From Circus Fleas to Peacock Spiders, María Fernanda Cardoso Exalts Nature

    By Emma-Kate Wilson /MutualArt

The Colombian artist invests considerable time and resources in her art, creates collaborations with scientists and specialists, and dedicates her life to the observation of nature.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Installation view Gumnuts and Sandstone, 2021, Eucalyptus rhodantha and macrocarpa Gumnuts on Wall & Flindersia australis Woody Capsules on Wall. Images courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

Using a breadth of mediums, from installation to video, María Fernanda Cardoso hones in on the ready-made from nature. Her artworks read like a biography of her interests, passions, and both the living and the remnants of creatures she’s found along the way. Born in Colombia, she went to the US to obtain her Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture and Installation at Yale University before moving to Sydney in 1997, where she currently lives.

Cardoso’s 35-year career is impressive. In May 2021, she launched her 50th solo, Gumnuts and Sandstone, at Sydney’s Sullivan+Strumpf. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint; it’s a lifestyle being an artist,” she laughs when asked about her successes. “I always do it with the same passion and intensity, but there were some bodies of work that hit a chord in society.” This lies within the accessibility of her audiences, to connect them to both a physical and emotional response. “They see nature with new eyes . . . you do not have to be an intellectual to like it,” Cardoso adds.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Installation view Gumnuts and Sandstone, 2021, Gumnut spheres on artist made shelves & Sandstone Drawing Sculptures. Images courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

In Gumnuts and Sandstone, Cardoso draws on the natural world around her — the Australian gumnut and Sydney sandstone becoming the medium of the works. Ordered in neat, museum-like displays, the artist hopes to entice the viewer into the hypnotic, intrinsic geometry of the gumnut. Imperfectly round, with textural surfaces, they feature a star shape at the center; sometimes four, five, or six points. Early comments on the work revers a Japanese Zen aesthetic that exposes the unadorned simplicity of the objects; Cardoso muses, “I play with life. By displaying life forms and trying to make people look and admire, connect and resonate with those living organisms.”

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Installation view Gumnuts and Sandstone, 2021, Gumnut spheres on artist made shelves. Images courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

The use of living objects extends into a literal sense with Cardoso’s installation While I Live, I Will Go (2018), around the corner from Sullivan+Strumpf in Green Square, using even larger sandstone blocks from Gumnuts and Sandstone. “I used seven living Queensland bottle trees, and I made an amphitheater with the local sandstone around them, so it becomes like a stage for people to watch them grow for the next 100 years,” she shares, first developing the idea for this artwork after growing a bottle tree in her beloved garden.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, While I Live I Will Grow. Images courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

As Cardoso uses metaphors of life and death in her artworks, searching for animals to document and explore, she has also spent the last 15 years generating life by transforming her garden into an oasis of existence — most notably frog concerts. “One of the first things that happened when I did my pool to pond convention is that, I don’t know how they find out but, a lot of frogs came to live,” Cardoso reveals. “They go wild at night, and so I put sandstone blocks around the pool, and I invite my friends after dinner, and we listen to the different species. It’s a celebration. I really feel privileged to have attracted wildlife to my backyard.”

It wasn’t the first time Cardoso has crafted an amphitheater to watch nature. In The Cardoso Flea Circus (1994-2000), the artist spent close to ten years training live fleas to perform — walking tightropes, pulling chariots, jumping through hoops and dancing the tango. “I connect with life; I have a love for all living creatures, including the small,” the artist reflects.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Cardoso Flea Circus. Images courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

Cardoso first had the idea to train fleas after her uncle, who was living in New York, shared he had seen them perform. The artist held onto this idea, visualizing it and imagining herself as the ringmaster. Once she started her art practice, Cardoso decided to pursue this concept which centers on some of the smallest creatures. “It took years; I had to be self-taught . . . I built all of my props, testing and refining them,” Cardoso recounts. “I taught myself how to be a flea trainer, and I taught myself how to be a performer . . . I became the Queen of the Fleas, and I also became Professor Cardoso.”

