persisting in a different time zone. The cabin holds its occupants in stasis, muting the forces at work outside, while the plane brings two distant points side-by-side. Foreign geographies and cultures that are physically and cognitively distant become very close to us in time. Through air travel, private and collective panic attacks comingle with spatial and temporal liberation.

Farmer’s first act in investigating the plane was to begin draping the exterior hull with coloured strips of fabric that functioned as festive camouflage. The cut-up strips obscured the shiny technology, weighing down the jet and transforming it into a softened, lumbering mass. In the video, Farmer obscured his own form in the same way, disappearing into the background of the larger lump that described the scale of the plane. As the exhibition continued, the fabric that had also invaded the plane’s hull was removed and the set was carefully swept. Many small gestures that were played out in the cabin of the aircraft were recorded on video. In one sequence, a broom and Farmer (shot from the waist down) were partners in a dance. The monitor displaying this video was positioned so that as I watched it, I could look past the monitor to the set being recorded by the camera. I was standing where the camera had been. The set in front of me had advanced to a different stage in the installation from the time that the video was shot. There was a displacement between a stationary, three-dimensional present, to a moving and framed two-dimensional past.

In the weeks that followed, the exhibition opened out and spread through the gallery. Discrete sculptures were added, removed, and replaced by stand-ins with a formal or performative relationship to their predecessors. In an early stage of the installation, a sculpture appeared built of two cubes of different sizes that were pushed together to make a framed ledge. The addition of a small, three-legged form changed the ledge into a path. It was only after this formal sculpture was removed and replaced with a wheeled pallet that I understood the original work as a representation of what a dolly does in filmmaking. Later, the wheeled pallet was removed but continued to be represented in video.

The familiarity of the materials and methods used in these discrete elements allowed for a certain fluidity in the experience of temporal displacement. Farmer’s actions on video were simple gestures I was able to mentally repeat while standing in the installation. Because there were no hidden fasteners or complicated tools used in the construction, it was possible to imagine what had occurred in the past and anticipate what would happen in the future.

Growth in the physical exhibition coupled with the displacements occurring in time creates a metaphysical conundrum. Answering the where and when of it (which might result in a sense of its boundaries and essence) is impossible to locate in its physical presence. The temporal and spatial boundlessness results in a conceptual work through a maximal aesthetic seemingly antithetical to the restrained aesthetic of conceptual art’s past. One motivation for the earlier restraint of conceptual art was a resistance to an idea’s confinement within a particular,1 a desire to cleave the idea from the world. In contrast, Farmer’s practice laces the idea through an overwhelming mass of distant, worldly particulars. In this way, the work defies a totalizing summary. The undefined collection of particulars becomes the rough edge of the unbounded idea.

In this metaphysical conundrum, I see Farmer lending a portion of his agency to objects, or his chosen particulars. This is slowly built up for the viewer by anthropomorphizing the objects in figuration and animating them in video, collaborating with them, and linking their actions in drawings. Although it begins in anthropomorphism, the borrowed agency suggests the possibility of our meeting the objects on equal ground. The transference of agency becomes most convincing when acting out the objects’ physical character for the camera. By exploring the possibilities of displacement between his time and place, and our time and place, Farmer foregrounds the qualities of the material lying between these two points.

In one video sequence, the camera is on the floor presenting a view of a broken light bulb. Slowly, Farmer slides a mirror along the ground into the frame. This resembles some sort of movie trick used to make things disappear. But in this case, the mirror’s capacities to be a barrier and a reflective surface are expressed openly. As the mirror advances into the frame the camera enters the reflection. With the mirror halfway through the frame, there are two competing horizons in the image. One horizon marks the surface the mirror rests on that is recorded by the camera. The second horizon marks the surface where the camera sits that is being reflected back by the mirror. The mirror is then slowly (always slowly) used like a broom to sweep away the broken glass of the light bulb. At all of the points in the video most amenable to the sign—the entrance of the camera, the use of the mirror for disappearance, naming the mirror as broom—I found myself delaying signification for as long as possible so I could learn something else from the image as well as something about the material.

Then the plane disappeared. The discrete objects, video monitors, and drawings were packed away. The contraction of the objects made the gallery appear larger than it had at earlier stages of the exhibition and linked the scale of the work more closely to the space of the gallery itself. In fact, the measurements of the absent plane set, 15.3 × 3.7 × 3.4 meters, were the measurements of Catriona Jeffries’ previous gallery. Farmer was one of the first artists to exhibit in the newer and larger space. The lights were dimmed and a projection occupied the entire back wall of the gallery. The exhibition had the appearance of a contemporary media installation. Footage previously seen on monitors was edited down and scaled-up for projection. The looped video included a shot down the aisle of seats slowly panning the cabin from side to side and a sequence of short cuts of Farmer’s actions. A large image of a plane window was projected onto each of the two side walls of the gallery, pressing our memory of the plane outward to the boundary of the gallery wall. Blank, white, projected light filled these windows. In one of the windows, there was a low and shadowy, slowly moving horizon line. This collection of particulars is currently in a storage configuration.

  1. I am referring to the general category “particular” held in opposition to the idea. All objects I can think of are particulars and all moments in time are particulars. Concepts with clear practical repercussions are particulars. All instances of art are particulars but the idea of art is not. Often particulars are rejected because they are subject to the vulgarity of the world like economics, reinterpretation, erosion, and death.

Image: Geoffrey Farmer, For Every Jetliner Used In An Artwork… Courtesy of the artist

About the Author

Colleen Brown received her BA in Psychology from Simon Fraser University, her Diploma of Electrophysiology from the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and her BFA from Emily Carr Institute. Brown has exhibited work at the Helen Pitt Gallery, Artspeak, and Tracey Lawrence Gallery, Vancouver, and SKOL, Montréal.

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