Little Big Top

Maria Fernanda Cardoso reinvents the flea circus

| May-June 1996

When the 19th-century flea impresario Bertolotto conducted his 12-piece orchestra for Princess Augusta of Prussia, she is said to have been able to hear sound emitting from the one-inch-square concert hall. History does not reveal the quality of the comma-sized performers, or which waltz was chosen to entertain the princess, but we do know that pioneers like Bertolotto, who excelled in playing with scale and perception, were great celebrities in their day.

Though it is often considered an urban myth, the flea circus has captivated audiences around the world for more than 300 years. With its freakification of the familiar, comic appeal to the imagination, and carny sense of fun, it’s not hard to see the attraction (though it is sometimes hard to see the stars). In the United States, the flea circus persisted into the 1950s with the great Leroy Heckler, who dazzled audiences at Hubert’s Freak Museum on 42nd Street in New York. Then the little big top ceased to be—that is, until Colombian-born artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso and her flea circus arrived on the scene. Like Bertolotto’s peewee performers, Cardoso’s fleas appreciate music too, but hers are partial to Latin beats—and they do much hipper tricks.

Four years ago Maria Fernanda Cardoso, an award-winning conceptual artist with a fine arts degree in sculpture from Yale, developed an obsession with fleas. She fled the rarefied world of galleries, which had been exceedingly receptive to her work, and ran off to join the circus. Today, instead of black-clad sophisticates critiquing her installations, she’s got 4-year-olds interrupting her show with probing questions and clambering ringside for a closer look at her goods.

“I’m very happy with the accessibility of my project,” Cardoso says of her flea circus. “It can communicate at every level, whether you’re a kid, an 80-year-old, or a museum curator. What’s more, it allows me to continue my investigation of the connection between humans and animals.”

The 33-year-old Cardoso, who won first prize at the 1990 Bogota Biennial with her dried-frog sculpture fashioned into a kind of eerie halo, has used corncobs, fish scales, cattle bones, lizards, snakes, grasshoppers, and houseflies to explore the relationship between humans and other species.

Although Cardoso’s art has always involved a poetic observation of nature, she refuses the mantle of “environmental artist.” Asked to define her aesthetic intentions, she won’t give too much away—intentionally distancing herself from any cause or ideal and even celebrating the contradictions inherent in her work. “I’m not politically correct,” she insists. “I’m not defending any cause, and I don’t care if the fleas in my circus die. In fact, their deaths are part of the performance. It’s not my intention to point a finger and say, ‘I love nature and you are bad because you destroy the environment.’ I’m more like a scientist who makes experiments and watches what happens next.”

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