Little Big Top

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.”

A mad scientist, more like it. During a recent Cardoso Flea Circus performance at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a museum of science, art, and human perception, Cardoso wears weird goggles and a belly-baring silver miniskirt and go-go boots and brandishes a whip–which she uses more than once on those 4-year-olds who get too close to the talent.

Her well-stocked acts are an amalgam of delicately wrought miniature swing sets, trapezes, and safety nets plus twittery costumed entertainers. The performers include Harry Fleadini, the world’s smallest escape artist (who is so good at escaping you rarely see him); strongbugs Samson and Delilah lifting cotton balls hundreds of times their size; acrobats Teeny and Tiny walking a tightrope; and jugglers Pepita and Pepón, who shove around luminescent balls while they’re dangling from a wire.

All the names in Cardoso’s extravaganza go with the costume or the act and not with the individual flea, since one or more of the stars bites the dust each week. (Cardoso acquires her talent from a mysterious laboratory, which agreed to supply her only if she would buy in bulk–500 fleas a week at 10 cents each–and promise not to divulge the exact location of the lab.) Yes, life in the circus is murder; at times it’s downright disturbing to watch. There is something faintly grotesque about Cardoso’s sideshow, but there’s also something refreshingly honest in her act–something primal, raw, and unedited.

When Teeny keeps falling off the trapeze and has to be repositioned repeatedly, for example, Cardoso shrugs and tells her audience, “You see, it’s real! If the fleas were machines everything would be sanitized and running smoothly.” She then fishes Teeny out of the safety net and sets him up for his sixth attempt. This time he crosses the highwire successfully. The crowd of 15 (which is picked by lottery, since each performance attracts hundreds of fans and the performance space is, by necessity, intimate) oohs and ahhs and then lets out a collective hoot of approval.

But at the Cardoso Flea Circus, just as with Maria Fernanda Cardoso herself, nothing is as it appears. During her last set of performances, the impresario takes every opportunity to play with reality and mess with her admirers–especially during the question and answer periods midshow.

Question from the audience at the 1:00 show: “What do the fleas eat?”

Cardoso: “Chiquito” (her cat, whose photo she dramatically whips out of her silver miniskirt).

Question at the 3:00 show: “What do the fleas eat?”

“A secret solution,” Cardoso says perfunctorily and ends the question period before anyone can ask her to elaborate.

Question in her studio the next day, when I have her pinned down with the tape recorder running: “OK, what the hell do those things eat?”

Cardoso: “I dont feed them.” (That would help explain the turnover rate.) “I used to let them bite me, which in a bizarre way brought out my maternal instincts,” she continues, though I sort of wish she hadnt. “But that didn’t last long.”

It’s an ominous vision, Cardoso playing hostess to her performers by offering up her own blood. Suddenly, considering this alternative, I don’t even mind that she starves them. “They live longer when they don’t eat,” she says, with a scientific reserve I find strangely calming right now.

Cardoso may be mischievous and deliberately full of contradictions, but she’s no philistine. She has spent many hours researching entomology as well as the history of flea circuses. Her studio walls showcase her whimsical sketches of new acts and costumes, but her bookshelves are full of well-used science, philosophy, art, and history texts. Ricky Jay’s Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric, and Amazing Entertainers is a personal favorite of Cardoso’s, but so are the ideas of French scientist and philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who considers imagination and reverie as well as reason to be creative forces in knowing the world. As a sculptor of concepts, Cardoso has brilliantly molded science, ecology, aesthetics, and humor into her current body of work.

It’s been a long, painstaking road to knowing the mind of the flea, but through study, patience, observation, and not a little dominatrix-like dexterity with a whip, Cardoso has figured out how to animate her insect world. She’s learned, one could say, to speak its language. Her blown breath means “come hither” in flea vernacular, since carbon dioxide signals a warm body and food. The fleas obediently respond by jumping in her direction. Cardoso has also discovered that fleas dislike light, so she uses it to coerce them into pulling a pocket-sized locomotive thousands of times their weight. The Herculean feats of strength are merely desperate efforts by the fleas to stay out of the limelight. They can’t talk yet (though Cardoso says she’s teaching her fleas Spanglish), but they sure can dance: As Latin music blares above a petri dish, made up with glitter to look like a disco dance floor, fleas wearing star-shaped tutus do a teeny, tiny tango.

