The ghosts of Duchamp, Magritte, Freud and Lacan flit through the penumbral atmosphere of Geoffrey Farmer’s newest installation, and circle and mingle with the works of several practitioners of contemporary art. The overall conception of The Intellection of Lady Spider House, on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta, by which it was commissioned, is Farmer’s. But the Vancouver-based artist is not home alone in this haunted chunk of art real estate, which occupies the entirety of a 6,000-square-foot gallery. In an inversion of the group show, Farmer invited 11 artist friends to make work for the project, and to collaborate with him on concocting the complex installation and its four sequential zones: the entryway’s cabinet of curiosities, the haunted house, the courtyard and cemetery just outside it, and the town beyond. Who made what is not specified as individual works are subsumed by the whole. The installation—bright and still inside the house and dark and shadowy outside it—opens a door to the exploration of a dreamlike, disquietingly troubled, spirit-filled space.
Enter and you are met by the wooden clacking of a grinning spider skeleton which, like a proper lady of the house, swings down to greet you. Exit through an upright, open coffin and you are sent through a hall of mirrors in which the inescapable focus of multiple images is on—guess who?—yourself, or perhaps, in a Lacanian metaphor, your self.
Farmer sees himself and his cohorts as a team of spiders and the installation as their web. Constructed with the physical and conceptual strategy of the archive, The Intellection of Lady Spider House superimposes the museum exhibition on the structure of the fun-fair haunted house. Julia Feyrer, Hadley + Maxwell, Tiziana La Melia, Gareth Moore, Hannah Rickards and Ron Tran have made new works for the web. Valérie Blass, David Hoffos, Brian Jungen and Judy Radul have integrated the kindred spirits of already existing pieces. Additional artworks and documents selected by Farmer from the AGA collection refer to the concept of the museum, with paintings sitting on the floor in corridors, awaiting hanging, or hung on walls, and in a “behind-the-scenes” storage room deep inside the installation.
As visitors walk through it, like actors on a huge stage set, they animate this doubled edifice, museum/haunted house-fun fair, with their presence. As they move through it, they inject it with their own interpretations and narratives, gleaned, in part, from the prompts given by the art and objects sprinkled like rumours throughout.
What is familiar embraces what is not. The iconography of the installation is expanded beyond the expected fare by a many-layered mélange of references: films like The Shining (1980) and Poltergeist (1982), both of which hinge on hauntings brought about by desecrated burial grounds; Surrealism; past and recent art history; museology; local history; and theme parks like Disneyland and Fort Edmonton Park, among other things. Severed hands, limbs and body parts, detached eyeballs, knives, bloody handprints, tombstones and spiders are attended by masks, false clapboard walls, picket fencing, broken statuary, iron gates and movie props. Magritte is invoked in the parlour by the big fireplace and the wainscoting; a huge (Styrofoam) boulder suspended above the floor; Judy Radul’s tall, grey, Plexiglas-encased curtain (Silver Screen, 2012); and a caricature fashioned by stacking a bowler hat, scraggly hair and a painter’s cloth atop a bucket. Farmer’s suggestion of a whirling vortex of body parts in this room recalls the scene in Poltergeist in which a prankish ghost sends Carol Anne’s toys spinning in her bedroom, and, in one of the installation’s several local references, to the devastating Edmonton tornado of 1987.
Outside, on the edge of town, a small room crisscrossed by white rope, and holding a desk, chair and stack of handwritten notes, refers to Duchamp’s famous installation design for the “First Papers of Surrealism” show in 1942. It could stand as well as a metaphor for Farmer’s function as the curator/arranger of his own conceptual web and also refer to Duchamp’s influential work in the 1938 “International Surrealist Exhibition” as a source of his ideas. Objects and materials in Farmer’s work characteristically point in more than one direction at the same time, complicating and enriching their implications. It is also interesting to see how much his colleagues’ work can be coloured by the context of this installation, which absorbs it. Hannah Rickards’s sound work Thunder (2005) is the complex translation of a natural sound into music, and the music into a manufactured sound that sounds natural, but isn’t. She did this by recording an eight-second thunderclap, which was then slowed and stretched into eight minutes, then transcribed and arranged as a musical score for a sextet by composer David Murphy. In the installation, this misrepresentation is misrepresented again as stormy sound effects.
