Geoffrey Farmer: Let’s Make the Water Turn Black

Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, 23 May – 18 August

By Terry R. Myers

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, 2013 (installation view, Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich). Photo: Lorenzo Pusterla. Courtesy the artist, Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver, and Casey Kaplan, New York

Between the first version of this capricious installation (at REDCAT in Los Angeles in 2011) and the most recent remix (with others to come), Geoffrey Farmer presented a work at Documenta 13 of stylistic and material focus that was tailor-made to be the visitor favourite it became. Leaves of Grass (2012) incorporates thousands of images cut from the pages of a full run of Life magazine that were attached to sticks like paper dolls and arranged in rough chronological order. As an extended frieze with a front and a back, it enabled its viewers to file past a twentieth-century picture parade of particular social and visual impact, almost as if it were lying in state. Without seeing this work in Kassel I likely would not have fully appreciated how adept Farmer is at invoking the movement we make around the perimeter of his installations. So, as the magazine images of Leaves of Grass flipped through us rather than vice versa, this current installation, one that Farmer categorises in a wall label as a ‘sculpture play’, stubbornly maintains the expected relationship between sculpture and viewer, at least until certain things start to happen, things that set up other things that surely would happen either the moment we left if not years later.

During my first visit to this new version
 of Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. But that didn’t interfere with what immediately came across as a mindful playfulness enacted by a menagerie of sculptural objects, some of which are animatronic and would on occasion come to life: a wooden stick waving for a moment in a small clay pot, the arm of a mechanical cactus engaging a set of chimes and plenty of coloured lightbulbs (often positioned as the eyes or nose of a human
or animal-like assemblage) turning on and off along with the theatrical lighting of the space, as well as the cut-and-paste soundtrack of the entire work that includes clips of popular songs and radio broadcasts, as well as sound effects (like thunder) and various musical instruments. Spanning the figurative to the fantastic, the ‘indigenous’ to the ‘modern’, Farmer’s sculptures wear their influences without apology, and I very much appreciated being encouraged to recall the inspirational early work of Mike Kelley, as well as more obscure connections to aspects of the work of Wallace Berman.

The direct connection to California comes from Farmer’s title. Lifted from a 1968 song
by Frank Zappa, it indicates the extent to which the performative aspects of Farmer’s overall production (lights, sound, movement, music, etc) mirror the West Coast collage aesthetic
of Zappa’s compositions. I got this much more during my second visit, as the symbiotic relationship between the temporal structure
of the installation and the first years of Zappa’s life literally played itself out, starting with snippets of songs and broadcasts from 1940, the year of his birth. Just as I was succumbing to the work’s layers of activities and references while moving with rapt attention around the boundary of its raised stage, the lights changed dramati-cally, creating a twilight moment as the voice
of fdr came over a loudspeaker – “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy” – and, for a moment, it was as if both time and I stood still.

This review was first published in the October 2013 issue.