In Fairyland: The Dark Art of Tessa Farmer
CATRIONA MCARA explores the menacing, miniature world of sculptor and animator Tessa Farmer, where tiny skeletal fairies bent on world domination interact with a natural world made of road-kill and antique taxidermy…
De-installing an exhibition of work by London-based sculptor and animator Tessa Farmer (b.1978) is a curious process for even the most intrepid curator. It requires weaponry (scissors, tweezers, specimen jars, assortment containers), defiance in the face of gravity (a step-ladder), and a very steady hand. Vast swarms of wasps and bees are confronted, teased apart and nestled into separate compartments; antique taxidermy is cut down, wrapped and boxed, all as if this were the natural order of things. But suddenly, an anomaly rears its head! What is to be done – historically, thematically, taxonomically – with the winged humanoid with a crab-claw appendage? This is the moment of realisation – we are dealing with an entirely different register of reality, for the world of Tessa Farmer has lured us into fairyland.
Many recall their first encounter with Farmer’s skeletal fairies and taxidermy specimens as an earthshattering moment. Once her notorious beings are discovered, an engrossing fascination quickly takes over, and the viewer becomes a willing victim of her/his own curiosity. Farmer’s figurative dioramas are bewitching and send us rushing back to childhood. The first time I saw Farmer’s work I became enchanted. In researching her work over a period of many years, all the horror stories and fantasy films that seduced and terrified me as a child have been re-animated before my eyes: the scarfaced rabbits of Watership Down (1978); the mice-children of The Nutcracker (1979); the lab-rats in The Secret of NIMH (1982). I designate this feeling, this jolt of surprise, as a malevolent nostalgia. 1 That irrepressible longing I experience in the remembrance of watching such strange animations is rendered more comprehensible when looking at Farmer’s fantastic evolutions. Indeed, the magical practice of Tessa
Farmer’s fairies are a subversion of the stereotypical pink, perkyTinkerbells
Farmer has always been firmly rooted in her childhood of the 1980s, which I also recognise as my own. The miniature domains of childhood toys provided the essential foundations for her interest in play on a tiny scale. These are historically specific to the 1980s’ capitalist-inspired collecting phenomena which included Sylvanian Families, Polly Pocket, Lego, and My Little Pony, though such obsessions and indoctrinations are perhaps ongoing.
Farmer’s work reaches back further, and is intertextual in its spider’s web of source texts. She has plundered a range ofVictorian and Edwardian fairy tales – especially the picture-book illustrations of Richard Doyle, Arthur Rackham and Beatrix Potter – as well as drawing on the contemporary fairy scholarship of Marina Warner, Carole G Silver and others. The Flower Fairies by Cecily Mary Barker (1923) provided Farmer with another important reference point – illustrations of child-fairies costumed and frolicking within a floral wonderland. However, Farmer’s fairies are a deliberate subversion of the stereotypical pink, perky Tinkerbells of the popular imagination. Dainty but deadly, her practice offers a femininity that is not afraid of getting its hands dirty. Another well-known example of the intersection (or, indeed, confusion) between children and fairies is that of the Cottingley fairy photographs (see pp27, 30-35), and the notion of the “real-fake” is everywhere apparent in Farmer’s work. Often the boundaries between who is doing the making, Farmer or her fairies, is deliberately distorted. In order to do what she does, Farmer has to actively believe in her fairies.
The world of Tessa Farmer bristles with mythmaking, and it would seem that the art of Faerie is very much in her blood. One of the most noteworthy facts about the artist is that she embarked on her fairy sculptures before learning that she was a descendent of the fairy-fiction and horror writer Arthur Machen. It’s a peculiar
coincidence that positions Machen as the lifeblood and heritage of Farmer’s practice (although it’s worth nothing that within such a ‘supernatural’ gene pool the legacy has skipped two generations).
Ever since the first appearance of Farmer’s fairies – a Thumbelina-like emergence from within a red flower in her mother’s garden (c.1999) – they have been ‘evolving’. At the Ruskin School of Art, Farmer was made to life-draw from bones and anatomical specimens, which led to her interest in the articulation of skeletal bodies. In a recent interview with Petra Lange-Berndt, Farmer explained that she constructs the fairies out of a plant root “specifically a fern called bird’s nest fern, the Latin name is Asplenium
nidus.” 2 These roots are then secured with superglue, and the tiny fairy figure is hung with magician’s thread. As Farmer elaborates in a recent television interview, insects will dry out naturally but can become quite brittle – so entomologists use a process called ‘relaxing’ in which a little moisture is reinfused, allowing the dried-out insects to become more malleable. The majority of animals in Farmer’s works to date have been the woodland creatures and inhabitants of the English hedgerow (fox, mice, moles, squirrels, small birds) which are frozen, then professionally stuffed. The insects that feature in her work are not always native but are often sourced from South America and Africa by expedition and mail-order. They may also be collected along the banks of her local canal in Tottenham, London; occasionally, she also acquires treasures from the ocean, such as crustaceans, urchins or barnacles.
