As I wander through the woodlands of Belsay Hall in Northumberland, I come across a strange scene. Red and grey squirrels are locked in a vicious battle, aided on each side by woodland creatures and insects. A red squirrel is disguised in the coat of a grey, another has a modified tail and all of them have armour and weaponry. But there is no movement. The scene is frozen in time; the animals are dead and stuffed. No, I haven’t walked into a fauna-Frankenstein’s lair, rather this is A Darker Shade of Grey, an installation by the artist Tessa Farmer, which represents the battle between the two species of squirrel in Northumberland, and also recalls the human clan battles of much earlier times.
At first glance, Tessa Farmer’s works seem only a little odd: dead insects and stuffed animals locked in bizarre scenes of battle or uneasy peace. Look a little closer, however, and things get even more interesting. Farmer creates tiny sculptural fairies who hover nearby and interact in her animal scenes. Each figure is just 1cm tall, their size dictated by the insect wings on their backs.
These aren’t the fairies of childhood dreams; they are altogether more sinister forms. In her installations, Farmer displays the malicious and manipulative games these fairies play on their unwitting animal ‘friends.’ She describes the pieces as “a tool to realise imaginative possibilities that might otherwise linger unseen, just beneath the surface.” Tinkerbell as written by Tim Burton, if you will. The scenes represent the harsh reality of the imagined natural world through a fantastical and, at times, grotesque re-imagining of the fairy myth.
They are not pretty, but there is something inherently fascinating about the tiny figures and the mischief they enact. It is not only the painstaking detail of each fairy, or the unusual materials with which Farmer works, but also the imaginative narratives that come across so strongly. We feel a macabre fascination for these poor dead creatures, forced to live another life by their tiny evil manipulators. Each work tells a distinct story, and it is far from the fairy stories we thought we all knew.