Just a story

By Elizabeth Pearce

Tessa Farmer’s The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum will be de-installed on Tuesday. The work is part of The Red Queen exhibition, which opened in June last year; it has taken me since then to find a way of putting into words Tessa’s startling, fun and funny way of looking at her role as an artist. It’s simple, really. She just tells a story. But the unique part, the part that makes it all so loveable, is the way she elides her role as the creator, watching the narrative unfold with the detached curiosity of any other bystander. In another artist, this might seem pretentious, a rhetorical trick to get attention. In Tessa, it’s a pleasure.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

Her work revolves around an army of tiny fairies – made from the roots of plants found in her mother’s garden – terrorizing poor, stuffed critters: cats, hedgehogs, foxes and, in this case, a Tasmanian brushtail possum. I interviewed her twice, in London in 2009 and more recently in Hobart in the lead-up to the opening of the Red Queen. One of the questions I always ask in my interviews is, ‘How do you define success as an artist?’ Both times, Tessa told me her ultimate objective is for the fairies to take over the world. She says it with a smile – of course she knows they can’t really take over the world – but still, the objective of her art unfolds within the internally cohesive, closed-loop narrative world of her own making. The same goes for the fairies themselves. In 2009, I asked her: ‘Why are your fairies so mean?’ expecting an answer along the lines of, ‘Historically, the figure of the fairy has been anything but sweet and innocent. I’m interested in drawing out those more macabre elements’, or, ‘My work is a fable about the ferociousness and futility of human conflict’, or, ‘I am making a statement about the way we wage war on the natural world’. Instead, I got: ‘Because they’re ambitious, because they’re greedy. They’ve got to eat’. From that interview:

Elizabeth Pearce: Are you on their side?

Tessa Farmer: I suppose so. That sounds a bit mean, but – yeah, I suppose I feel responsible for them. I’m satisfied by their progress. It makes me happy.

EP: So you’d feel guilty if they went hungry?

TF: Oh, I wouldn’t mind so much…  I really don’t know very much about them, to be honest. It’s a bit frustrating. People keep asking me about their social structure.

EP: That’s their business, really, isn’t it.

TF: Yeah. Like do they have a queen? I don’t know. Do they mate? I don’t know, I don’t really want to know. It’s embarrassing.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

In The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum, the fairies are conquering a bees’ nest. ‘They learnt to control bees in Britain, and they seem to be controlling the honeybees here in Tasmania quite well, too,’ Tessa told me when I spoke to her in June. They are apparently using some sort of unspecified mind-control to do so:

TF: I think it might be pheromones, and maybe dancing – you know, like how bees dance to communicate where flowers are. Lots of insects communicate through pheromones.

Once enslaved, the bee-sting power is sublimated to more sinister use: the torture and destruction of a (taxidermied) Tasmanian brushtail possum. (‘Wouldn’t the wasps evolve behaviours to counteract the predation of the fairies?’ worries Tessa momentarily, before brushing the thought aside).

TF: I thought the possum would be quite easy to overcome, but they make these horrific noises and have these big claws. When it actually arrived [from a taxidermist in Launceston], I realised what thick fur it had, and wondered whether the bees would be able to get to the skin of the possum to sting it. It might all be completely futile.

Which bit, I wondered later, might ‘be completely futile’? Is this an existential, or entirely pragmatic matter?

TF: They’ve developed a mutation where they have – this sounds so ridiculous, sorry, I’m just mentally telling myself to shut up.

EP: No, don’t.

TF: The fairies have developed a mutation so they have crab claws on their heads, to grab the wasps with. We collected the crab claws a couple of weeks ago at Lewisham [Tasmania]. They’re really tiny because the fairies are only one centimetre in size.

EP: Amazing. And I’m correct in saying the fairies are anatomically accurate?

TF: Yes.

EP: I remember when I spoke to you last time you were worried because they didn’t have kneecaps.

TF: Yes, but I’ve gotten over that. I have to learn to stop putting myself down.

