Small Things, Dead Things, Stingy Things: An Interview with Tessa Farmer

Tessa working

The artist’s studio in her flat, London 13th November 2013

Petra Lange-Berndt: Would you use the term ‘craft’ to describe your artistic practice?

Tessa Farmer: I would certainly say skills of making, which is craft, absolutely, there are processes that I have taught myself and I don’t think about them anymore … so the making itself becomes a tool. And also, doing something with your hands, being able to think at the same time about what this piece is going to be …

PLB: We are sitting in a very crowded room full of glass domes and boxes, above us is a taxidermied swan, there are bits of shells, crustaceans, insects, evil stuff (laughter). How important is this studio space for you?

TF: It’s important, it’s like a constant battle to be more organized and tidy because that’s good for the mind but at the same time I need to be surrounded by the things because the link between the making and the thinking and the seeing – the triangle – is where things, where ideas come from.

PLB: Could you tell me more about the natural materials you are using?

TF: I make the fairies out of plant roots, specifically a fern called bird’s nest fern, the Latin name is Asplenium nidus, I’m sure it’s quite widespread but it grows in my mum’s garden in Birmingham. The fairies were originally made out of twigs and then the veins of leaf skeletons and then roots. It’s quite difficult to find a material that’s natural and strong and very, very fine.

PLB: How did you train yourself to work with these tiny things?

TF: It took quite a few years because when I was starting to make the fairies with twigs I was just using my fingers and a glue gun, it was really quite a crude method, so my fingers have just through practice and perseverance become used to the fiddly things. I know the limits of the root material, how much I can bend something. It becomes instinct.

PLB: I would like to talk about your tools, especially your tweezers.

TF: They just become an extension to the fingers. Even if I am doing something where I don’t need them I have them in my hand because it’s comforting. These ones are scientific, from a watch-making website but there are also fine surgical instruments.

PLB: You use superglue to assemble things, but first you used a glue gun, the emblem of home crafting.

TF: I was using a glue gun purely because I was introduced to them at university [Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University]. It was good because it dries really quickly. I also used the glue gun as a medium; I made an installation with a giant kind of cobweb made out of the glue. The act itself was like being a spider, then I had a lamp on the floor that picked it out otherwise it was invisible.

PLB: You are also using dried insects such as ants, wasps, or bees as materials for your installations.

TF: I started using insects after quite a couple of years of making the fairies. I was walking a lot around Oxford collecting relevant looking branches and twigs and then I found some insects and really reluctantly picked them up, I was extremely squeamish! I was so curious about these completely alien looking things, I had never really looked closely at insects before. I think my only encounters were rescuing bumblebees from rivers, not hating them but being cautious, being kind, respectful.

PLB: You are a vegetarian, how does this inform your relation to the insect and animal worlds?

TF: I respect living animals, I don’t want to kill them or eat them so I never harm things for the sake of my artworks. I think respect comes through the wonder and the curiosity. But then I also do like other people being able to see the materials I work with and appreciate them, it’s almost like doing good PR for insects, especially wasps.

PLB: Are you interested in recycling?

TF: Yes, it’s also the act of searching and looking for things that’s really interesting, engaging. In the summer I found a dead bumblebee and was going to pick it up, but obviously there were ants on the scene, comes a tug of war, and I think: oh no! It’s their dinner! I can’t take their dinner! Normally I do, bumblebees are treasure to me. But often the ants just take the abdomen of the bumblebee.

PLB: So you can use the leftover of the ant’s feast, the throwaway bones.

TF: Yes, they have had their fill.

PLB: Are there any craft traditions that you are aware of in relation to your practice?

TF: Maybe there is something in jewelry, people used insects, also cut up beetle rings or shards of them.

PLB: Coming back to the room – you are a bit like a Victorian naturalist working from home but then you do it very differently.

TF: My table reminds me of Gavin’s desk in the Natural History Museum, London [Gavin Broad is the senior curator for hymenoptera, which is bees, wasps, ants, and sawflies], it’s almost as chaotic, I didn’t really expected it from a scientist or would you know, he has got boxes and things everywhere!

PLB: You are interested in a specific kind of wasp …

TF: Yes, parasitoid wasps.

PLB: How did you discover them?

TF: I did a residency at the Natural History Museum in London in 2007 and I was already interested in social wasps. Therefore I was introduced to Gavin and he introduced me to what he works on, which mainly is parasitoid wasps and their uses in agriculture. Some of the wasps are sort of insecticides to kill aphids.

PLB: They are beneficial to us, to farmers?

TF: Oh yes, absolutely. That’s why there is a lot of research, there is money.

PLB: Let’s talk about the installation you did in this context, Little Savages.

