Barbican London 26 March to 28 July
In a tidily scaled review, the hard visual and spatial characteristics of Geoffrey Farmer's exhibition at the Barbican, pointedly titled 'The Surgeon and the Photographer', beg to be established early on. There are, impressively, 365 figures--referred to as 'puppets'--all abstractly but anthropomorphically constructed from precisely trimmed snippets of old published material and varieties of fabric affixed to matte-black maquettes. They are set atop broad plinths in a vague procession that seems to be travelling counter to the viewer's movements (either direction she is walking) through the curious architectural extraneousness of the Barbican's Curve.
Following on from his similarly arranged Leaves of Grass, 2012, at the last Documenta, the artist has created a landscape of unified distinctness in which minuscule surprises proliferate without the overall work becoming arrhythmic. A bronze statue's beard or a hawk's head tops off a single profile, with two limbs, or possibly eight, thrust outward in activity. One character near the front of the gallery, upon circling around, has a bare and full-coloured arse. Though most of them seem to march in a loose congregation, a few robed loners, gently lit and remote, preside ominously as Bergman's Death or the wizard Tim in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In spite of the uniqueness of each there is a degree of regularity that one can see Farmer must have strained to honour, for too vital a single protagonist would have crumbled the harmony. The text for the show, if it were not for the strictures of exhibition production, might have been abbreviated (if not dropped entirely). Though the surgeon and the photographer of the subheading directly refer to Walter Benjamin's essay 'Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', these and any other implied exegetical connections are not much less garbled than most of contemporary art's reading of the German polymath's brief and subtle prewar examination of fledgling media.
The programme is punctuated by further tangential claims to influences of Native American tribes of the Pacific north-west. While citations of 'animism' are not articulated at enough length for their somewhat lazily mentioned fancies to properly congeal into naivety, they lean unnecessarily on a flimsy pop-mythic picture of ambient mysticism, as if Farmer's native Vancouver sported a shaman-staffed sweat lodge on every corner. Further decorative buttressing includes an epigrammatic quoting of Luigi Pirandello and the title of a complementary projection work, Look in my face; my name is might have been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell, which is lifted from a poem by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, also quoted in a photograph given by a lover to Marcel Proust. …