EP: Yes, I must say the lack of kneecaps is not a major issue for me. What are they going to do with the possum once they have it?

TF: Eat it and use its bones to make bigger, more elaborate ships and architecture, and probably use its fur, I think.

EP: Do you want the viewer to take away some kind of environmental or social message from your work?

TF: No. I wouldn’t mind if they did, but that’s not my intention. I’m far too involved in the story.

‘I’m far too involved in the story’, she says. I have recently encountered a theory (de rigueur in some circles) that has liberated me: we are more viable, evolutionarily speaking, when we create sweet stories about ourselves, and believe them. Others – both competitors and mates – are more likely to be deceived by us, to find us funnier, sexier, kinder and better parents than we really are, if we are deceived by ourselves. This gives me chills a bit. I didn’t really need to read it in a book to know that it is true. (To what extent it is useful to discuss in terms of natural selection I will leave to others to decide.) The notion has helped me accept the stories of the people around me, as opposed to trying to get them to ‘see the truth’: that their worlds are not autonomously animated by mysterious forces (God, the fairies, fate), but a result of a series of choices that seem natural and invisible to each individual because those choices obey a secret, powerful inner logic. Is the conflict we see all around us – most intensely between loved ones as opposed to strangers; those of overlapping but conflicting interests – the result of stories in collision? When others act outside our plot, refuse to play the part assigned to them, or, worse, call into question our own heroic role, this hurts and angers us; obstacles on the path to our true destiny (to ‘take over the world’, whatever that means on an individual basis). Interestingly, I have noticed that the traits people are most self-critical about are often not the ones that cause others the most pain (‘I have to stop putting myself down’, says Tessa). That’s the nature of self-delusion. The more you squint at it the more it recedes into abstraction, like those hidden-image stereogram patterns that were popular when I was a kid. The best we can aim for, I think, is a modest self-consciousness, an ability to momentarily see ourselves from without (‘this sounds so ridiculous…’).

Listening to the recording of my interviews with Tessa, they are full of laughter. I am laughing at her (gently) and she is joining in. This is the difference between the best and worst of us, I think. It is also the difference between a friend and someone who means nothing to us: the willing suspension of disbelief. Occasionally it has occurred to me to beg my friends to tell me what my self-deceiving stories are, but that’s not the nature of friendship. They might, perhaps, remind me when I’m a little ‘too involved in the story’; but mostly, I am lucky enough to have friends who laugh and cry in all the right places, reassuring me with their very company that it’s not ‘completely futile’ after all.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

Consider the Fuhrer

By Elizabeth Pearce

Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian? You probably did – or, conversely, you are spitting at the screen right now: ‘He was not a vegetarian, that is a myth!’ Indeed, type the key words into Google and you will find whole forums dedicated to discussing the Fuhrer’s warm-and-fuzzy or otherwise feelings for furry critters. Wiki says he was one, though (vego, not furry critter). It’s interesting to consider why it matters so much. On the one hand, it throws into starker relief the cruelties he perpetuated on his own species. But on the other hand – and more menacingly – it draws attention to the flimsy and contingent nature of any moral system. We want to draw the blanket conclusion: monster: but his sensitivity (imagined or otherwise) to the lives of some, and not others, mirrors back to us in monstrous form our own hierarchy of species. A question stirs somewhere: is there an inherent cow-ness or pig-ness that throws open the door to these creatures’ slaughter? Or is it just because we can? (The question stirs, but only for a moment. Hitler’s abstinence from animal flesh is swallowed whole by the holocaust, which unites us in our horror.)

The reason I am compelled to consider the Fuhrer is because I am researching Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia on display as part of the Red Queen exhibition at Mona. I heard from someone at some stage during the installation of The Red Queen that Olympia is ‘a documentary about Jesse Owens and Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games’. That’s an interesting distillation, but an inaccurate one. The film is actually not a documentary but a highly stylised work of creative non-fiction. The ‘non-fiction’ part is the fact that the subject of the film is, indeed, the ’36 Games; but these events are shaped by Riefenstahl into a form as exquisite as the bodies on screen: these finely honed fetish-objects, fit for the mythical apotheosis of the human form. Jesse is there, amid the other Gods. Hitler is, too.

