Weekly Update – Bring on the fleas, in Troupe de Fetishe

A macroscopic look at the microscopic world, Troupe de Fetishe, a video installation involving a tiny flea circus projected onto the 100-foot-long, 25-foot-high east wall of the Icebox at Crane Arts, is just the latest in a string of entomological art that’s been exhibited in Philly.** Right now you can also see Jennifer Angus’ miniature Victorian sitting rooms that utilize insect carcasses in patterns adorning wallpaper (currently up at the Philadelphia Art Alliance)

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Robert Smythe as flea circus meister Oskar Vanderwold in Troupe de Fetishe at the Icebox

Insects in art represent death and decay, and while many artists work that subject area, few use actual insects. When they do, it’s usually to trigger revulsion—a visceral response most art can’t and doesn’t necessarily want to provide. Troupe de Fetishe, though, made by a team of MFA students and teachers in Temple’s film department, actually skips the insects to become a nice take on the classic idea of a man trapped by obsession.

Oskar Vanderwold, played by Mum Puppettheatre’s Robert Smythe, is a study in obsessive behavior, captured with extreme and almost claustrophobic closeups that don’t give much of an idea of the larger studio Vanderwold is in. The tweezers-wielding flea-circusmeister never looks up from his work and barely speaks, and the camera stays on his face and hands as he works on his tiny props—a cannon, trapeze, carts. There’s a quick-but-important cameo by a fly, if not a flea.

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Being so uncomfortably close to Vanderwold feels like a burden, like the viewer is spying on him and passing judgment. In the foreground, Vanderwold’s black pet rat runs on a flywheel in its cage, and the ringmaster himself is caged, his obsession locking him into this fantasy playground.

Even though the video, co-directed by Lisa Marie Patzer, Ian Markiewicz and Doris (Chia-Ching) Lin with sound design by David Miranda Hardy, is blown up so large, searching for the tiny performers themselves in video seems futile; every time Vanderwold’s tweezers seem to drop a flea onto the trapeze, there’s nothing there but air, making you question your eyes, the character’s sanity and eventually your own.

And without giving away the punch line, let’s just say that it turns out that Vanderwold doesn’t like insects.

**Also in the annals of Philadelphia art with insects: Talia Greene’s Wooly Willy-style portraits, with scanned bunches of drysophila arranged around human faces in the shape of hairdos, beards and mustaches, and another flea circus, from Colombian artist Maria Fernandez Cordoza, which was at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in 1996 and again in 2008.

Troupe de Fetische
Through Oct. 31. 
Icebox Project Space at Crane Arts,
1400 N. American St.

Read this article at Philadelphia Weekly.