Geoffrey Farmer pays goofy tribute to Frank Zappa at Nottingham Contemporary

By Mark Sheerin | 25 October 2013

Exhibition review: Geoffrey Farmer – Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, Nottingham Contemporary, until January 5 2014

Colour photo of an array of anthopomorphic found object sculptures
Geoffrey Farmer, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, 2013. Nottingham Contemporary© Photo David Sillitoe. Courtesy of the artist, Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver and Casey Kaplan, New York.
Depending on your mood, a so-called patter song can put a smile on your face or drive you from the room. But with a different note for each syllable, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black by Frank Zappa is a great, goofy example of the genre.

Geoffrey Farmer’s exhibition of the same name is an even greater source of pleasure. But when you walk in on his ‘sculpture play’ in progress, you may not be sure where to look. Farmer’s cast of some 40 anthropomorphic sculptures are in most cases so silly they could embarrass.

Colour photo of an assembled sculptural figure holding a flag
Geoffrey Farmer, Let's Make the Water Turn Black, 2013. Exhibition view, Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst© Photo Stefan Altenburger, Zurich. Courtesy of the artist, Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver, and Casey Kaplan, New York
The room is as dimly lit as a lights-down theatre and the action unfolds via a series of moving parts, strategic lighting and hidden speakers. It is durational and the performance lasts from the moment the gallery opens to the moment it closes. So there is nothing throwaway about this patter song.

Over time you can encounter Farmer’s characters one by one: an upright trumpet case with grey wig, the trunk of a palm tree with a lamp for a head, even a single red bulb on the end of a vertical stick. This show defies you not to ascribe personality to dumb objects.

And then of course, they move. They raise and lower themselves. They rotate and unfurl. Lights go on; lights go off, completely shifting the mood and then of course there is a soundtrack. Because this is indeed a tribute to avant garde rock musician Zappa.

But while this show has plenty of musicality, music is frequentlly eschewed for industrial sound effects or radio broadcasts. During my sojourn here, I catch a speech about Pearl Harbour, an air raid siren, plenty of mechanical rumbling and the groans of a man enjoying a bit of SM loving.

Wrong as it may seem, the latter were funny. Indeed the whole show is a hoot for which no special interest in Zappa’s life is needed. But having said that Farmer could pique your interest. If this show sends you back to the musician, and his illustrious influences, it will have achieved plenty.

That’s not a bad result for a comic cast of lively found objects. In fact, that couldn't be more serious.
  • Admission free. Open 10am-7pm Tuesday to Friday (until 6pm Saturday; 11am-5pm Sunday)
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Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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