Geoffrey Farmer “A way out of the mirror” at Canada Pavilion, Venice Biennale
Geoffrey Farmer interviewed by Lorenzo Benedetti
Lorenzo Benedetti: BBPR architects designed the Canadian Pavilion in 1958. It is an asymmetrical, complex, and discursive architecture that is continuing in a certain way in your proposal, where we assist in a collision between different elements: from personal references to a collective symbolic identity. Your participation at the 57th edition of the Biennale di Venezia seems to investigate the role of the place and its manifold meanings. What was the starting point?
Geoffrey Farmer: There is a sculpture of a tortoise in my project that is a copy of a wooden one I found in the coffee area of the Kunstgiesserei in St. Gallen, where I developed and made the work for Venice. It reminded me of a story attributed to a lecture that Bertrand Russell gave on the nature of our galaxy. At the end of the lecture a woman stands up and declares that the lecture was rubbish (Stephen Hawking wrote about it in A Brief History of Time). She then goes on to inform Russell that the world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant turtle. Russell asks her, “What the turtle is standing on?” and the women replies, “It’s turtles all the way down!” The tortoise in my project is resting on the floor of the pavilion, with a book balanced on its back, and on top of this is an empty food can spewing water. In my mind, it is also linked to an illustration from Zakariya al-Qazwini’s book Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing, which was written in the thirteenth century. When I arrived at the pavilion for the first time, I found a small sprout cracking out of its seed. It looked like a turtle with something growing out of its back. It was expanding into a greater being from a very small existence. I looked at the Canadian Pavilion, the trees sprouting out of it, the deep roots emerging out of the ground around my feet, and I realized that this tortoise, this pavilion, this site, this moment was the starting point of the project.
LB: The history of the Canadian Pavilion, as with all the pavilions in the Giardini, is a combination of many different layers, showing that elements like topography or architecture all have symbolic meanings translating the past in present form. Your presence seems to be about a kind of awareness of being in a highly symbolic place.
GF: What I discovered by digging a little around the pavilion is that it sits on the rubble of the former Castello quarter that was torn down by Napoleon. If you dig deeper than fifty centimeters, you need to have an archaeologist present. The Canadian Pavilion was paid for by war reparation money and designed by BBPR, a Milanese architectural firm whose founding member died in the Mauthausen extermination camp for being a resistance fighter. When the firm reestablished after the war, one of their first projects was a nonfigurative monument for the victims of the concentration camps. They designed the Canadian Pavilion ten years later, and it sits next to the German Pavilion, whose only renovation after the war was having the eagle and swastika removed. BBPR chose what many in Canada have interpreted as a kind of tipi design, which when you consider the genocide that occurred to the Indigenous peoples with the arrival of the Europeans, creates a very complicated and highly symbolic place.
LB: One of the starting points are some images of your grandfather’s truck crash. The translation in an extended bronze installation and the use of water creates an interesting concept of anti-monumentality.
GF: I recently found these photographs of an accident he was involved in 1955. A train hit his lumber truck and hurled it down the track, spreading lumber planks in a chaotic arrangement. It is an image that also describes the economic and resource extraction occurring at that time in Canada. The discovery of the collision, and his death, explained a lot of the dynamics I experienced with my father. The physical violence I experienced as a child seemed connected to it and is perhaps why the photographs felt familiar to me. I began to understand the impact it had on my father’s life, and unknowingly on mine. I began to understand the shame attached to his experience of poverty as a child, and my family’s escape from poverty in Great Britain, and the impact of this migration on the people who had already been inhabiting North America for thousands of years. It’s turtles all the way down.
at Canada Pavilion, Venice Biennale
until 26 November 2017