Blass’s L’homme paille (Straw Man) (2008), slumped forward in a contemplative pose with his foot resting on the bust of an Egyptian pharaoh, sits alone in the cemetery. The figure could be read as the primitive past contemplating the future—or given bad times, the present contemplating the past—but in this setting Blass’s creature seems analogous to a yeti, Sasquatch or Wookie. Feyrer’s eight windows, suspended at various points in the house and town, reference Surrealism, stained glass, painting and Duchamp. Situated on a plinth, Brian Jungen’s plastic-wrapped prototype for a whale skeleton calls forth the natural-history museum, while Ron Tran’s wardrobe, in the entryway, opens onto a corridor that leads, like the closet in Carol Anne’s room, into another dimension—that of the museum storage room. David Hoffos’s Mary-Anne (2005), a startlingly real, life-sized projection on a cutout, sits on the ground, behind a garbage can, impatiently (or is that anxiously?) wagging her foot.
Nothing in the installation raises the hackles with a whiff of the uncanny so much as Mary-Anne, especially when she is first glimpsed in the distance through the window of a cell. But it lingers in the air around Gareth Moore’s grotesque kiosk and Hadley + Maxwell’s grotesquely hybrid figures, which haunt the installation like tattered wraiths. Moore’s kiosk, reminiscent of historical-museum or theme-park reconstructions, which typically are quaint and sunny whitewashes of everyday life in the past, is here, more menacingly, that of a rat catcher—shades of the famed Alberta rat patrol—who sells the skins of the despised vermin as well as various methods of killing them. Beautiful and so black they suck up light, Hadley + Maxwell’s fragmented standing figures are fashioned from Cinefoil rubbings taken of parts of public sculpture erected to Edmonton citizens, politicians and historical and sports figures. Arachne (2013), for example, is a pastiche of a full-standing bronze of Emily Murphy, the first female police magistrate in Canada and one of the Famous Five who launched the Persons Case in 1927; a sculpture of Maude Bowman, a member of the local Council of Women, who in the 1920s suggested founding a permanent art collection for the city which grew eventually into the Art Gallery of Alberta; and the anonymous family figures in the Ukrainian Pioneer Centennial Monument on the grounds of the Alberta Legislative Building. Arachne, along with five other Hadley + Maxwell’s figures and numerous fragments as well, were all made on site in Edmonton, and they speak of ruins, of things falling apart.
The reading of one text through the other is a consistent feature of The Intellection of Lady Spider House, which can itself be read as an allegory of the museum that contains and frames a critique. The haunted house is the museum, a house of culture haunted by the narratives of what it misrepresents, represses or leaves out, an environment in which history is reduced to sanitized, feel-good, fun-fair entertainment. The fragmentation of the body and of identity, fear of the other, suppression of the senses, violence and death, albeit with props and fake blood, are themes that recur. Never losing his sense of humour, Farmer wryly hangs a “Do Not Touch” sign on a disembodied arm without a hand, stuck in a cyclone fence. In the town section, outside of a window labelled “Immigration,” lies a pile of bones—the result of a too-long visa wait, perhaps? Yet Farmer depicts a fearful, sick society in The Intellection of Lady Spider House, one given to public punishment and humiliation—there is a prisoner’s stock and a guillotine in it, and the fountain in the heart of town, opposite the rat man, is covered with excremental droppings. His haunted-house theatre mounts a moral tale, but one without a moral. Instead, the hall of mirrors at the exit, an invocation of Lancan’s mirror stage, holds out the possibility, with reflection, of the achievement of a unified self.
This article was altered on October 31, 2013, to clarify that the author also considers Hadley and Maxwell’s work to speak to traditions of the grotesque. To find out more about The Intellection of Lady Spider House, read our related interview with Geoffrey Farmer.