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Interviews / September 16, 2013

Q&A: Geoffrey Farmer Launches Haunted House in Edmonton

Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton September 14, 2013 to January 12, 2014

Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer—this year’s $50,000 Gershon Iskowitz Prize winner—recently had solo exhibitions at the Migros Museum in Zurich and the Barbican in London. This week, he returned home to Canada, opening one of his largest installations yet at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Taking the form of a haunted house, The Intellection of Lady Spider House is an unprecedented collaboration between Farmer and 11 other Canadian artists, including Valérie Blass, Julia Feyrer, Hadley + Maxwell, David Hoffos, Brian Jungen, Tiziana La Melia, Gareth Moore, Judy Radul, Hannah Rickards and Ron Tran. Here, in an email interview, he tells us more about the work and its origins.

Leah Sandals: You came to international prominence with works like The Last Two Million Years, which transformed a found book into a sprawling and philosophical installation. How does it feel to now take on the task of making a multi-artist exhibition for a space as large as the one at the AGA? How are the strategies the same or different from the ones used in that previous work?

Geoffrey Farmer: There is a scene in the movie The Shining when Jack is looking over the maquette of the hedge maze. The hotel where the hedge is located and where this scene takes place is itself called the Overlook.

I have thought about this, the concept of the overview in relationship to my interest in making a work like The Last Two Million Years. Reader’s Digest, the book’s publisher, was both trying to shrink, condense and categorize our understanding of history while at the same give a ridiculously broad overview of it. Photography innately has the ability to miniaturize the world, and in doing so allows for the creation of a visual language that can then be organized into various categorical groupings.

The process for this exhibition was similar. Like the scene with the maze maquette, we created a model of the gallery at the AGA, and the objects of the exhibition were photographed and shrunk into the scale of the model so that they could be arranged.

LS: Your installations have often had an eerie or uncanny quality in the past, but this exhibition is more explicit in positioning itself as a kind of fun-fair haunted house. Why? How did you arrive at this concept?

GF: Haunted house walk-throughs are constructed in the form of a labyrinth. They create a space where it appears that there is the possibility of getting lost. They are constructed as a form of exhibition-making, using tableaux vivants, sculptures, still lifes and performances.

I had spoken to [AGA curator] Catherine Crowston about my earliest memory of exhibition-making, which was the construction of a haunted house for neighbours when I was 13. I wanted to come home and take the time during the summer in Vancouver, with friends and artists I respected, to explore this type of exhibition-making.

LS: Collaboration is also more explicit in this project than it has been in your past ones, as you’ve invited well-known Canadian artists like Brian Jungen, Gareth Moore and others to contribute to the work. How has that collaborative process played out, and why were you interested in pursuing it?

GF: A haunted house walk-through, I think, is a good collaborative and curatorial template.

Allyson Mitchell is making a lesbian haunted house walk-through in Toronto this fall with different community groups. I think it should be an annual event.

My exhibition’s aim is less radical. It is less curating and more setting up the conditions for the work to exist within. Spiders are able to create from their bodies the structures on which they exist, and the web is also an instrument they use to nourish themselves. I wanted the process of making the exhibition to be a similar experience.

LS: As you mentioned, this project also has some roots in your childhood. Can you talk about that a bit more? What were your childhood haunted houses like? What aspects of it did you wish to capture in the AGA installation?

GF: When we made haunted houses as children, a lot of the process was trying to figure out what the visitor’s experience might be. We took each other through as test subjects and discovered, for example, that it wasn’t fair to create a set of stairs out of found wood and have it suddenly drop off to a futon.

It was like making a happening, or the exhibition that Robert Morris made at the Tate in the 1970s, but at the age of six.

I have often thought back to this experience when making exhibitions—when trying to figure out a layout or how a visitor might see the work.

So in essence, this [childhood haunted house] was my first memory of my fabrication of the other. It was also the time I began to ruminate on the concept of death and began having recurring nightmares. It was a time that I first experienced physical violence and the socialization that occurs when you are sent to school.

These experiences created questions, and the exhibition is, in essence, a way to map this out, even if it is many years later—it’s a way to try and answer them.

My [earlier] haunted houses were about trying to alter space and materials and make them function in different ways. I learned how to block out light with garbage bags, create lighting effects with tinfoil, make blood stains with beet juice, and paint broken pencils with Liquid Paper to create the effect of broken finger bones.

LS: The haunted house at the AGA also has links to certain Edmonton sites. How so?

GF: Fort Edmonton Park influenced the interior facades, which came to construct the rooms of the exhibition. It is a mixture of historical authenticity, fable and the active repression of certain narratives.

Some of the artists travelled around Edmonton and used it for the source of their work. Maxwell and Hadley collected black foil impressions of various parts of figurative monuments and statues from around the city. They brought these back into the gallery and collaged them back together to create new hybrid forms.

LS: Is there anything else you think visitors should know when visiting the AGA installation? Or anything you hope they will ultimately take away from it?

GF: I made this exhibition with a group of friends, and I hope that this spirit is present as part of the experience of being in the exhibition.

I also hope there is a sense of the possibility of getting lost within its labyrinthine structure, and a sense of curiosity in the atmosphere that we created.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article was corrected on September 16, 2013. An earlier version indicated the exhibition opened on September 4 rather than September 14. 

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via