Tessa Farmer: March of the Anti-Fairies

Tessa Farmer, The White Lie (detail), rat, mosquitoes, plant roots, insects, 2011

‘The fate of the rat is unknown’. (Tessa Farmer)


Tessa Farmer is a sculptor who works with taxidermy and entomology in order to conjure her imaginative vistas. In 2007, she undertook a residency at the Natural History Museum, London, where she studied a microscopic species of parasitic wasp known as mymaridae or fairy flies on account of their diminutive size. Farmer is no ordinary taxidermist – she believes in fairies. Skeletal and deadly, hers are an entomologically ‘accurate’ variety, born with torturous instincts and malicious intent. In my interview with the artist March 2011, Farmer justified her fairies’ violence to me in Darwinian terms as a survival instinct:

TF: … People ask me ‘where does the darkness come from?’

CM: …they do seem quite menacing or malevolent, your fairies. You said ‘mischievous’ earlier…

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…

Bred as a kind of anti-species, her fairies infest moth-eaten taxidermy and escape the confines of the curiosity cabinet. In a recent solo exhibition at the Danielle Arnaud Gallery, London, Farmer’s miniature narratives came to life within a Georgian townhouse. This show was called Nymphidia after Michael Drayton’s poem Nymphidia, The Court of Fairy (1627), a text which constructs fairy architecture out of cat eyes, bat wings and spider legs, much like Farmer’s work itself. One piece in this show was especially striking: a mammal-crustacean hybrid entitled The White Lie (2011) where a barnacle-armoured white rat is under attack by a swarm of cruel anti-fairies and mosquito accomplices. Farmer is fond of the Victorian illustrations of Richard Doyle, especially The Triumphal March of the Elf King (1870) which depicts a troupe of fairies enslaving unfortunate insects, birds and rodents in procession. The White Lie appears to be a contemporary reincarnation of this image, and revives some of Farmer’s earlier pieces including Parade of the Captive Hedgehog (2006) and Resurrection of the Rat (2008). Robert C. O’Brien’s book, Mrs Frisby and The Rats of NIMH (1971), comes to mind in the clash of scientific specimen with fairy tale trial and tribulation. We are told by the curator-narrator’s notes that the fairies’ ‘mission is to suck its blood, impede and capture it’. But in The White Lie one does not yet know who will emerge triumphant. The taxidermied bodies in Farmer’s work are usually representations of the living animal embroiled in the narrative. Here, the punning title suggests a fabrication or hoax – a play with the truth which is harmless, innocent and fleeting, not a merciless mutilation or sinister tableau. One wonders if the title is a metaphor for the practice of taxidermy itself…?

Image 1 & 2: Reproduced with kind permission of the artist and Danielle Arnaud, London.

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The fate of the rat is unknown.