TF: It’s quite absurd really. And absurd that it was in the Natural History Museum surrounded by all it’s order being such a chaotic piece, illustrating so many of the ideas of science that I was looking at – I got a bit carried away (laughs). It’s just a very animated piece.

PLB: The fairies are not part of the official taxonomy, apparently the museum has missed an important element, from that we can only guess that they have missed a lot more.

TF: Oh yes, they do find new species in their collections quite often, there are so many things, they can’t really know everything.

PLB: A lot of people find that fox with its mangy fur and the cocoons quite repulsive, bodily, challenging …

TF: They would have had the same reaction to Gavin’s images of caterpillars with wasp larvae on them but when it is a mammal and a familiar mammal it’s a bit closer to home and less alien. And you see mangy foxes in the city.

PLB: I saw a film clip online about parasitoid wasps – they brainwash their host, they not only go into the body, but also evoke a change of the mind via chemicals!

TF: Yes, the intricacies of it are not completely understood either, the host becomes like a zombie. The parasites eat the nonessential tissue first so the caterpillar stays alive until they hatch.

PLB: What is the relation of the fairies to social insects such as bees or ants?

TF: The social wasps are the long term enemies of the fairies; they compete for food. Wasps prey on other insects and feed them to their larvae and they have weapons, they have stings, and they are quite voracious. But as an insect, they are very useful, misunderstood! So there is that kind of that ongoing relationship. Wasps’ cousins, bumblebees and honeybees, are used by the fairies, they are like livestock; bumblebees are used as transport, like motorbikes; and – this is quite recent – the fairies are learning how to control swarms of honeybees and gangs of ants as weapons. But whether that is through brainwashing or pheromones we do not know. Concerning the ants the relationship is symbiotic, I don’t think it is symbiotic with the bees; I don’t think the bees are gaining anything unless they gain protection.

PLB: Like in a mafia structure! In your installations, there are always some fairies that have mutated and display fins, a wasp body or an ant’s head…

TF: Sometimes it’s mimicry, they are pretending to be something else so they can fool others, they are not mutants, they are just wearing costumes, like a mask, but sometimes they are mutants, so some of the fairies are half honeybee, or are they? I don’t know. So I assumed that the mutant fairy-honeybees were actually half honeybee half fairy because they are controlling the swarms of honeybees so I assumed that’s how they are communicating with them. But maybe not, maybe they are controlling them in some other way and they are just dressed as honeybees because they like the look (laughter).

PLB: Is there an investigative element in the fairy’s sadism, like when a child is taking things apart?

TF: Possibly, but they are definitively realizing what they are doing, they are doing it for a purpose, entertainment or experimentation.

PLB: They also have set up labs in space [Cosmic Cloud at the exhibition Bedlam, Old Vic Tunnels, London 2012]. What is behind what looks like genetic engineering?

TF: I’m not sure either. The installation was merging electronic components with insects, experimenting with robotic insects, it’s what humans are doing at the same time but the fairies get there first. It was situated in space, the fairies were using chards of metal and electronic components and animal parts, all of this debris, all the things that we sent into orbit. I would like to explore that more.

PLB: Within the current craftivism movement people are inspired by the internet and different social media. How is the digital world part of your toolbox?

TF: I am certainly finding knowledge about insects having the internet on my phone, it almost taps into your brain. I buy things and books from ebay and insect dealers online. The idea of stepping away from technology is quite ridiculous, isn’t it.

PLB: And social insects form networks …

TF: Anthills have links to each other in one area, they are different but are the same family.

PLB: You also use taxidermied animals at times and also do some of your mounting yourself.

TF: I started using taxidermy when I started collecting insects, bones, and other dead things. I found rotted animals and their bones, small animals, birds, some mice. Then I bought some taxidermy online and used it in a piece where I wanted an animated animal. But I never wanted to do it myself because I was quite squeamish about it, being vegetarian I felt that I can’t touch meat! Dead insects and bones are one thing. So I had to overcome that challenge but it’s the curiosity and the fascination taking the skin off an animal and learning more about it’s anatomy. But I don’t know if I am that interested in it as taxidermy or if it is just another tool to create characters. As the fairies become more sophisticated predators they are praying on larger and larger animals. A juicy bee just won’t do anymore, they want a whole fox! Not only for the purpose of eating it, perhaps controlling it as a vehicle but also because they build architecture from the bones, it’s really useful bounty.

PLB: Do you have an idea why there are so many young women in London at the moment offering taxidermy classes – and a lot of them are vegan or vegetarian?

TF: I found it fascinating because I have never really handled meat or dead animals, I have never eaten them. It wasn’t familiar at all. That curiosity and fascination is easier to sell if you are kind of an outsider.

PLB: At the same time, as vegetarian you care a lot about animals and their wellbeing.

