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The Fly, Pt. 6:
A Serial Essay

Returning from our brief apocalyptic detour, we find ourselves pursuing the fly into the early 70s, where it again crops up in several notable artworks. In Yoko Ono’s 1970 film Fly, a single fly is released on a naked woman’s body, and the camera tracks it in close shots as it crawls and flies around different body parts, some barely recognizable due to the close crop and others the unmistakable anatomy of lips, a nipple or an ear. The soundtrack, by the way, is Yoko Ono’s piercing imitations of fly sounds, a track which would appear on her album of the same name.

To put it context, Fly was made in the same year as Freedom, in which Ono is shown attempting to rip her bra in half but the film freezes and fades out before her success, and a year after Lennon and Ono’s Rape, a dialogue-less film with the camera essentially stalking a woman before she is knocked down in symbolic assault. Proceeding from these films, Fly becomes an indictment of the male gaze, and moreover, of the portrayal of women in art history. Here the fly has been made the star and the woman reduced to landscape. The painter’s symbolic signature and frequent model, the fly and the female body, finally meet in live action. In the final scene, the camera returns to find not just one but dozens of flies exploring the actresses body. Ono’s fly is not the liberating depiction of some of the Surrealists (Remedios Varo for example), it is the fly that must and will be shaken off or swatted, a militant version of Francis van der Myn, The Fly.

If the fly was the star in Ono’s work, then it becomes an extra in Ed Ruscha’s. His 1972 Insects portfolio picks up seamlessly from where Fly leaves off, with constellations of ants, cockroaches, and of course, flies amassed over wood (silkscreened on wood veneer) or other linoleum-like surfaces. There is nothing particularly distinct about any of Ruscha’s flies, in this he plays off Aristotle’s labeling of such spontaneously generating creatures as “nondescripts”. He employs the trompe l’oeil until it is absurd, obliterating its significance as an indexical mark, repeating the trick and thereby emptying it of meaning. This is the fly after Warhol, and one can imagine them resting on the same countertop with Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes. This is the fly, the celebrity of art history, in an age where we have forgotten about its cyclical significance to death and decay and only see it as an annoyance.

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Yoko Ono
Still from Fly, 1970

Yoko Ono
Fly album cover, 1971

Francis van der Myn
The Fly, 1742

Ed Ruscha
Flies from Insects portfolio, 1972