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Cardoso Flea Circus — Tightrope. Images courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

Professor Cardoso, and the performer within her, continued throughout her practice — Professor Cardoso Looking For Kangaroo Fleas (1996) sees the artist hunting for more subjects in documentary-style footage. “One thing leads to the next,” she reflects. “I like working with local materials, animals, plants, and now I’m working with sandstone, which is a local material. I like to reference place . . . the cultural relationship with nature is very potent.”

On the Origins of Art I & II (2018) offers a combination of the performer and professor, showcasing Cardoso’s mixed media response to nature by documenting the Maratus peacock spiders in their elaborate courtship ritual. The artist brought together scientific imager Geoff Thompson, entomologists Jurgen Otto, Madeleine Girard, Andy Wang, arachnologist Rowan McGinley who knew where to find them (as they are only five millimeters in size), a professional cinematographer crew and a microscopic camera, plus a ‘laser vibrometer’ to record the tapping sound inaudible to the human ear.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Male peacock spider whole body, Maratus splendans #15, 1 Sep 2014, Rehead Lagoon. Images courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

“Working with wildlife, it’s unpredictable, and the technology of micro and macro has a lot of limitations. We really cannot focus but in a very narrow area,” she explains. “Those are the laws of physics, you cannot change that, so it’s very hard to focus with a live animal.”

Cardoso will be continuing her collaboration with Geoff Thompson and the Peacock Spiders for a series of photographs presented at the Armory Show, New York, in September 2021. Sourcing her animals from Western Australia, she will be focusing on seven different species. Again, the process is labor intensive, challenging the artist to push her practice to the limits of perception. Cardoso shares, “We take about 1000 photographs to get one image, and then the algorithm blends them into one shot . . . then we have to do a lot of Photoshop to tidy up.”

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Spiders of Paradise, Origin of Art. Images courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

The artist reflects that her artworks are a dedication of time and resources, but she is committed and follows this journey as an aspect of her practice. As a young child, Cardoso was nicknamed ‘La pequeña científica’ (the little scientist) and even completed a PhD to allow her access to science and museum collections for her installation Museum of Copulatory Organs (2012) for the Biennale of Sydney. Also key to this approach is collaborating with specialists in their field — starting with husband Ross Rudesch Harley — she says, “I find that collaboration lets you be more ambitious and offers sophisticated outcomes that you cannot bring yourself.”

In 2003 Cardoso represented Colombia at the Venice Biennale with Woven Water, Submarine Landscape, an ephemeral installation that explored death and mourning using the remnants of animals. Twisting in symmetrical clusters, hung by steel wire, the artist used preserved starfish found in tropical waters worldwide and sold as souvenirs in beach resorts and towns. While offering a familiar coastal aesthetic, the installation is highlighted by their ghostly appearance; Cardoso plays with perception, a memento mori.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Woven Water - Submarine Landscape Agua Tejida - Paisaje Submarino 1994. Images courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

“[The work was] about mourning, about death; a reference to the violence from when we were living in Colombia, in the 80s and 90s,” the artist shares. “It was the pain I felt, not just for the loss of the animal life but in a way, a metaphor for the gospel, human life, and the idea of sacrifice.”

Cardoso cherishes the edge of perception — whether presenting the highly detailed micro in the gallery context or reveling in bringing audiences to the macro growing outside. An “invitation to observe.” Whether in her garden, performing, researching, or sculpting, it all comes back to observing nature “do its thing, which is to rot, decompose and regenerate itself.” The artist invites love for life by seduction, rather than reprimand. “I try not to dwell on the pain,” she concludes. “I rather focus on the beauty that’s still here, the diversity. I am optimistic because rewilding my backyard only took 15 years. So, it is possible to bring wildlife back to our environments.”

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