Originally published on Spoonfed, May 2011.
Context, sometimes, is everything. It’s probably the attempt to somehow get around this notion that has led almost every major contemporary art gallery (in London at least) to adopt the bland white cube model: the less remarkable the exhibition’s context, the argument probably goes, the more the focus – silent, reverential – is upon Art, up there on its pedestal. But by force of ideology or simple necessity, not every gallery space is like this, and it’s only when you venture outside the white walls of sterility that you realise the attempt to get around context is itself a context – a blank, sterile environment that, despite its claims to the contrary, isn’t always suited to the works of all that many artists.
I only say this because I’ve seen the works of contemporary artist Tessa Farmer in a variety of spaces – in SPACE Studios on Mare Street, in the Saatchi Gallery, at various art fairs, right here in Spoonfed Towers and even on a shelf in my flat (I own a small work) – but rarely has it looked quite as it does right now, in two exhibitions taking place simultaneously at very different locations across London.
Down in a charming Victorian terraced house in Vauxhall, Tessa has (surprisingly) her first solo show, at Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art, while in King’s Cross she’s exhibiting as part of a collaborative project with DJ Amon Tobin in the intensely atmospheric crypt under St Pancras Church. Those who know Tessa’s work will be familiar with the strange array of desiccated insects – wasps, butterflies, bumble bees – hanging suspended in mid-air, and assaulted and picked to pieces by an ethereal swarm of tiny winged creatures. In both these new shows, however, there’s evidence of a new direction: larger-scale sculptural works, featuring all manner of animal matter – spiders, honeycombs, skulls, crab claws, even a dead cat – melded together to form strange organo-futuristic fortresses, battled over by armies of wasps and fairies. There’s also some strangely comedic stop-motion video pieces which delve further into the histories that underpin Tessa’s imaginary worlds.
In the creaking domesticity of Danielle Arnaud, a mouse peeps up from the fireplace, wasps rush in from a window, a beautiful cobalt-blue butterfly dangles from the ceiling. When I saw Tessa’s work at the Saatchi Gallery in 2010 I criticised the use of a vitrine for boxing up and closing down the insinuating potential of these works. Here, though, the works are free to spread into one’s everyday consciousness. The battle is here, real, and in your home.
Down in the church crypt and the ideas are pushed beyond the ‘merely’ real. As Amon Tobin’s eerily thudding beats echo down pitch-black corridors, over stacks of crumbling grave stones, and into hidden, spot-lit alcoves, something bigger emerges. A dead blue-tit lies crushed upon a plinth, skirted by bluebottles – shadows, moving over and above. Among the cobwebs of an alcove, strange pupal growths spawn on old iron bars and between dusty bricks. Around the carcasses tiny fairies flit and fly – these little scenes are founded upon death and yet they teem with life. And it’s this contradiction running through all of Tessa’s work that is accentuated here; the same contradiction that makes places like crypts so uncanny. Death lingers here, but as more than just an absence – ever-threatening some kind of return to presence, and to life.
Taken together, these two shows represent something of a culmination for Tessa Farmer’s career so far: an immersive realisation of her troublingly beautiful universe; a world within a world, squirming, scratching, crawling its way into our own. Strangely though, and surprisingly, there’s something to be said for seeing her work in the context of white-walled anonymity. It’s more of a challenge – both for the art, which must communicate its power unaided, and for the space itself, as the drive for transcendental sterility is left in tatters by hordes of the dead and rotten. Death, though, that in Tessa’s hands, glistens with the delicate shimmer of seduction.