By Morgan Joice
Insect genitalia provide inspiration for a trail-blazing artist.
Inside a former mental asylum, we sit surrounded by penises. Some are pronged or hooked, others sport dreadlocks. Some are kept for safety under glass.
Dr Freud could not have conjured a more disturbing fantasy. Yet all these male members are real. These are insect penises – magnified, modelled, photographed or rendered in glass and resin.
Creepy, beautiful and seemingly wildly impractical for the job, their diversity suggests that sometimes, Dr Freud, a cigar is most definitely not just a cigar.
All have been created by Sydney artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso. She is best known for her flea circus, whose smallest show on earth became one of the bizarre hits of the Sydney Festival more than a decade ago. Then, when Cardoso wasn’t breeding, training and feeding the unlikely performers – on her own arm – she was researching every aspect of their biology. Her latest work and obsession has grown from this.
”Back then, I read something that described flea copulation as one of the wonders of the insect world,” Cardoso says.
She read how the male flea has two penises that take up most of his abdomen and he copulates for eight hours straight. (Little wonder a flea needs to eat only about three times in its life – there’s neither time nor stomach for much else.)
”I was intrigued and I thought it was really amusing,” she says.
She was intrigued enough to take matters further. Much further. The results of her inquiries feature in a documentary about her work to be screened on ABC Television next week.
”I decided to check out whether fleas were the only ones that are so well endowed,” she says. ”So I went to the Australian Museum library and I spent the whole summer reading books and looking for images of [insect] genitalia.”
There weren’t many – it is not a well-studied area. But Colombian-born Cardoso faced another obstacle. She needed a means to pursue her artistic and scientific interest without being dismissed as a weirdo pervert. So she embarked on a PhD at Sydney University. Now nearly completed, her study of insect genitalia, The Aesthetics of Reproductive Morphology, is likely to be one of the more unusual yet presented in the hallowed halls of academia.
Cardoso is also creating what she calls her Museum of Copulatory Organs – or MoCO – for the Sydney Biennale this year. It will be installed on Cockatoo Island in June and include many of the objects she has created over the past eight years. Like more orthodox natural history museums, it will include objects in cases and she will give guided tours. It won’t include a museum shop, although she does dream of creating a t-shirt emblazoned with ”Love Hurts” and an image of a damsel-fly penis.
She stands before a tray of them in her studio at Sydney College of the Arts, in the former Callan Park mental hospital. Each has a hook-shaped attachment. ”It’s for clearing out the sperm of a previous mate,” she says. ”Females are promiscuous in most species. We have this idea that the male is promiscuous and the female is chaste. It’s a mistake. Monogamy is rare.”
Cardoso indicates three glass figures. They look more like crinoline lady figurines than salamander spermatophores. Cardoso, who has just been been selected for the Redlands Art Prize, opening on May 3, then turns her attention to a photograph of a snail penis (Phallomedusa solida phallus) with what looks like a luscious head of dreadlocked hair. The creatures are hermaphrodite, she explains.
”Maybe because they move slowly. They can’t fly or run, so it’s insurance if they bump into another snail that they can mate.”
And they can fire off love darts to manipulate a potential mate’s gender.
”It’s possible Cupid’s dart comes from the ancient Greeks’ natural history observations,” she says.
She is creating a series of snail love darts for her museum. The battle of the sexes isn’t confined to the human realm. Some male insects develop cunning ways to control females.
”Their semen becomes like cement to block the female,” she say. ”It’s like a chastity belt.”
With her partner, Ross Rudesch Harley, Cardoso has spent many hours filming stick-insects mating. The creatures rarely copulate, but when they do, they make up for lost time.
”It lasted about 14 hours. At the end, we were so impatient that we disturbed them so they would end.”
This coitus interruptus was delivered after the female had performed a series of trembles. Cardoso hesitates to call this an orgasm.
”But there’s definitely some communication,” she says.
After studying the complexity of insect genitalia, how does human anatomy compare?
”It’s boring,” she says.