The Mime of the Ancients: On Geoffrey Farmer’s “A Light In The Moon”

Boneyard (detail), 2013.

“In this city marches an army.” And so the following procession of sleeping architectures, fixed crowds, abeyant bodies and stuck faces are set in motion. Stepping over honking horns and racing motors this declaration opens Arthur Lipsett’s film Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), decisively naming modern progress’s ambulatory desires. The film was shown alongside six others at a recent screening at Cinecycle in Toronto (co-presented with Mercer Union and York University’s film department) in anticipation of Geoffrey Farmer’s exhibition “A Light In The Moon,” which opened at Mercer Union in November, 2013. Composed of the discarded sounds and images Lipsett collected from the trim bins of the National Film Board of Canada, Very Nice, Very Nice continues to bewitch. Having been lauded with acclaim since its earliest screenings, the film now serves as a signal reference for those working in experimental found-footage montage. Farmer’s choice to include Lipsett’s film, as well as equally timeless works by Bruce Conner and Stan VanDerBeek, was a purposive acknowledgment of the artist’s filmic forebears; a brief introduction to the evening’s event described them as his teachers. As a means of advancing possible contextualization for the upcoming show, the films’ presence provide a potential critical lexicon with which to interpret Farmer’s work.

The incidental nature of found images has long been generative within Farmer’s sculptural practice; the butting of two formerly autonomous images against one another inevitably leads to the invention of new, often humorous, latent narratives. In Leaves of Grass, 2012, commissioned to be a part of last year’s dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, DE, Farmer sorts through 50 years of photographs from an archive of Life magazines, cutting out and repositioning them down the long sculptural corridor of the Neue Galerie Kassel’s second floor. The fragmented images clamour to meet one another, half-freed from their source, marooned somewhere between emancipation and restraint. Through shifts of scale and false proximities, the historical narrative formerly constructed through the 20th century’s documentation of itself is left faltering and unsure.

Boneyard (detail), 2013.

In the exhibition “A Light In The Moon,” Farmer’s indebtedness to Lipsett’s concussive edits are on full display in the computer-generated montage Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell, 2013, though the march has been detoured, continuously being rerouted by an algorithmic program generating countless permutations of images; regrouping; rearranging; realigning. In it, the rigid features of a chiselled marble bust dissolve into those of a fleshy-faced press photo; an anxious lab animal invokes an army brigade; an agitated crowd conjures a landscape. The selected photographs are culled from the whole images of the source material for his installation of cut-out hand puppets, The Surgeon and the Photographer, 2013, shown earlier this year at The Barbican in London, UK. Each photograph is then tagged with multiple labels by Farmer—fluctuating between personal and descriptive classifications—with which the program constructs a succession of images synced to a correspondingly composed set of audio files. It is a method of nuanced categorization that often draws close to recognition, yet always retreats back into obscurity.

As an organizational methodology for arranging photographs Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell shares its peculiarity with another backward looking source; the panels of the great German art historian Aby Warburg’s unfinished Mnemosyne Atlas. Warburg’s project similarly involved the gathering and arranging of over a thousand images, ranging from the paintings and sculptures of antiquity to the infamous photograph of the Pope greeting Mussolini. Organized across 40 panels covered in black fabric, Warburg grouped the images by their gestural commonalities, producing specific associative histories spanning thousands of years. In Notes on Gesture Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that in Warburg’s project what is at stake is not the ‘science of the image’—as it is claimed by Panofsky-school art historians—but instead the image, or more precisely the gesture, as the “crystallization of historical memory.” Like Leaves of Grass, in their distribution across each panel Warburg produces a temporal equivalency, flattening time so that each gesture sheds its indexicality in an attempt to point towards a common motion. As one looks across the images suspended amidst the darkness of their cloth backing, they appear as if in virtual motion, advancing an amorphous pop-and-lock routine begun outside of our being-in-language, stalled only by their fixedness to a predestined stage.

