Maria Fernanda Cardoso: Small wonders - Art Collector

Issue 56, April - June 2011

Maria Fernanda Cardoso once stumbled on a quote about how the flea’s penis is one of the wonders of the insect world. It’s proved strange but fruitful inspiration for her latest body of work, which is all about the private parts of little creatures writes Ashley Crawford.

Strange shapes seem to quiver and pulsate. Alien, monstrous, too weird to be real.

But they are.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso became renowned in 1994 for her bizarre Cardoso Flea Circus, a mesmerising and surreal piece that made use of live fleas. Her obsessive fascination with insect life and other biological entities has taken numerous forms over the years, but perhaps none so odd as her current output. Artists tend to find inspiration in the most unlikely of places, but her latest works are even more extreme than most in terms of subject matter: insect penises.

There may be stranger subjects out there to tackle, but Cardoso’s fixation is indisputably out there. But what’s even weirder is the strange and eerie beauty she has found in these minuscule private parts.

“I have been drawn and fascinated by nature, in particular insects, ever since I was a child,” Cardoso says. “Everyday I experience awe at the extraordinary little bugs that visit my garden. I have what I call an eye for beautiful forms and those are found in all the diverse creatures that inhabit this planet. EO Wilson, the famous scientist who coined the term biodiversity, also coined a term called biophillia which I think best explains my fascination with nature.”  

Cardoso quotes Wilson as noting that “to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it.” 

Cardoso’s array of soft-core porn stars embraces mites, daddy-long-legs, weevils, spiders, snails and more. It all began when she started research for the Cardoso Flea Circus. “I found a quote that fascinated me, in which scientists described the flea penis as one of the wonders of the insect world,” she says. “Many years later I decided to research whether it was only fleas that had extraordinary penises, or if many other animals were as interesting. What I found out in my research blew my mind, you won’t believe the diversity and the complexity of animal penises I found. So I have been working on this project since 2003, slowly developing a body of work inspired by the private parts of little creatures.”

Along with a dozen different species of harvestman mites from Tasmania she also discovered a Sydney mangrove snail that was recently named Phallomedusa solida, which as its name suggests, has a penis that looks and behaves like a medusa head. “Half a dozen other snails [make use of] love darts, like cupid, they throw arrows at their (hermaphrodite) lover, which pierce his [or] her skin and seem to hurt, [but] nevertheless contain some kind of love potion … several Australian snake penises, all spiky; a bean weevil with the most scary apparatus you will ever see; pseudoscorpions, damselflies; … micro-bats (yes, tiny little Australian bats).”

To research her project Cardoso made use of the collection of the Australian Museum, which retains penis collections of harvestman, snails, micro-bats and snakes. The museum allowed her access to its electron microscope unit, where she worked with microscopist Sue Lindsay in order to scan the tiny specimens and Allan Jones, director of the University of Sydney microscope unit, to execute CT scans of the snake penises from the museum collection.  

To the uninitiated the results resemble plant life, hinting at the universality of natural forms. “Yes, animals that look like plants, and plants that look like animals,” she says. “There are about five phillia (life form patterns) around this planet and somehow we all follow some of those basic architectures. Also I am particularly interested in mimicry strategies between plants and animals, I find it completely puzzling, and I think the art of copying is not exclusive to human culture but belongs widely in nature.”

Indeed, her PhD research into animal genitalia is aimed at “establishing the link between form and evolution and aesthetics”.

The results come in forms almost as multitudinous as the subject. Some are rendered in resin, using computer modelling and rapid prototyping. The damselfly penises she rendered in bronze, pseudoscorpion spermatophores in flamed glass, some are drawings, some are pigment prints from the scans. “I like to explore different technologies and techniques according to the characteristics of the specimens,” she says.

The results, strangely tantalising, are like stills from a collaboration between David Cronenberg and David Attenborough – proving that nature, like art, can be a strange place indeed. •

New work by Maria Fernanda Cardoso will be exhibited at Arc One Gallery in Melbourne from 26 April to 21 May 2011.

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