If you’re not clear on the significance of ‘Jesse Owens, American negro, the world’s fastest sprinter…’ (as put by the commentator for the men’s 4x100m relay) basically it is this: Owens won four gold medals at the Games and was its most successful athlete. Born in Alabama in 1913, at nine he moved with his family to Ohio, part of the ‘great migration’ of 1.5 million African Americans from the segregated South to more prosperous parts of the country. At Ohio State University he broke track-and-field records willy-nilly but was compelled to live off campus like other black students and also was not permitted to patronise the same hotels or restaurants when he travelled to events with his teammates. (I find myself given to the temptation to rehearse these Wiki-facts with tired shock: we’re well versed in the realities of racial segregation but still that reality has the capacity to amaze me). In one day (actually, according to Wiki, in the space of forty-five minutes), May 25, 1935, Owens broke three world records and tied for a fourth at the ‘Big Ten’ college athletics event at Ann Arbor, Michigan. The ’36 Games were set in his sights.

But here, Wiki and I say our goodbyes: Owens apparently ‘countered’ ideologies of Aryan racial superiority ‘by winning four gold medals’, irking Hitler. But surely his superb athleticism could be conveniently explained away by the belief that ‘primitive’ peoples inhabit their bodies more fully – devoid, as they are (according to ‘master-race’ theory), of the need to direct as much energy as whites to higher intellectual, social and moral functions? Apparently Hitler muttered something like that into his moustache as he turned away from the field in disgust. I made that last bit up. And someone else, apparently, made up the well-known story that Hitler refused to congratulate Owens after his first gold-medal win, storming out of the stadium in a terrible huff and going home to fondle his guinea pigs. (Sorry, it’s just that I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that read ‘Justice for vegetarians: Hitler was no animal lover’).

(And on the vegetarian issue: I have recently partaken of flesh – I think some drama is appropriate – for the purposes of nurturing my unborn child i.e. I’m normally a vegetarian but my obstetrician told me my iron is too low. This is the first of many instances, I sadly concede, when my broader vision will be obscured – obliterated – by my desire to bolster in any way I can the wellbeing of my progeny, in some sort of bizarre, compulsive faith in the belief that as my child thrives, so the world turns. One of the caricatures of a bio-cultural approach to human psychology is that we are puppets moving on the strings of our genes – a caricature, I say, because good bio-cultural explanations do not in any way displace the importance of culture, environment and personal choice in favour of ‘genetic determinism’. But in this case, I feel a bit puppet-ish, I admit. At exactly sixteen-weeks pregnant, which was when I felt my baby move, I started to feel near-hysterical levels of anxiety in regards to its safety – I’ve since been told this will never get better, which is terrific, thanks. And when I say ‘near-hysterical’ I mean signing up to Choice Magazine, itself an appalling act, and compulsively scanning articles on pram and change-table safety, and hence managing to be both a lunatic and hideously boring at once. This new me sits outside of me, somewhere apart, totally disintegrated with what I consider my character. I am not enjoying it. The sensation is captured in a beautiful book by Anna Goldsworthy, Welcome To Your New Life, in which the narrator attempts to take her husband and new baby on holiday ‘from sleep deprivation, from hyper-vigilance… from ourselves’. At their coastal holiday house she is horrified to discover a long-drop toilet, a repository – or suppository, if you’d prefer – of maternal anxiety:

Quickly I close the lid, but it is too late. I have seen how you would fall. That moment in which clumsiness ticks over into disaster. The dense plummet of your body; the viscous splash…
The baby must never go in there!

