Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Ross Harley and Jurgen Otto, Look at me! 3mm big, Peacock spider Maratus volans mating dance. Work in progress. Image courtesy the artist

Maria Fernanda Cardoso: Natural aesthetics

Readers may remember Mondo 2000, the glossy magazine that was the self-proclaimed flagship of ‘‘cyberpunk, virtual reality, wetware, designer aphrodisiacs, artificial life, techno-erotic paganism and more’’ during the 1990s. As the 20th century was drawing to a close, Mondo 2000 set out to bedazzle readers with a whole new approach to being human. Technologically accelerated evolution, proclaimed the editors,‘‘is transmuting us into mind-zapping bits and bites moving around at the speed of light’’, “the brain is the primary sexual organ”, and “we are less and less creatures of flesh, bone and blood”.[1]

In a recent clean-out of my study, I found a special bumper issue from 1992 and flicked through the pages with mounting embarrassment at what I had once seen as the advance guard of a millennial revolution in aesthetics and sexuality. What has happened in the slipstream of popular aesthetics and cultural consciousness to make all this look just so last century?

After a decade in which the news has been dominated by stories of fire and flood, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, we are faced with the recognition that in any negotiation over our future as a species, nature remains unequivocally the senior partner. The role of Homo Sapiens has changed from conqueror of the biosphere to ‘‘plain member and citizen of it’’. As American philosopher Wendell Berry has said, we are having to relearn our place as a species among others.[2]

In the domain of the visual arts this means cutting ourselves free of a late twentieth century culture of speculation about where we might be going after the millennium. Much of this was fuelled by Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, with its provocatively overblown vision (she calls it an exercise in blasphemy) of a utopian non-naturalist world without gender where, as cyborg beings, we have no genesis, do not recognise any Garden of Eden, are not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.[3]

Such heady talk was inspiring to a wide range of artists, especially in visual and performance media, but there is a fine line between inspiration and intoxication. Recovery from what amounts to a state of cognitive intoxication involves renewed attention to the condition of our senses, and renewed commitment to the sensory intelligence through which we gather knowledge and experience of the natural world. Technology may be involved here, not as some quasi-personified entity whose processes rival those of the natural order, but as a source of refined and customised aids that expand the capacities of human observation and thus the potential for new forms of learning.

Take, for example, the case of the phallomedusa solida, so named because its penis, with its profusion of tendrils, resembles a Medusa head. This common species of Sydney mangrove snail becomes an aesthetic prodigy when seen through the lens of a skilled microscopist and the eyes of an artist. The artist in question is Maria Fernanda Cardoso, whose Museum of Copulatory Organs features magnified photographs of the phallomedusa alongside displays of insect genitalia blown up in scale and modelled as exquisitely elaborate sculptures in glass, porcelain and silicone.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Penis of the Phallomedusa Solida (a Mangrove snail from The Sydney Harbour), 2008, pigment print on paper, SEM in collaboration with electromicroscopist Sue Lindsay. Photo: John Brash

For the 2012 Sydney Biennale, Cardoso’s Museum was housed in what was once a ship-building workshop on Cockatoo Island. This heavy wooden construction with a high roof held up by sturdy pillars, and almost no natural light, enabled the exhibits, lit from underneath or within their cases, to shine out with a radiance of their own. This is a project that accords with a long tradition of talking and writing about the ‘‘Wonders of Nature’’, but wonder is something that has to be rediscovered through the ages; it requires some sense of estrangement, projecting ahead of changing frames of scientific knowledge to focus on what we don’t quite know yet or have never quite seen before.

In the area of gender and sexuality, such an approach enlarges the spirit of enquiry in a way that runs counter to the kind of biological determinism against which Haraway was crusading. The tiny organisms in Cardoso’s work do not carry the social connotations of human gender identities, and the formal extravagance of their sexual apparatus confounds any ready-made interpretations we might be tempted to apply to them. An essentialist view of gender difference would be confused rather than reinforced by the kind of naturalism presented in Cardoso’s works.

The phallomedusa is hermaphrodite, and can fire off darts that manipulate another snail’s gender so that mating can occur. Salamander spermataphores, modelled in glass, resemble tiny ballroom dancers in flounced crinolines. Tasmania harvestmen, spider-like scavengers that live in tree bark, have penises so varied and intricate they evoke the dream forms of a Dali or De Chirico painting. The Museum of Copulatory Organs is a revelatory study in natural form that confounds human assumptions about which gender is the tempter, which the predator, which the aggressor, and which the partner burdened with a requirement to attract through the excesses of display.

