Nell, Where There are Humans, You’ll Find Flies (1949-2013). Collection Maitland Regional Art Gallery. Purchased 2013. On display. The humble yet often annoying fly has been a constant throughout art history: a symbol of death, sin and decay, frequently representing the transience of life. The fly has been depicted in medieval illustrated manuscripts and can be seen on a windowsill in Petrus Christus’s 15th-century picture Portrait of a Carthusian. It takes centre stage in Yoko Ono’s 1970 film Fly, which follows the insect as it buzzes around a nude female body. It also features in Damien Hirst’s Armageddon, where thousands of dead flies are glued to a canvas, and in his A Thousand Years, highlighting the life cycle of flies.
Yet it seems to be Salvador Dali who took an appreciation of the fly to a new level, with many appearances in his work. He once said he “adored” them and that he was happy only in the sun, naked and covered with flies.
Dali had a kindred spirit in Kobayashi Issa, a Japanese poet who wrote nearly 100 haiku on the subject: Look, don’t kill that fly! It is making a prayer to you By rubbing its hands and feet.
The fly is also a signature motif for Sydneybased artist Nell. In 2002, for an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, she made Fly as High as Me, featuring a human-sized plastic fly. It toured to the Newcastle Art Gallery and the Ipswich Art Gallery but after that she put it into storage. Nell decided it was “time for the fly to die” after 10 years in storage and videoed herself destroying the gigantic plastic fly with a cricket bat. The resultant three-minute video, Summer, won the $50,000 University of Queensland National Artists’ Self-Portrait Award in 2013. Her violent destruction of the fly may be considered ironic given Nell took Buddhist vows. However, as she explained when she won the UQ prize: “Life is fragile, every living thing will die, and yet life goes on.”
Nell (she has no surname) was born in 1975 in Maitland, a NSW country town north of Newcastle. At 24 she was chosen to exhibit in the prestigious Primavera show at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Not long after, she was picked up by well-regarded Sydney commercial gallery Roslyn Oxley9.
Her work often deals with birth, sex and death, and her practice is multidisciplinary, including painting, installation, sculpture and video. Besides her interest in the fly, her work has ranged from Happy Ending, a humorous tombstone, to a video performance in which she plays electric guitar to AC/DC’s It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll).
One of Nell’s works featuring flies is in the collection of the Maitland Regional Art Gallery. When I visit, I am shown the picture by the collection management curator, Cheryl Farrell, and the gallery’s cultural director, Joseph Eisenberg. Where There are Humans, You’ll Find Flies is a humorous take on art history in which Nell has added stickers of flies to an image of Rodin’s celebrated sculpture The Thinker, printed in an old art book.
Farrell says the fly is emblematic of Nell’s work, which is also about postmodern appropriation. “Nell takes an everyday image like The Thinker, which everyone knows, and she does something more with it. She is creating another image which says a little bit more than the original artist,” she says.
Eisenberg says Nell is a clever artist and one work does not fully demonstrate her range. “This is an artist who can use film, can paint, can use found objects, can sculpt,” he says. “Her brain is working 24/7. She comes up with the wackiest and craziest ideas. For her, she lives and breathes art.”
Book, stickers, 55cm x 73cm