Nymphidia (detail) 2011
insect, bones, plant roots
20 May - 26 June 2011
"This palace standeth in the air,
- Michael Drayton, Nymphidia, The Court of Fairy, 1627
Tessa Farmer is an artist and enchanted entomologist, who endears herself to the researcher, explorer and natural historian alike. Her work presents a fluttering, cluttering aesthetic of fairy creatures and magical taxidermy. This exhibition takes its name from Michael Drayton’s seventeenth century fairy poem of the same title, Nymphidia. A thorough read through reveals its innate appeal to Farmer, whose art is likewise bursting at the seams with curiosities, literary references and art historical allusions. Indeed the fantastical, other-worldly imaginations of Shakespeare, Bosch, Machen and Conan Doyle have all been mentioned in relation to her work.
There is a scuttling, natural crispness to Farmer’s fairy species, hovering somewhere on a metaphoric knife-edge between thistle-light and Gothic-dark. Her taxidermy offers a memento mori on the brink between life and death. She points to the existence of an ‘anti-fairy’ of which she marshals an army. The ominous sounding ‘little people’ of Celtic legend re-emerge in their duplicity and overthrow their host. Carole G. Silver’s study Strange and Secret Peoples (1999) provides a key sourcebook, most especially the chapter on wicked fairies which serves as an apt caption for Farmer’s work:
It had long been held that fairies, at their best, were mischievous and capricious, incapable of such human feelings as compassion. Associated with early periods of history and the behaviour of savage or barbarous peoples, they lacked the civilised virtues, behaving like children (the Victorian ‘little savages’) or like the mob. (Silver, 1999, 150).
Farmer’s fairies are no doubt malicious and infused with dark narratives, but she justifies their violence in Darwinian terms as a survival instinct:
TF: They were mischievous, now they are just…evil…I justify their savagery as a need to survive, in terms of evolution or survival of the fittest which is so inherent in insect behaviour in terms of the niches that they have filled and the means to survive and be successful.
As with the Lilliputians from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), it would be wise to tread with care. The diminutive cuteness of their scale belies their malevolent undercurrent. The cultural theorist Susan Stewart speaks of the toy-like, Victorian miniature through nostalgic narratives of interiority (1993). Farmer likewise claims that she ‘playing’ just as she did in her childhood (which was not ‘that dark’). Coupled with the architectural aspects of Drayton poem, it is thus all the more fitting that her intricate minutiae should choose to cluster in this domain:
TF: Thinking about space - the show that I am doing at Danielle’s, her gallery is in her Georgian house so it is a really domestic space...I am very much approaching it as an installation within that space in a kind of anti-art way… I like to encourage people to get down on the floor and look really closely. There is something so wonderful about that because it makes you feel like a child again, getting down on the same level, and it just takes you into a different space.
Here, polite art world domesticity is turned inside out; an un-civilizing influence which conjures a frenzy of moulting taxidermy scattered throughout the gallery.
One wonders if Farmer’s vicious fairies have an entry in Katharine Briggs’ fairy dictionary (1976)? Or are they a newer species, spawned from the microscopes and Wunderkammer of the Natural History Museum where Farmer was previously a resident artist (see Neal, 2007, 15-30). Indeed the juxtaposition of science and the fairy tale is interesting to consider here:
CM: You mentioned science has taken over as an influence…I was wondering about the meeting between art and entomology and…the meeting between art and science or science and the fairy tale…how the two might converse in your work?
TF: I think there is quite a lot of mystery…In terms of microscopy; entomologists spend half their lives looking through a microscope. As soon as you look through the microscope all those illusions (of the fairies being real) are shattered. It is an incredible experience to look at insects that closely, and see the beauty in their design. The experience humbled me a lot. It made me more ambitious in terms of creating something insect-like. I thought I had reached that point when I first got the fairies to insect size…there is so much I want to learn and I get frustrated because I can’t know enough…
Mystery and the thirst for knowledge infiltrate the cabinet of curiosities, a museological format which was contemporaneous with Drayton’s ‘Nymphidia’ poem. Curiosity is both a verb: to know, and a noun: an unfamiliar object. Farmer’s fairies are certainly curious creatures to be studied, analysed but they are transgressive little beings, difficult to pin down.
Earlier articles on Farmer’s work have linked her with the notorious Edwardian Cottingley incident of 1917 (Hammonds, 2006, Robinson and Irving, 2007, 13). This so-called ‘hoax’, in which two cousins (ten-year old Frances Griffiths and sixteen-year old Elsie Wright) ‘captured’ fairies on film, might serve as a precept or model for Farmer’s practice. The ‘fairy photographs’ were championed by theosophists Arthur Conan Doyle and Edward L. Gardner (1920/22/47), the latter claiming that fairies had evolved from butterflies rather than mammalian origins (Silver, 54), the former coincidentally the nephew of the fairy painter Richard Doyle – another touchstone for Farmer. The Cottingley photographs were later suspected to be products of trickery – paper cut-outs propped up with hat-pins. The fairy tale writer Arthur Machen, for one, was especially dubious, calling them fakes and ‘the product of a third-rate artistic conception’ (cited in Silver, 192). We leave it to his great granddaughter, Tessa Farmer, to convince us on the existence of fairies, free from their compartments in this domestic setting.
- Catriona McAra (University of Glasgow)
For her first solo show in the gallery, Tessa Farmer has created a series of free standing works involving highly detailed mises-en-scene where fairies (made from plant roots and insect parts) are engaged in ferocious battles against their principal enemy, the hornets.
Protruding from the wall is a wasps' nest built into the end of a cow horn. The walls of this nest are not only constructed from paper (made by the wasps) but from animal bones (including a rat skeleton and a bird skeleton), the skin of a mouse, desiccated toads, tarantula skins, butterfly wings and spider webs. We do not know if the nest abandoned, or if the fairies invaded it? Different queens of social wasps sometimes invade the nest of another, and continue to build it in their own style, so the nest becomes an amalgamation of architectural styles. Perhaps the fairies were inquilines (squatters) in the nest and took it over from within. Whatever happened, the nest is now inhabited and controlled by the fairies, although there are still wasps present. They are confined to their cells, guarded by fairies with hedgehog spine spears and soldier ants (which have large powerful jaws).
In another corner, some fairies are attaching wasps to the wings of a part mummified/part skeletonised bat. They are converting the creature into a 'battle bat' and the wasps will serve as weapons against their enemy, the hornets.
A skeletal battle bat, ridden by a fairy, engulfs a hornet with its wings (which have been reconstructed from butterfly wings). The bat's wings have spikes (the tips of hedgehog spines) on the inside and it dispatches the hornet effectively. They swarm amongst many hornets and a fleet of battle bats, each modified to become a fighting machine, and ridden by fairies. The fairies appear to be winning, but the hornets, with their long stings and large jaws are putting up a good fight, and are a formidable threat to the fairies and their nest.
Away from the action, a skullship (constructed from a sheep skull and flown by beetles) hovers in the distance, providing a refuge for the warring fairies, where they can feast on collected insects and regain their strength.
Other fairies have different roles. A band of fairies armed with mosquitoes descend upon a white rat running across the floor of the gallery. Their mission is to suck its blood, impede and capture it. The fate of the rat is unknown.
Tessa Farmer was born in Birmingham in 1978. She received a BFA and MFA from the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University. In 2004 she was selected for 'Bloomberg New Contemporaries' and in 2007 she was Artist in Residence at The Natural History Museum, London. Recent exhibitions include Dead or Alive at The Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Monanism at The Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania; and Newspeak: British Art Now at the Saatchi Gallery, London.