This work is a large-scale installation, the main components of which are cut paper figures displayed in various configurations on a series of foam core plinths and in thirty-two framed wall-mounted collages. The paper elements were made by cutting out every image in a 500-page anthology of human history entitled The Last Two Million Years. This book was first published in 1973 by Reader’s Digest, with major contributions by the British Museum. Farmer was inspired to make the work after finding a copy of the book lying in the street.
In Farmer’s installation, the images are arranged in a variety of scenarios and friezes. The arrangement does not follow a traditional chronology but instead features a series of subjective and allusive mise-en-scene that disrupt conventional notions of historical agency and linear time. One long, narrow plinth presents a series of historical personages arranged according to size of their illustrations. In other sections, depictions of landscapes serve as backdrops to constructed meetings between characters from vastly different regions and eras.
The work is numerically indexed, with small numbered captions visible on the plinths and on the wall next to the collages. These numbers correspond to a list published in a handout available to the public; for some previous incarnations of the work this has been produced as a broadsheet but it is ideally formatted as a small staple-bound newsprint booklet. The list features factual and subjective interpretations of the scenarios on the plinths and in the collages; examples include: ‘6. Figures cut from Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450–1516) standing next to a flea. The work of Bosch uses macabre imagery and obscure symbolism which give it a quality of nightmare intensity which seems to anticipate modern surrealist art. The flea comes from page 325 to illustrate the spreading of the Bubonic Plague’, and ‘96. Rocks with powers’.
In addition the installation includes a carved marble replica of the book that functions as an incense holder. The material of the sculpture is a direct allusion to the marble-effect paper featured on the design of the book’s cover. The artist has specified that incense sticks made from pages of the book are burned at the beginning of each display of the work. For the reminder of the display, the ashes remain on view; the artist has given this element of the work the separate sub-title The Craggy Ash-like Finger of Time.
Farmer has described the genesis of the work:
I found the book in Vancouver. It was during the summer when people often put out free boxes. Someone must have taken it out of a box and carried it for a few blocks, but probably because of its weight, had second thoughts and put it down by a tree. I was walking from my apartment to Chinatown, and on my way mistook it as a slab of marble and on closer inspection, read the embossed title, The Last Two Million Years. I thought it quite amusing and amazing...it was like finding a ready made conceptual work. I stood reading it for a few minutes with the smell of incense coming from a nearby open window. I had been reading about Aby Warburg and his Mnemosyne Atlas and there seemed to be some connection so I decided to take it.
I kept it under my bed and would read through it, occasionally falling asleep and dreaming about various things that I had read about. When Katharine Stout asked me to do a work for the Drawing Room, I thought that I would use the images as inspirations for drawing works. These ended up becoming the wall works, and eventually I started to cut out figures and objects and create these small dioramas which are included in the piece, these are enclosed in perspex boxes. Eventually I just began to create these larger arrangements using foam core to create the plinths, as it was the easiest way to create a temporary structure in my studio using the same tools that I was using to cut up the book, and I liked this relationship, the temporality and paperiness of the plinths...so I kept them.
The carving of the book in marble with the incense … made from the leftover text pages is a way of recreating the moment that I found the book. (Farmer, email to the author, 14 September 2009).
The work’s meticulous detail is impressive; the scale and diversity of its content can be read as a subtle and humorous critique of the allegedly comprehensive scope of the Reader’s Digest encyclopaedia. Farmer’s intervention and re-interpretation of the visual content of the book makes evident its western focus and often puzzling inclusions and omissions. The book’s attempt to condense the history of two million years into a 500 page volume contrasts with the detailed and expanded presentation of its illustrations in Farmer’s installation.
Jessica Morgan has described how the work makes evident ‘the impossibility of total comprehension’:
This room-sized installation radically reduces the vast expanse of history while simultaneously, through its abstract, non-chronological presentation, suggesting the endless permutations of material and philosophical developmental trajectories. The impossibility of settling on one history, one methodology for the ordering of our knowledge of the world becomes blatantly evident, and the juxtapositions of time and place suggest an imaginative nonconformity to the dominant modes of understanding.
(Jessica Morgan, ‘Definition of a Farmer’, in Landry 2008, p.98).
The Last Two Million Years is typical of Farmer’s broad-ranging and obsessive research-based practice. Often site-specific and performative, his work consists of accumulations of material related to a given subject, typically drawing on images and narratives from popular culture and literature. This work follows other projects in which Farmer has adapted literary sources. Hunchback Kit, 2000, shown in the Tate Modern exhibition The World as a Stage, takes as its starting point Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris, while Pale Fire Freedom Machine, 2005 was partly inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, 1962.
Pierre Landry (ed.), Geoffrey Farmer, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, 2008, reproduced pp.44–51.
Diedrich Diederichsen, Vanessa Desclaux and Thierry Davila, Geoffrey Farmer, exhibition catalogue, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 2008.
Katharine Stout, Geoffrey Farmer: The Last Two Million Years, exhibition leaflet, The Drawing Room, London 2007.