Why not swat that fly? Perhaps it bugs you, as bugs are wont to do. Perhaps it agitates around you, as it invades your space without any declaration or consent. No further justification is necessary for its summary execution. And just as you are about to carry out the capital sentence, perhaps it lands in front of you. This occasions a closer look. You see its gossamer wings, its delicate hairs, its compound eyes, and you discover it to be a little living and wondrous thing. In that moment, you become mercy, master of life and death; both of the fly that rests before you, and of your own.
Perhaps the fly lands on the surface of an image, and the question is not so much a matter of life and death, but of what is real and what is not. In a sense, they are the same question. Perhaps you look closer, and you discover that this particular fly cannot fly at all. It is a fixed representation. It is an image of a fly. It is a Musca Depicta.
The Musca Depicta is a tradition that goes back to Early Netherlandish Painting of the 15th century. It refers to the practice of including a trompe l’oeil fly into the painted composition. There have been various interpretations of such a prosaic interpolation. It has been suggested that the inclusion of an inconspicuous fly is a reference to Beelzebub, the Lord of Flies, and meant as a kind of moral injunction against evil which hides in plain sight. It has also been suggested that the rendering of such a delicate creature, which is no small feat, is meant as a demonstration of the artist’s virtuosity and skill. But it can also be said to be a memento mori, a reminder of the fragility of life and the certainty of death. The fly is the manifestation of decay. It is a reminder of the inescapability of entropy, which is built directly into the deep structure of the world, and is the origin of all theodicy.
In this work — “Musca Depicta” (2022) — the punctum has become the entire image. The detail is the whole. There is no religious imagery, no nature morte, but no nature vivante either; nothing but that miraculous little fly completely alienated from any context. There it is. Alone. There is nothing but that conspicuous fly against the indeterminate scale of the void, made conspicuous by the surrounding absence. But in its rendering, it also delimits that boundary between the artifice of the image and the experience of the viewer. The fly rests at that threshold of the image, a little more within the frame than exceeding it, but always between what is real and what is not.