Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bronwyn Wat­son

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

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