Cardoso has also used her skills of observation to separate the stars from the riffraff, determining which fleas are the exceptional jumpers and which can be coerced to walk. She says she merely harnesses the innate gifts of the jumpers–who, on a good day, can hop 30,000 times without stopping and who can sail the human equivalent of 1,000 feet in a single bound–but trains her walkers by putting them in a little vial: When they jump they hit their heads on the glass ceiling. “Very soon they learn their role and place in the circus,” says the deadpan professor.

The contemporary boot camp Cardoso has devised may seem retrograde and even a little heartless, but she insists that her experiments are not inconsistent with the hoops she herself has had to jump through in life. Raised in a Bogotá suburb by ambitious and successful architect parents who were obsessed with their children’s education, Cardoso says her circus represents the kind of “unnatural and often useless education” we’ve all been subjected to at one time or another. “My head has been packed with trivia since I was a kid,” she explains. “I think that’s why I love the fantasy and whimsy of my flea circus. I hate reality, though I was raised to be a nerd and I can’t help being curious about it.”

The cold hard fact is that the flea circus is as much about guts as it is about glory. Behind the scenes, Cardoso and her assistant, Wymon, harness the fleas in a delicate operation that entails slipping a silken thread or piece of wire around the performer’s neck. If the harness is too tight the flea suffocates; if the harnesser gets too close with the scissors, legs get cut off with the excess wire. “It takes an amazing amount of concentration,” says the profoundly patient Wymon, whose duties also include talking to the fleas to soothe their pre-performance jitters. The “circus clown” Cardoso is dressing nearby is nearly impossible to see, but it makes itself known by whapping the bright spiral of wire it’s attached to back and forth in desperate bursts of energy.

Though it’s hard to believe when you’ve just watched the circus clown get lassoed, Cardoso insists that she is dominated by the fleas more than they are by her: “I’m going to go blind doing this.”

In a typical performance, Cardoso makes sure that flea fencers Pierro and Pedro duel over a lady. Their slender tinfoil swords wave languidly, and Cardoso admits that she’s achieved the effect by lashing the weapons to their arms. “They’re just trying to get free of the swords,” she offers matter-of-factly.

In another ring the audience can watch Bounce I and Bounce II as they are blasted out of matchbook-sized cannons into a strategically placed net (which looks suspiciously like a swatch of backdoor bug screen). But the audience is also asked for a second of silence to mourn the loss of Fearless Alfredo, the high-dive artist “killed during one of the performance when he failed to land in his thimble and instead landed on his head.”

Cardoso later confesses that Alfredo is a metaphor for her father, who died of a brain tumor last year. Permanently killing off Alfredo was Cardoso’s way of honoring her father, and she managed to do it so that her audience acknowledged yet laughed at death–an elegantly Latin, Dia de los Muertos-ish touch. It is the gift of the artist to the rest of us to be able to transform autobiography into universally accessible stories. That Cardos can so easily shape-shift from unsentimental scientist to anguished daughter, from conceptual daughter, from conceptual artist to circus carny, from nerd to storyteller, is a tribute to both the authenticity and the complexity of her work. This complexity, combined with her deliberate mystification of the “meaning” of her work, makes Cardoso’s evanescent production nearly impossible to pigeonhole, merchandise, objectify, or turn into spectacle (something her gallery, she admits, is kind of concerned about). As much as Cardoso wants you to laugh at her circus, she also wants you to think.

Like a brown bear in chains and lederhosen at the fair, or a killer whale trained to pose as a body builder for its Sea World audience, performing fleas both excite and debase our fantasies of communion with nature. Anthropomorphized animals, whether at the circus or on a television screen, may tap into our joyful dre4ams of understanding the mind of nature, but there’s also something disturbing in the margin: an awareness, however faint, of manipulation, exploitation, cruelty, and even torture behind the scenes.

We crave our illusion of dominion, even though we know down deep that one swipe by that bear, a fall into Shamu’s pool–or a nip by an infected flea, for that matter–could mean curtains. Yet still we come to gawk at the animals. What’s more, we bring our children.