Farmer’s impulse to cut out wrests these gestures from their graven place, allowing the dance to continue into the night. In Boneyard, 2013, the focal centre of “A Light In The Moon,” the whole history of Western sculpture (at least until 1966) acts out on a circular stage, a grand spectacle of gesticulations, breaking the ties that tether them to their armatures and breathing life into one another as Venus did Pygmalion’s Galatea. Since being extracted from a collection of salvaged books preserved and gifted to Farmer by artist Ted Rettig, each cut-out image candidly acknowledges its photographic source material through the revelation of previously captured highlights and shadows. However, what is simultaneously cast in their spiralling posture is that in Farmer’s paper cut-outs the rigidity of the sculpture/image has been broken, or rather, there is no longer an image, only gesture. That the scene of this decampment occurs at a boneyard makes the escape all the more conspicuous. The invocation of an image, never mind a sculpture, from its eternal pose is both a haunting feat and a decidedly political act.

Installation view Boneyard, 2013.

Like Farmer’s method of imagistic extractions, Lipsett’s montages too, propel what once seemed eternal in the photograph back into motion. The film Very Nice, Very Nice is paradigmatic, where each frame leans upon the previous, causing the passage from one to the next to endure a flux of after-images helpless to their intrusion. The charge activated by the myriad images is a product of their close pressing against one another, potentially stirring them from their languor with each lurching step. And while one cut-out photograph alone is unlikely to incite the riotous activity that plays out on Boneyard’s stage, in their multitude they assume a stance in relief of one another, producing a relational violent encounter that reanimates the statuary. Though Lipsett’s source images were generally restricted to those produced contemporary to his working, Farmer’s archival sifting hints towards an ancestry of movement enacted over millennia, and which continues to twist today.

Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell, 2013, computer generated algorithmic montage sequence. Commissioned by Barbican Art Gallery. Installation view at Mercer Union. Photographs: Toni Hafkenscheid.

The living statue, as a particular subset of the traditional pantomime routine, has continued to be an anachronistic fixture in city centres, on subway platforms and throughout those highly trafficked, pedestrian-friendly festivals that attract the touring classes. The living statue, like the mime, exhibits communication without speech, gesturing towards a state of infans-cy—from the Latin in-fans, referring to an inability to speak. In the text that Farmer prepared to accompany Boneyard, the only utterance heard from any of the figures are the spasmodic cracklings and moanings emanating from number 23—a wrenched contortion of barely recognizable arms and fists slamming in on themselves—which are described as continuing for the duration of the exhibition. Boneyard’s very speechlessness is the performance of a muted refusal that calls for the rupturing of formalized holds upon the image in favour of its reanimation.

Anterior to Warburg’s studies on the correspondence between gesture and history, though a markedly more clinical account, were those published in 1832 by the Italian antiquarian Andrea De Jorio in La Mimica Degli Antichi Investigata Nel Gestire Napoletano (The Mime of the Ancients Investigated Through Neapolitan Gesture), in which he observes the gesticulations of 19th century Neapolitans as the manifestation of those previously performed in their iconography. De Jorio’s project interprets those historical representations through this signage, assigning a wordless text to the gestures of the ancients in anticipation of their contemporary decoding. Tracing one upon the other, bodies silently speak across time, forever intelligible to those living statues re-enacting their former testimonies.

Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell, 2013, computer generated algorithmic montage sequence. Commissioned by Barbican Art Gallery. Installation view at Mercer Union. Photographs: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Just as the gestural studies of Warburg were prescient about the coming technological developments that would soon lead to the reconstitution of motion that we now know as the cinema, Farmer too advances through a process of looking back, recognizing in his source’s fastened rigidity the potential ethics of a gestural image. Within his practice, history collapses upon itself; its images, detached from their source, are freed to assert their presence more urgently. The implication of time within a prescribed lineage between Lipsett and Farmer is therefore troubled by this interruption. Perhaps it would be appropriate to amend the introduction to the films screened at Cinecycle as being—rather than those of his teachers—those of his classmates, silently signing to one another across the room, out of view of the institution. Lipsett’s filmic gestures continue to signal to Farmer, calling to him for their continuation and advance. A willing collaborator, Farmer too now awaits A Light In The Moon’s future gesticulations, their unthinkable extension to be authored outside of time, possibly unseen, but always moving.

Aryen Hoekstra is an artist currently based in Toronto.