Geoffrey Farmer Makes Moore Dangerous Again

The explanatory text at the entrance of Every day needs an urgent whistle blown into it at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) reminds us that British sculptor Henry Moore originally intended to bequeath his works to the Tate. When a letter writing campaign caused the London gallery to refuse to build a suitable space, he chose Toronto and the AGO instead. We can remember this as Toronto’s provincial willingness to take London’s cast-offs, or we can see, through Farmer’s exhibition, back to a time when the AGO was willing to take risks that were too controversial for galleries more central to the art world.

The exhibition returns the Henry Moore Sculpture Gallery to its original 1974 configuration but adds sound, light, poetry, and other objects into the space. The installation centres on an assemblage of lights and projectors near the middle of the gallery. Lights switch on, move, and shift as clangs, recitations, or bits of music ring out. Under glass by the entrance, an uncanny group of objects (a book, a headlamp, a photo, and other scraps) mimic a more orderly collection. The objects are related to Moore, yet seem to have little else in common. The installation has a surrealist quality, as if one were encountering the Moore gallery in a dream, only it was not quite the Moore gallery.

In a text accompanying the exhibition, Farmer speaks to the fragility of the working models and plaster originals that make up a large part of the collection. Where Moore’s bronzes are solid, the plasters are supple, liable to shift and crack. Farmer meets this delicacy with humour and whimsy. The sounds include pop music and a Bubble Yum jingle. In the brochure, he writes that he originally intended to write “about 900 words…one for every Henry Moore object in the AGO’s collection.” Farmer wonders if the reader might refold the brochure and wear it as a helmet, and whether the helmet would fall when the work whistled a sudden “TWEET!” He’s messing with us as much as he’s messing with Moore.

In my visit to the Moore Gallery this week, I noticed a number of confused and angry reactions to the work. Several patrons just passing through were baffled, even vexed, at what was happening in the gallery. Surely this is part of Farmer’s gambit, to provoke us the way Moore provoked his audience. All of a sudden, the Moore Gallery is no longer the well-worn, peaceful room we know (the AGO used to offer yoga classes there). It is made strange, even disagreeable. We are made uneasy in the work’s presence, suddenly aware of Moore as an artist who can still upset us in the right light.

Farmer suggests that we sleep among the sculptures. He invites us to mimic their reclining poses, but he knows sleep would elude us amid the flashing lights and abrupt noises. Perhaps he played this joke on the gallery as well, asking that a number of platforms be placed in the space. The AGO balked at this idea, leaving us with some couches by the door. Farmer shows us the risks that the AGO, past and present, has been willing to take in the name of art, and some that they haven’t.

Every day needs an urgent whistle blown into it closes after this weekend, so go see it while you can.


Photo Credit: Ian Lefebvre/Every day needs an urgent whistle blown into it 2014/ copyright Geoffrey Farmer, Courtesy of the AGO