Geoffrey Farmer’s ‘The Surgeon and the Photographer’ opened in the Barbican’s Curve Gallery yesterday. Although I wasn’t familiar with him, a Canadian installation artist born in 1967, the concept of using photographic reproduction to create new artwork intrigued me so I went to take a look.

The exhibition features 365 puppets, one created every day for a year, from photographs cut from hundreds (if not thousands) of books and magazines. These puppets are not realistic or delicately made but consist of a combination of disjointed limbs, facial features, adornments, objects and text attached to an upright stick of about 30cm high, by means of a torso, and ‘clothed’ in various colours of fabric. Placed seemingly at random on plinths of different heights along the 90m corridor of the gallery, the sight as you enter the gallery is very surreal. Walking amongst them is both enchanting and slightly foreboding. Some are presented in groups, so you find you are picking out oddities in a crowd whilst others are in isolation for you to make a full 360 degree inspection. A soundscape plays in the background, disjointed noises emitted from all directions feature bells, hooves, cars, birds and the snaps of a camera shutter.

The title of the exhibition comes from the work of the German literary critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin who recognised in Farmer’s eyes, ‘the potential for the destabalising of traditional aesthetic “ritual”’ posed by photography and film, during their rise in the 1930s. He made a comparison, “The magician heals a sick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient’s body” that Farmer drew on for this exhibition. Taking the two images, he has placed himself in the position of the magician, as the photographer but then also seems to have taken on both roles, by also becoming the surgeon. He takes the pictures, ‘lays his hands on them’ and then ‘cuts’ them apart. If he is basing his intentions on this comparison, it seems his aim is to ‘heal’ or mend, by taking apart and gluing back together fragments of art, and fragments of ourselves.

From the images he has chosen and his arrangement, it is clear to me that he is aiming to parallel and combine different aspects of ourselves and our culture.

All colours and creeds are represented here, mixing features on some of the puppets to create faces of multiple races, or depicting an elderly Chinese man with long, ash-blonde hair. I also caught sight of the image of the British flag, with the image of a lotus flower emblazoned across the puppets hands.

Age and time are also made obsolete as old and young, past and present are unified. Baby’s arms stem from a women’s face and black and white photos from decades ago are mixed with images of style and vanity that are right up to date; a Greek sculpture with arms covered in fake tan and fingers decked in gaudy rings.

The puppets are sexless, with men and women depicted on the same frame. There are a few graphic images that could be considered sexual, if you look close enough. One featured a women’s face with a phallus for a nose, and I also caught sight of a few nipples here and there, but the overall feel I got for the puppets was a sense of innocence, or unawareness. Asexuality, perhaps.

Some puppets depict recognisable people, these images come from magazines and books afterall. I can pick Nelson Mandela out in the crowd, and George Orwell disguised with a women’s eyes and a large cloud of cigarette smoke.

Pure abstraction also creates a sense of fun, and adds to the surreal scene. A haystack forms a head with eyeholes cut in it; some puppets have no legs whilst one has eight but no arms.

The objects Farmer has chosen are also very mixed, and when combined speak to us of the issues surrounding in our society. Machinery hovers in the air alongside the birds and a bright child’s ball;  flowers and leaves protrude from their ‘hands’ but alongside guns and cigarettes; some faces are adorned with jewelry, others with images of gas masks and skulls. Life and death, peace and war exist simultaneously. The flag of the USA hangs low in a pair of old hands in a praying gesture.

Above all to me this eclectic juxtaposition of images reads like a commentary on our relations with each other, through our media. We have been re-drawn through our consumption of media on a mass scale, to all resemble bits of each other. In our realisation of this, we can all be united… or driven apart.


The exhibition runs to the 28th of July 2013, The Barbican Centre, London EC2Y 8DS


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