Past Exhibitions

Maria Fernanda Cardoso: Cardoso Flea Circus

Exhibition Through August 17, 2003


Colombian-born artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso celebrates the nineteenth-century novelty of the flea circus with an installation that includes a vibrant circus tent, performance arenas, and a whimsical video. Historically staged for small groups of onlookers, flea circuses took two forms: one that used "sleight of hand" to create the appearance of real fleas in action and a second that used actual fleas. Cardoso, whose previous works often explore the formal and metaphorical possibilities of animals, was interested in raising and training fleas as part of this project, which has become one of her best known.

The centerpiece of the Cardoso Flea Circus is a twelve-foot-tall "big top" tent. This tent, which was created by the artist in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, was constructed from a variety of fabrics: including canvas, taffeta, silk, rayon, and cotton, and is embellished with elaborately painted portraits of flea performers. Two arenas, equipped with miniature props such as cannons, tightropes, and tall ladders with thimbles of water, serve as staging sites for the performances.

A video accompanying Cardoso's extravagant tent serves as a stand-in for a live performance of the fleas. This video documents a performance by Cardoso that features the artist dressed in circus attire leading her fleas through a series of daring tricks, all of which are designed to accentuate the fleas' natural responses to heat, light, and breath (carbon dioxide). The acrobatic feats of the fleas include dancing, tightrope walking, high dives, and weightlifting.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso was born in Colombia in 1963. After completing an undergraduate degree in visual arts and architecture in Bogota, she came to the United States to pursue graduate training in sculpture, first at the Pratt Institute in New York and then at Yale University. Her works have been shown in museums throughout the United States and Europe, including exhibitions at the New Museum of Cotemporary Art in New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Fundaci la Caixa in Barcelona, and the Centro Reina Sofia in Madrid. In 2003, Cardoso was selected to represent Colombia at the Venice Biennale. She currently lives and works in Sydney, Australia.


Maria Fernanda Cardoso Created in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum. 

Cardoso Flea Circus, 1996; Acrylic and oil on canvas, pigment on nylon taffeta, various fabrics, steel, brass, video, various props and fleas; 96 x 116 inches in diameter (closed). Edition of 2. Photo: Will Brown.