TF: Yes, that doesn’t feel like that fits very well together, you can do taxidermy courses where you are using mice that have been chopped for that purpose. So there is one argument that burgeoning interest in taxidermy causes more animals to be killed for it. But then mice are being killed for the snakes! However, it is different to find something that is already dead. A taxidermied body that has been brought back to live can increase awareness and fascination if people become interested in it, as a result, maybe they respect the live animals a bit more in the natural world.

PLB: Women’s craft is one possible history for taxidermy. For me, you reshuffle the world from your studio in your home. That is quite a strong statement since you have the world in your hands, and you make your own stories around it.

TF: Perhaps women have always been better with doing things with their hands, and taxidermy is delicate work, it’s not so different to sewing, well there is sewing involved, sewing the skin back up. We work it and then release it.

PLB: The fairies are your collaborators – you do believe in fairies, right?

TF: Yes.

PLB: You use the same materials one would find at the Natural History Museum …

TF: I am trying to understand it, but they are trying to create order. But my practice feels much more chaotic. But then there is also order because I am trying to understand the fairies. But you can’t order nature. Some of the pieces are just not aesthetically pleasing. There is a threat from nature, they remind you that nature is savage, red and tooth and claw and we should be wary! Just look at the recent typhoon that hit the Philippines, you can’t control it.

PLB: What about the glass domes you are using?

TF: It’s like a bubble, isn’t it, fixing something. I prefer showing work in terms of installations. They are animated scenes, but frozen in motion. It is really important to me that people get really close and become immersed. And I suppose, you can sort of do the same thing with something in glass, you can still get close, but it becomes less real because it’s an object in something and you look through glass. I often reuse elements of installations or change them, they develop in the narrative. But if a piece is sold, if it’s fixed in a glass dome it’s almost like it’s evolution is stopped. I don’t really keep pieces. The pieces I do have are ever changing. The narrative is also fixed through photographs, but that’s really just documentary evidence.

PLB: You also did stop motion animation with taxidermied animals and fairies [An Insidious Intrusion, 2007; Nest of the Skeletons, 2008; The Den of Iniquity, 2010].

TF: I used the same materials except that the fairies are not organic but made from wire. It’s impossible to animate them otherwise, there is not enough flexibility in the roots. They are slightly larger, a bit bigger, still quite tiny.

PLB: How was it for you to make stop motion animation?

TF: Challenging, but addictive, it’s kind of engaging with the materials on an even closer level because I had to learn how to make a wasp move realistically, so I made it’s legs out of wire. I somehow went back to the robotic, creating a wasp-machine. But the scale means I don’t have complete control so there is also a random element that adds sometime to it. The three animations were increasingly unplanned but then that’s how I work anyway with the sculptures, things develop and then they evolve and kind of create themselves. It’s kind of like you take a step back, you know where it’s going but you didn’t know that first of all. It is something you learn to do.

PLB: Did somebody ever complain about the fact that your work features dead insects?

TF: People kill insects on a daily basis. I know that there were some complaints I think at Belsay Hall, with A Darker Shade of Grey [Extraordinary Measures, 2010], but that was involving squirrels which are cute. From an early age we are kind of taught to stamp on insects. The cuter ones like ladybirds and bumblebees get a better deal. But if you have ants coming to your home you kill them, because they are a threat, same with wasps, flies, you swat them, the first reaction is to kill that fly. Often the first reaction is ‘I have to get a swatter!’ which I find really odd. In the piece in the World Fantasy Convention [The Terror, Brighton, 2013], there was a really big fly buzzing around in the installation, there normally is a fly when I am installing because of the smell, and this one hung around. So many people told me about it, it was wonderful!

PLB: Your installations have an insect audience!

TF: I started telling the story that I would carry around one fly in my handbag and that I would let it out in my installations just to keep people on their toes. Perhaps I should try to involve some living elements. I’ll ask Gavin about it.

PLB: That’s fantastic I think, since this is what curators and conservators normally try to keep out of institutions: insects and pests.

TF: There were clothes moths in the Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition [The Guildhall Art Gallery, London 2013], the mouse was being eaten, I got an e-mail saying we found three larvae, can we have your permission to spray it and inject it and I was so sorry, because I have them here at home, you can’t win the battle, it’s a constant fight. The mouse, I saw it, it has been quite eaten and it’s a dessicated mouse so it has a lot of protein in it. The fur looks kind of bejuggled now, which is fine. It links in perfectly with the narrative, because the fairies are pulling the hair out and cutting it up so I left it as it was.

PLB: You are not obsessed with keeping things pure.

TF: Yes. This room is not sterile; I can’t ever get rid of them here.

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A taxidermied body that has been brought back to live can increase awareness and fascination if people become interested in it, as a result, maybe they respect the live animals a bit more in the natural world.