“In the cultural consciousness the fly usually figures as something tedious, unclean, and ugly. Something one wants to squash, to be rid of. The campaign against flies and, for that matter, any insects in the name of hygiene is one of the most important subjects in the entire history of culture.” *
A couple of days ago, I came across a photograph by Magnus Muhr that uses dead flies not just as a subject-matter, but also as, ehem… material. Running a race, tanning on the beach, riding a horse – these little creatures take our place in usually human-performed activities.
Dead flies would usually be regarded as gross. But in the case of Muhr they become in a way even adorable! The Swedish photographer uses their tiny corpses to create characters for his doodles and at some point you don’t even regard them as dead flies but rather as funny little cartoon characters (it is important to try not to revert to seeing them as dead flies as this may again lead to a repulsive reaction).
Why does Muhr choose this subject? Is he trying to rid flies of their disgusting image? Or by putting them in positions usually occupied by humans saying that today we are the same, – buzzing around, spreading disease and being one with the crowd?
Muhr isn’t the only one to use flies in his art. Damien Hirst has often used this ‘material’ in his artworks, not only dead, but alive, too. His Cancer Chronicles, 2002, is a series of 13 monumental canvases (148.6 x 113.7 x 15.2cm.) all covered with dead flies captured in an amber-like resin. Each was sold separately, with Cancer Chronicles Malaria selling at Christies for GBP 288,000. On another occasion Hirst used maggots, which later turned into flies, to ‘participate” in his work Let’s Eat Outdoors Today (1990-1991).
The work consists of two adjoining glass containers, one displaying a common plastic garden set with a table and four chairs, the other containing a steel barbecue with a tray full of maggots, hatching into flies. The same principal was explored in A Thousand Years (1990), where a calf’s head was placed in one transparent box and maggots in another, with the latter turning into flies and destroying the head’s meat and tissue and leaving nothing but a scull in the end…
And again, – what meaning can we see in these works? Why flies? Is it just another of Hirst’s scandalous/provocative ideas? In one interview, Hirst once said about the work: ‘I wanted the piece to be an outside that everyone recognised like anyone’s back yard but I wanted the piece to be frightening in a way like it threatened the inside of your body.’ Familiar/uncanny, – these are probably the best ways to describe the piece considering what Hirst wanted it to be. And it does live up to them, since with the great familiarity of the scene the idea of flies and maggots being everywhere on everyday object and most importantly – food – can be quite traumatic. Precisely because “it can happen to you” and “you can’t be 100% safe”.
Before Hirst and Muhr even came up with the idea of using these tiny insects in their art Ilya Kabakov, a russian-born American artist, made ‘a fly’ one of the central reoccurring motifs in his work since 1960s. His 1992 installation Life of Flies showed a set of rooms where different aspects of the Soviet society and its members were represented through flies. Flies are also linked to garbage which is another important element in Kabakov’s work often associated by him with his Soviet homeland. Art critic and theorist Boris Groys wrote a critical response to this installation that sheds a lot of light on the ideas behind it as well as the work itself, and can be found here.
Kabakov not only uses bodies of flies, he draws them, too. Little flies on canvases and little flies on books that are supposed to be encyclopedias or albums – an inherent part of a museum – can all be found in this display of sarcasm and sadness at the same time.
Obviously, there are many more artworks with depictions of this creature. And the key word here is depiction since until the liberation of materials and techniques in XX century, until Duchamp and the Surrealists made it possible to use any thinkable and unthinkable objects/mediums/substances in art production, the idea of using a ‘fly’ or anything as something else wouldn’t even come to an artist’s mind. Today, however, it is quite acceptable and as in Hirst’s pieces, for example, flies even become in control of executing the work. A big step for such a small insect….
* Boris Groys. 1992, We Shall Be Flies. (A critical response to Ilya Kabakov’s installation, The Life of Flies)