My only previous encounter with the work of Marcia Farquhar was an exuberant performance in Margate in 2012, replete with live band and dancing oysters. Larger Than Life, the title of her current show at Birmingham’s Grand Union, therefore struck me as being very appropriate. Installed in the gallery space are two projections of the artist’s head: one is an almost wall-high video of extreme close-ups; the second rests atop a crude mannequin leaning in the corner, slowly turning to grin at visitors. My first impression was one of a performer revelling in the act of performing, almost to the point of narcissism.
The artist’s assertion on the opening night that the label ‘larger than life’ is always intended as an insult hence caught me off-guard. She had been inspired by the life of a local ‘giantess’ named Jane ‘Jinny’ Bunford, whose cycle accident at an early age around the turn of the last century caused her to grow to the extraordinary height of 7 feet and 11 inches, making her the tallest person in English medical history. The tiny, old-fashioned school chairs set out in the gallery space reference the fact that the furniture at Bunford’s own school quickly became too small for her; a lamp on the floor casts overgrown shadows of visitors on the walls. As well as the works installed in the space, a programme of performances and events has allowed Farquhar to delve deeper into the little that is known of Bunford’s life, as well as introduce a cast of additional characters who for various reasons found themselves pushed to the margins of life: dwarves, freak show performers, oracles, prostitutes, and so on.
As well as the opening night’s performance lecture introducing Bunford, I also attended a presentation of photographs of circus performers by Shaun Caton, and went on a pilgrimage led by Farquhar to Bartley Green in south Birmingham, where Bunford had lived. We visited the shortest road in Birmingham, a recent construction named after the tallest person born in England; a commemorative plaque on the wall of the library, opposite where her cottage once stood; and the churchyard in which she was apparently buried, after over eighty years of mystery and legal wrangling, in an unmarked grave. We rambled over suburban fields, and confused locals and ourselves with requests for directions. It was about halfway through the show’s two-month run. By this point it had slowly begun to dawn on me, in the mute and shaming way that truth often dawns on the minds of the overeducated, that what I had imagined as the melodrama of a performer relishing in her role was in fact sincerity of the most heartfelt kind; and that Farquhar uses her own body and presence and stories not in a narcissistic way, as I had thought, but as a mirror to reflect light onto some very marginalised and mistreated people, with whom perhaps she somewhat, and somewhat quietly, identifies.
It took a little time for me to cotton on, but the show has gradually become one of the most personally challenging engagements with art I’ve experienced, on at least two counts. First, it expresses a depth of compassion that I find myself incapable of matching. Second, it places me in an awkward position, a sort of no one’s land, neither socially dispossessed enough to belong to a hidden family of ‘freaks’, nor oblivious enough to be entirely ‘normal’. The bluster, seemingly unrelated stories, and other performative tangents grouped by Farquhar under the heading ‘associative drifts’ often seem bizarre and ridiculous, but they are presented precisely to challenge the ones doing the ridiculing — especially in cases where the ridiculers weren’t fully aware that’s what they were doing. If art is to be brought under a utilitarian ideology of purpose, and if one of the purposes of experiencing art is that it should change one’s mind, then my own feeling is that Larger Than Life is working.
Larger Than Life closes with a bonfire on 7 November 2014.