Form, Cardoso says, “is a diagram of forces”. With her principal collaborator, video artist Ross Rudesch Harley, she focuses on the relationship between form and dynamics in the behaviour of minute creatures. Stick insects mate in a protracted choreography lasting twelve to fourteen hours. This is evidently a species with a special talent for different kinds of intimacy. Their camouflage involves adaptations in mobility as well as appearance, so that their movements echo the subtle swaying of a branch in response to air currents. Insects on a Branch, the work recording this, comes with a caution: “It takes patience to watch this video”.[4]

It takes patience to tour the Museum of Copulatory Organs, to stop for long enough to tune into the subtle rhythms of other life forms, to adjust the visual and sensory expectations most of us bring to a gallery environment; it takes patience, too, to work with the precision technologies that enable us to observe such things. These quieter modes of understanding were drowned out in the milieu of cultish technophilia that took hold in the 1990s.

Much of the feminist anxiety underlying the cyborg craze might have been diffused by laying aside catch-phrases about essentialism and biological determinism, in order to pay some real attention to natural phenomena. Cardoso is influenced by the biologist William Eberhardt, whose work on “cryptic female choice” demonstrates that in many species, the genital tract of the female is designed to enable her to sort the sperm from different partners so that she is effectively making a genetic selection in the reproductive process.[5] Conversely, it is often the male that takes on the requirements of attraction. From an organic point of view this can mean diverting vital energies to organs of display that may be cumbersome and restrictive. But what is at stake is no simple reversal of the power play associated with human gender relations.

One of Cardoso’s most radical speculations is that aesthetics should be accorded biological status, as an evolutionary advantage directly associated with the definition and preservation of form. A new work focuses on the Australian peacock spider, a creature so minute that several would fit on a human fingernail, yet equipped with exquisite decorative features and sensory organs so refined that a purely functional interpretation of them seems inadequate. The behaviour of this species was photographed by Jurgen Otto, who observed them engaged in mating rituals during which the male spider performs an attention-seeking dance and raises a flap on the rear of his abdomen displaying iridescent markings in blue, scarlet, green and gold, whilst emitting a subsonic call to the female that can only be recorded with a laser vibrometer. Males and females have eight eyes, and sensors to enable multi-directional navigation. The human collaborators on the project bring premium skills in sound and image recording, and Cardoso plans to magnify the footage to human scale for exhibition.

Though Cardoso seems cautious about inviting human parallels, adjustments of scale are one of the ways in which these minute studies can be brought into an anthropological perspective. For her Emu Wear series (2008), she used human models to display a range of capes and head-dresses made from emu feathers woven individually into a backing fabric. While these seem to make humorous reference to figures in a fashion parade, there is also something spectral about them that is more disturbing, and that invites comparison with the work of British designer Alexander McQueen. McQueen brought a new dimension to fashion design by creating images that invite us to look at ourselves as the strangest of natural species, prone to adopt elements of insect, bird and animal form in our appearance, but combining them in unpredictable ways. He was prone to obscuring the faces of his models with masks, veils and helmets, as Cardoso also does; her Emu figures, layered fringes of feathers and conical hats disguise even the shape of the human head.

The series comes across as an exercise in bizarre visual hypothesis. As human-animal hybrids, designed beings whose ontological status is unclear, they carry something of the uncanny aura of the cyborg, but without any of its polemical accompaniment. Who or what are these strange attractors? Attraction itself is surely one of the most complex mysteries of the natural world.

Maria fernanda Cardoso, Emu wrap and headpiece, 2006-08, lambda print on photographic paper, edition 1/3 + 1AP. Courtesy the artist


  1. ^ R.U. Sirius ‘Evolutionary Mutations,’ in Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge, Harper Collins, New York,. 1992, p. 100.
  2. ^ Wendell Berry, It All turns on Affection: the Jefferson Lecture and other Essays Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2012, p. 72.
  3. ^ 3 Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women, Routledge, New York, 1991, p. 150
  4. ^ Ross Rudesch Harley and Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Stick Insects on a Branch,
  5. ^ William G.Eberhard, Female Control: Sexual Selection by Cryptic Female Choice, Princeton University Press, 1996.

Jane Goodall is a novelist and freelance writer whose essays have appeared recently in Inside Story, Griffith Review and Australian Book Review.