Maria Fernanda Cardoso by Rachel Kent

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s sculptural works investigate the wondrous world of animals, plants and their human connection. As she says: ‘We have a powerful connection to animals … our bond is strong because we have evolved together. In Colombian cultures, the frog is your relative.’(1) Inspired by her childhood growing up in Bogota, Cardoso’s works of the early 1990s incorporated preserved lizards, frogs, earth worms and crickets, strung together in carnivalesque arrangements suggesting life after death.

Cardoso Flea Circus 1994–2000, an ambitious body of work encompassing diverse artistic media and live performances, extends these themes. ‘I had cats as a child,’ Cardoso recalls, ‘and cats have fleas.’ Scale is a persistent theme in the artist’s works, which often involve magnification and a reversal of the human–animal hierarchy. ‘I like small animals. I like looking at them; scale fascinates me. The pulga (flea) is the synonym of the small.’ Researching the natural history and anatomy of the flea, Cardoso’s investigations led her to the nineteenth‑century flea circus, an anachronistic entertainment involving tiny performers and their human trainers.

Cardoso Flea Circus was realised by Cardoso over six years as sculptural objects—colourful tents, breeding cages, tiny performance props (dumbbells, flea cannons, hoops and juggling balls) and live events. Through the introduction of two distinct personalities—Professor Cardoso, ‘a flea trainer and nerd’ with furry apron and magnifying glasses, and ‘Queen of the Fleas’—the artist shared the stage with her tiny accomplices, admitting ‘they trained me more than I trained them; I became their slave’. Exploring animal–human relations and the diminutive realm with humour, pathos and curiosity, the work was a colourful shift away from her previous sculptures with their focus on death and violence.

The artist’s Museum of Copulatory Organs continues her exploration of the diminutive. Inspired by the sex organs of the flea and their purported anatomical complexity, Cardoso has developed a wide‑ranging series of sculptures and video works since 2003 that consider scale, functionality, complexity and sexual selection in the animal kingdom. The Intromittent Organs of the Tasmanian Harvestman 2008–09 forms part of this investigation and involved collaborating with scientists from the Australian Museum in its realisation. Scaling up electro‑microscopic scans of the creature’s sexual organs and rendering them in resin, as sculptural objects in glass bell jars, the resulting work offers fascinating insight into a realm beyond the human eye.

Cardoso Flea Circus and the ongoing Museum of Copulatory Organs project combine elements of Dada. Joyful, fascinating, bizarre and absurd, they are a riotous reflection on life in all its shapes and forms. ‘People assume that we are superior as we are bigger, but there is more complexity as you go down in scale’, Cardoso observes today. Celebrating the unseen and unrecognised, her works propose a new world order in which the diminutive realm can teach us a lesson on life.

(1) All quotes in this text are drawn from an interview between Rachel Kent and Maria Fernanda Cardoso, October 2019.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Kent, Rachel. "Maria Fernanda Cardoso" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 70–71.

RACHEL KENT is the Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso appears in

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    With more than 150 artists profiled, the Know My Name book celebrates art by women from across Australia.