David Hammons’ Fly Jar is a darkly playful example of the artist’s uncanny ability to transform the ordinary into provocative and haunting icons. His unique approach to found materials reveals issues of race, sexuality and cultural acceptance within objects that society has thrown away or discarded. He deliberately lulls the viewer into a false sense of familiarity in order to maximize his work’s confrontational subtext. By recycling the detritus of modern urban life, Hammons casts a scintillating reflection of contemporary culture in which linguistics and everyday symbols are subtly manipulated.
In the present example, the artist fabricates a delicate miniature world within the confines of a glass jar. Black zippers are cast in the role of insects clinging to a small tangle of twigs. The scene is immediately familiar to anyone who has caught fireflies as a child; however, by replacing the captured bugs with zippers, Hammons riffs on the conventional definition of the word, “fly,” creating new connections and symbolic possibilities. The potential for language to mislead or otherwise reconfigure perception is brilliantly demonstrated by minimal means of recontextualization. In addition, the gesture of trapping these inanimate objects suggests unusual fascination, challenging the viewer to re-examine the function of the zipper as a utility for concealment. In this way, the “flies” become symbolic of containment and, more specifically, sexuality. When considered alongside Hammons’ oeuvre as a whole, this connotation is inevitably complicated by questions of race and American society’s fascination with black male sexuality in particular.
The seam of identity politics is never far from exploding in Hammons’ work, but his distinctive artistic practice sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. The cultural theorist, Manthia Diawara suggests that Hammons differentiates himself from his fellow black artists by taking a more indirect route: “In contrast to work in which what seems to be at stake is the literal deployment of the black body, Hammons’ aesthetic frequently turns on the play with literal meanings. In this way, his work always takes a more circuitous approach to the politics of representation and, even in its anti-essentialist and hybrid versions, the often literalist impulse. The relation of Hammons’ conceptualism to both black culture and art history never seems over determined, and the elementary facture and directness of the work has as much to do with the primitivism and automatism of Surrealism as with identity politics. Hammons makes art by rearranging the order of familiar objects, by changing the rhythm or temporal sequence and speed of movement, or by coupling things with a common meaning. His work is so simple, delicate, yet precise that if you remove a hair from an arrangement, the magic that makes it art is undone and the objects return to their banal, nonart existences” (M. Diawara, “Make It Funky: The Art of David Hammons,” Artforum, Vol. 36, No. 9, May 1998, pp. 120-127).