Peter Richards, director of art programs at the Exploratorium, has said that Cardoso’s performing fleas are “just a performance within a performance.” Cardoso concurs, adding that from the moment she took a magnifying glass to a flea four years ago she ahs been immersed in a theatrical event of her own making. Says Cardoso: “My research, my trials and errors with a flea harness, the construction of the costumes and props, my conversations with the media, even the very serious contract I had to sign with the Exploratorium have all been part of the performance. It’s art but it’s also life. It’s real but it’s also a fantasy.” It proceeds from this logic that the visceral responses she provokes from her audience are also part of the act. “Definitely,” she agrees.

As much as we’d like to deny it, we go to the circus to see broken animals behaving like humans. But we also go for the sheer pleasure of being scared out of our wits: All those death-defying tricks are finely constructed with just that goal in mind. The surreal twist of the flea circus is that although the tricks themselves don’t scare us, the fleas get under our skin nonetheless. It’s what we know about their history that gives us the creeps. “Fleas have done in more people than both world wars combined,” says Cardoso. And it’s true. These bloodsucking, disease-carrying insects spread the bubonic plague across 14th-century Europe, wiping out 25 million people. Their last great rampage began in China in the 1890s and spread rapidly along trade routes to India, the Americas, Australia, and South Africa. Before this plague was contained, the flea had marked well over 10 million people for oblivion. Knowing this, you can’t help but feel some respect and humility, as well as low-level anxiety–even when the insects are dressed in shimmering blue tutus and are doing the samba.

“I played down the part about their being bloodsuckers, because of AIDS,” says Cardoso. Still, it is hard to believe that this artist–who has used human craniums sawed in half and then cemented together to resemble a soccer ball to focus attention on the violence and sporting mania endemic to her homeland–does not appreciate the evocative power of her stars. The flea circus may in fact be the perfect, though messy, aesthetic response to our contemporary plague culture, whose fear of death, sex, and anything that even hints of blood or other bodily fluids keeps it at the ringside of life–on the outside looking in.

Those little dots of menace definitely pack a metaphorical punch, but what they suggest about our own nature is not all bad. When a flea bites, it tells us we have skin–something we tend to forget as we pass our days in concealing clothes, cerebral calculations, and often meaningless work. Fleas remind us of our bodies, remind us that we are vulnerable and human. The flea could even be said to be an emissary from the world of desire, where flesh and corporeal sensation matter most. What does having an “itch” denote, after all, if not a lustful and prurient disposition?

Whether it is lascivious, macabre, or just plain curious, there’s no denying that the flea exerts a mighty pull on the human imagination. “My flea circus makes you laugh,” says Cardoso. “But it’s also a very serious investigation.” Indeed, this modern-day flea impresario confides that Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson has greatly influenced her work. Wilson argues in his book The Biophilia Hypothesis that “the more we know of other forms of life, the more we enjoy and respect ourselves. . . . Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.”

In an industrialized culture convinced that bigger is better, that money matters most, and that nature is the Discovery Channel, a turn around the garden may be the best route back to Wilson’s intricately plain and exquisite world. Cardoso is not willing to let us forget our humble place in this wider frame of experience.

“When I came to the U.S.,” says Cardoso, “I was amazed to see how terrified people were of the natural world. Every house has screens, every effort is made to get away from nature. That’s why I’m bringing animals back into our spaces, even if it’s a museum.”

In his new book The Spell of the Sensuous, magician and ecologist David Abram argues that intelligence and language are not ours alone but are “a property of the earth.” He also suggests that the “magical” or “supernatural” qualities we often assign to nature can be decoded by anyone who cares enough to pay close attention to the lessons, rhythms, and cadences of nonhuman life–a tactic Cardoso clearly employs with her fleas.

It is this kind of empathetic engagement that separates her from those who spend their lives looking at bugs pinned up in a lab. But there’s also something else: “None of the scientists I have talked to–the ones who have spent their lives researching fleas–has any sense of humor about their work,” says Cardoso. “I would go crazy if I didn’t find some amusement in my study of fleas. For all their work and seriousness, what have these researchers accomplished? They certainly haven’t figured out how to get rid fo fleas! At least I’ve taught mine to do tricks.”

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