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…

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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.pre­served­pro­ 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.

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