That night, so fearful is she that her husband will succumb to the toilet’s ‘sinister gravitational pull’ and offer up the child as sacrifice to its ‘moist and malodorous’ belly, that she builds a fortress of suitcases around him as he sleeps, so that if he wakes he will rouse her as well. Recently David wrote a blog post about his daughter Grace’s accident which many of you read. One comment on our Facebook page in response to his post read: ‘A very nice example of why a scientific world view can, and does, help us deal with shit of the emotional kind’. This made me feel cheerful because it is something I have learned, and I’d like to think that it has come across to those who engage with what we do at Mona. So, science consoles. Something I have always known, have never had to learn, is that so, too, does literature).

Yes: so while it’s true that Hitler did not shake hands with Owens, neither did he shake hands with any competitor that day. Initially he had decided it was appropriate to congratulate only German victors on the podium; the Olympic committee gave him an ultimatum: shake hands with all of them or none. He chose the latter. Which I find a little amusing. It reminds me of a recent failed attempt at a veiled ultimatum for my husband’s eight-year-old: ‘If you don’t go for a walk with Dad, I might find some jobs here at home I need help with’. ‘Good. I like helping’. (His reward for piercing my pathetic attempt at manipulation was that I let him off the hook, which he would have appreciated because no one likes helping. It’s something our mothers made up to wreak revenge on the human race for the pain of childbirth).

The artistic and historical significance of Olympia is twofold. Firstly, it exemplifies many cinematic techniques – such as creative camera angles, tracking shots and use of non-diegetic sound – that were, for its time, groundbreaking. Its release brought widespread acclaim for Riefenstahl, who beat Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to take the grand prize at the 1938 International Film Festival in Venice. During a tour of the United States to promote the film, she was received by Disney and publically praised by him for her achievement. But there in America, awareness was growing of the horrors gathering in Germany. In November that year, Riefenstahl was asked to leave the country.

It seems clear that Riefenstahl was to some extent consciously participating in a Nazi propaganda campaign, especially when you consider Olympia alongside an earlier film, Triumph of the Will, about the Nuremberg Rally, as well as her close personal association with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. But whether or not she was really conscious of what she was collaborating in – how could we possibly know? In her autobiography she claims that she learned of Nazi Kristallnacht attacks against Jews from American reporters, and was shocked. The historical debate could go on forever and is not super interesting to me. Much more interesting is the relationship between artistic intention and outcome the film generates.

Firstly, is there any propagandist purpose evident in the film itself? I find it impossible to say. I watched it without knowing much about the historical conditions of its production, and I didn’t find that it dwelled in particular on German athletic supremacy. You could argue that the shots of Hitler looking calm and sane in the face of racially diverse athletic success are terrible visual lies, but they are not in themselves propaganda (i.e. they obscure, as oppose to champion, his true agenda). Secondly, and more importantly: does it matter whether or not she ‘meant’ for the film to carry any special message? Is what the artist wants or intends to express a priority, when considering the value of a work of art to us, the human race?

I made out like that was a hypothetical question. The truth is that I’ve already made up my mind. Artist intention does matter, but not that much. I might not have meant to pull the trigger, but I did, and now you’re dead. The fact it was not a malicious murder matters, sure, but you’re still there on the floor, gathering your own meaning as the blood pools behind your head. In less violent imagery: there is no perfect transmission of intent. The space between my words and their echo in your ear is the engine of social interaction, the imperfection that perfects the system. Reading is always misreading, listening mishearing; art is art, by definition, when its message gets lost in translation. Otherwise, it’s just advertising. Olympia is art, then, and not (just) propaganda, because it takes us close to the Fuhrer, and then onwards, elsewhere. Indeed, that is the power of the arts, to exercise the human double-bind: that we are infinitely malleable, amenable to past and future, but also share a common nature, ‘that which binds us,’ and that which ‘literature [and art] has always, knowingly and helplessly, given voice to’ (Ian McEwan). And it is also to remind us, more urgently perhaps, that ‘no one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced … is the suppository of all wisdom’ (Tony Abbott).