Geoffrey Farmer | The Photographic Surgeon

Canadian artist Geoffrey Farmer also uses collage as a medium of expression in his work, but unlike Kirstine Roepstorff’s, he doesn’t have any signature iconic motifs, exploding stars and or any ‘weak’, extra-curricular materials. Space which is a ‘void’ in Roepstorff’s work, represents something else in Farmer’s. He doesn’t even deal with hyperreality so much, but all these little figurines cut-out from magazines over the years have to do with our existence, or lack thereof.


In The Last Two Million Years (2007), figures of historical sculptures and pictures of modern-day people were cut-out from a Readers Digest encyclopedia which attempted to explain the history of our planet up to the proliferation of the modern man, that Farmer found lying on the street. These figurines are laid out in a procession leading to a series of plinths, curving around the exhibition area, but apparently not in chronological order.

The Last Two Million Years (2007) Geoffrey Farmer
The Last Two Million Years (2007) Geoffrey Farmer
The Last Two Million Years (2007) Geoffrey Farmer
The Last Two Million Years (2007) Geoffrey Farmer
The Last Two Million Years (2007) Geoffrey Farmer
The Last Two Million Years (2007) Geoffrey Farmer

A sign saying “Am I A Man And A Brother?” held by a black and white ape-looking creature indicates the rationale behind this installation; a dispossession of orthodox Christian faith as well as a criticism of evolution, it questions whether we are that much ‘evolved’ or that different from apes, behavior-wise.

The Last Two Million Years (2007) Geoffrey Farmer
The Last Two Million Years (2007) Geoffrey Farmer

In  Leaves Of Grass (2012) shown in dOCUMENTA, Farmer did almost the same thing except this time its cut-out pictures from decades of Life Magazine issues. Here Farmer foregoes space as a figurative generator and goes for the collage effect, an intense depiction of the triumphs and failures, iconic appearances and ghastly mishaps of society figures of the modern era.

Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer
Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer
Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer
Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer

It  is also apparently in chronological order, displaying the shift from black and white to color photography sometime in the 1960’s. In effect it is also a kind of national self portrait from the last century, a flip-book of sorts, a conveyor belt of image products. More interestingly Farmer had up to 90 people volunteer to help him do this project full time, pulling 12-16 hour days, eating together, voting together to decide whether an image should be included, which lasted for a few months which is in someways a social experiment of sorts.

Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer
Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer
Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer
Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer
Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer
Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer
Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer
Leaves Of Grass (2012) Geoffrey Farmer

In one of the most bizarre sculptural installations that I have come across during the short existence of this blog, Farmer created The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) from cutting out photos from hundreds of books purchased from a second hand bookstore about to close for good, consisting of 365 characters, which he made one each day for a year, from splicing eyes, faces, hands or bodies from different pictures together.

Surgeon And Photographer (2009)
Surgeon And Photographer (2009)
The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Detail
The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Detail

Granted, these pictures become someone or something else when spliced together with another part of someone else’s picture, and its nice to make a sculpture out of people’s pictures, but the raison d’etre or what it all means is a bit baffling. What drove Farmer to keep doing this everyday for a whole year? Proportedly, the whole installation took 3 years, so I’m thinking there must be some deeper meaning to it. There have been many articles written about this piece, but I have yet to find one that explains its deeper meaning, except to expound on its theatrical qualities.

The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Detail
The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Detail
The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Detail
The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Detail

Farmer himself didn’t explain exactly why he did it, except to say that the closing bookstore was like a ruin, a place of lawlessness, where piles of books were laying around, precariously stacked up, and can come crashing down with the slightest nudge, and his hand was like a surgeon’s in relation to these photographs.

The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Deatil
The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Detail

The key is in the last statement “my hand was like a surgeon’s”. So if Farmer himself is the surgeon, and the photographer is the photographer of the images then there must be something wrong with these photographs to begin with, such that it requires a surgeon to fix it. If this wasn’t so, he would have called it ‘The Sculptor And The Photographer’ or something like that.

The question then is: what’s so wrong, so inadequate about the photographs in these books to begin with? Perhaps it has something to do with the limitations of commercial photography or modern photography in general, that these photobooks of the day were actually whats now known as magazines, and this type of photography glamourizes, depicting the subject in a certain light to sell something.

The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Detail
The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Detail

Perhaps Farmer perceives people have more than one side to their characters, that its way more than whats shown on the nightly news when they interview some terrorist’s neighbor about their ‘personality’ or ‘character’ growing up. That sometimes people behave like they have metal bolts sticking out from their faces, and other times like they’re wearing pink glasses.

The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Detail
The Surgeon And The Photographer (2009) Detail