Tessa Farmer's Creepy Little Fairy Gangs
Tessa Farmer is a sculptor who has created an intricate, underground world ruled by violent gangs of insect-sized skeleton fairies. Basically put, she tells stories with dead animals, but each piece seems to relate to some larger, overarching narrative. And, if you're bored of only being able to appreciate art once you've crammed it into some haughty, abstract context, the intricate craftmanship speaks for itself. I wanted to find out more about Tessa and her macabre clique, so I called her up for a chat about dead swans, persecuted grey squirrels, parasitic wasps and deer ghosts.
VICE: How did your interest in these creepy fairy skeletons start?
Tessa Farmer: I studied human anatomy as part of my Art BA and became interested in skeletons. As a child I liked flower fairies and thought I’d make a darker version of them, so in 1998 I made my first fairy: a skeleton inside a tulip.
You use dead animals and insects in your work. What’s the hierarchy in this world?
Fairies are at the top. They are establishing themselves amongst insects and animals, using them to survive. Sometimes their survival is parasitic and sometimes it's predatory.
So they aren't all nice little Tinkerbell fairies that get along with everything else in the enchanted forest?
No, but they do gang up with other creatures from time to time. In one piece, the fairies collude with grey squirrels to kill and eat red squirrels. I am interested in invasive species, and these grey squirrels came here from America about a hundred years ago, causing our native red squirrels to decline. They are now being persecuted and culled in order to preserve the remaining red squirrels in the north of England and Scotland. It doesn’t seem fair that they’re punished for being successful.
Have you ever worked as an entomologist?
I did a residency at the Natural History Museum, which was an opportunity to develop my knowledge. That’s when I became interested in parasitic wasps, which lay eggs in other insects to survive. The wasps generally lay the eggs in caterpillars, so rather than turning into butterflies, the caterpillars play host to the wasps until they emerge and then they just die. It’s ingenious.
Yeah. How do the fairies relate to these parasitic wasps?
They are enemies, but they sometimes mate and become half-parasitic wasp, half-fairy, so they can lay their eggs in larger creatures. The fairies are carnivorous and engineering; they kill and eat other creatures and use their bones to build architecture.
You recently collaborated with Amon Tobin on his latest album, ISAM, which will be aired on our Creators Project website in August. He made the soundtrack for a film called Taxidermia. In the movie, the taxidermist gets so caught up in his work that he starts cutting and stuffing himself. Do you ever worry that things will go that skewiff for you and your fairy skeletons? Your work Little Savages actually reminded me of Taxidermia.
They control me a bit. It’s quite intense, obsessive work, and in my head they are real. I've also just started learning about how to do taxidermy,so it's funny that you should say that.
Have you ever seen a real fairy?
No, I wish I had. I have seen a deer ghost though.
Yeah, I was nine years old and I was out in the countryside. It looked like a regular brown deer, but it flashed up in front of me and then it had vanished.
Did you speak to it?
No, it didn't stay around long enough.
Hmm, OK, I would have spoken to it at least. How do you make sure the insects don't get away from you like that darn deer?
Sometimes I freeze them since a dead insect might still carry eggs. Actually, I had one piece that did get eaten in the gallery. It turns out there were moth eggs hidden inside the wasps nest. The eggs hatched and the larvae ate the bird that was in the piece. They reduced it to a skeleton; it was really interesting.
So, your work ate itself. You put nature into an art gallery and it continued to evolve.
Yes, indeed. It had a life of its own.
Great. That would seem like a natural place to end the interview, but I wanted to ask your advice. I recently found a bird skeleton in my plant pot, but I couldn’t touch it, would you be interested in taking it?
I can come and pick it up if you don’t want to touch it. Actually, my neighbour found a dead swan in the canal.
Did you take that?
Yeah, it’s in my freezer.
You have a dead swan in your freezer?
Yeah, I am taking it to a taxidermist on Monday; I’ll use it in my next exhibition.
Can I come see it?
Yeah, sure. It starts on September the 3rd, at the Viktor Wynd Fine Art Inc gallery on Mare Street in Hackney, East London, E8 4RP. Details can be found at this hyperlink.