A pivotal moment in Farmer’s artistic incubation was, no doubt, her Parabola residency (2007) at the Natural History Museum, London, where she became interested in a particular species of microscopic wasp known as ‘fairy flies’ – likely competitors for her own fluttering brood. For a long time after her residency, a commitment to decreasing the size of her fairies became the priority. However, in early 2015, she explained to me that this particular self-challenge had ceased to motivate her; the fairies could only become so minute before they disappeared from naked sight altogether! Instead it appears that she has begun to devote her creative energies to exploring their increasingly complex cornucopia of habitats. Farmer’s fairies infest abandoned skulls, mount their own trophies, and, like the Borrowers, utilise dollhouse crockery for the purpose of gustation. In this way, Farmer’s artmaking explicitly mimics the fairy architecture described in Michael
Drayton’s 17th century poem ‘Nymphidia’ (1627). With all this building of houses, and even vehicles, one would be forgiven for thinking Farmer was conjuring a new civilisation, yet the barbaric acts of her fairies resemble humanity more than we might care to acknowledge.
In addition to a series of Flying Skull Ships, the fairies have also ‘travelled’ into outer space – a perfectly logical development when one contemplates their insatiable desire for world domination. The appropriation of a dog skull, with a collar reading ‘Laika’ – the first dog in space – makes this all the more factually accurate. Here, space archæology becomes a likely pursuit as the fairies colonise the floating debris that orbits planet Earth.
Turning to a different dimension of Farmer’s epistemological endeavour, Victorian pseudo-art formats (such as taxidermy specimens, butterfly pressings, and dried flowers preserved and displayed within glass bells) are very much the kernel of her practice. Developing the concerns of such late 20th century artists as Mark Dion, Damien Hirst, and Mat Collishaw, Farmer is one facet of a lively generation of early 21st century creative practitioners who appropriate animal materials for the purposes of their work: Polly Morgan, Claire Morgan, Kate MccGwire, Kelly McCallum, Charles Avery and Samantha Sweeting.
Farmer’s work is perhaps unique for its inclusion of the fairy figure, which renders her work of interest to fantasy conventions as well as art historical and museological discourses. She also researches older European traditions of anatomical drawing, vanitas imagery, and curiosity cabinets. Farmer’s malevolent nostalgia is thus anachronistic as well as postmodern.
Some viewers find the use of dead carcasses and insects as exhibits repulsive and/or ethically challenging. Philipp Blom, in his history of collecting, reminds us that to “collect we have to kill”, be it ‘literally’ in the act of pinning or ‘metaphorically’ in terms of decontextualisation. 3 Farmer, meanwhile, justifies the use of such materials in the tradition of the found object, which, for her, tends to include antique taxidermy, excavated mummifications, road kill, and insects collected after dying from natural causes. She is a vegetarian, acutely aware of animal rights, and her work could be said to participate in raising awareness of ecological issues. She also rescues moth-eaten, broken museum specimens which would otherwise be facing decommission.
Returning to the crab-claw anomaly with which I began, Tessa Farmer’s fairies could be said to ‘undo formal categories’, partaking of both the rigour of entomology and the creativity of folk tales and moving us beyond the misleading distinction of science versus art. The way I see it, the two are conjoined in the very corporeality of Farmer’s fairies: one cannot exist without the other. Tessa Farmer’s world is the magical, perhaps malevolent one of the enchanted entomologist…
1 This idea is inspired by Kate Bernheimer in ‘This Rapturous Form,’ Marvels and Tales: A Journal of FairyTale Studies, 20:1 (2006): 67-83.
2 Petra Lange-Berndt, ‘Small Things, Dead Things, Stingy Things: An Interview with Tessa Farmer,’ Preserved! (Nov 2013): www.preservedproject.co.uk/ small-things-dead-things-stingy-things-an-interview-withtessa-farmer/
3 Philipp Blom, To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting (New York and Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2002), p152.
LEFT: Tessa Farmer. FACING PAGE: Little Savages (detail), 2007.
ABOVE: Little Savages (Natural History Museum, London, 2007). BELOW: Unusual artists’ materials.
ABOVE: The fairies conquer outer space: Cosmic Cloud (detail), 2012. BELOW: Marauding Horde (detail) 2010.
Edited extract from In Fairyland: The World of Tessa Farmer, edited by Catriona McAra, published by Strange Attractor Press, 2016.