What would time’s face look like if it had one? A literal example might be an analog clock; a more symbolic one might be hoary-bearded Father Time. “The Surgeon and the Photographer,” Geoffrey Farmer’s latest exhibition at Catriona Jeffries, gives us neither. Any experience of time, the work suggests, is far more incoherent than can be contained in an image. Here, time seems closer to the figure of Krishna, with his many faces: overwhelming and unable to be read as a single image. If time had a face it would be fragmentary, a collection of assembled faces.
The exhibition presents 365 figures (or puppets) that correspond to the days of a calendar. The figures, each about 18 inches tall, are presented on metal stands mounted on a series of plinths; they crowd the gallery space, each one communicating its own haunted little presence. The faces of the figures have been collaged from elements of photographs found in books and magazines, although the collages do not always show us complete faces or bodies. Rather, they suggest the constituent parts of a single body. Some of the puppets have recognizable faces while others do not; each is disfigured, refigured, collaged, rearranged. The figures are made of thick wire and are clothed in fabric. As sculptural objects, they are bemusing, eerie, disturbing and funny.
A computer-generated projection of photographs culled from Life magazine entitled Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell…(clock) accompanies the figures. Sounds punctuate the succession of images like the ticking of an old analog clock, and can be heard throughout the gallery. The projected images fl ash by: the human body in whole (often cropped, contorted or in extremis) and in part (eyes, hands), unidentifiable events, generic places, a werewolf, a car wreck, slaughtered animals, the aftermath of an earthquake or a bombing, a cowboy eating across the table from a donkey. The piece demonstrates Farmer’s uncanny ability to select images that are both humorous and heartbreaking.
The photographs used for the collages feel as if they were gleaned from a mixture of outdated encyclopedias and hackneyed art-history surveys: they all have a slightly worn, 20th-century patina. In this way, the work and its concept of time appeal to history, but in a general rather than time- or place-specific way. “The Surgeon and the Photographer” remains as much about the passing of time as about history, although the source material makes these two things appear interconnected.
In this show, there is no one coherent image of time; instead, it is a process of collecting fragmented images that fail to cohere. Time remains too complex an entity to be reduced to a single image or statement, to a face.