I saw it in the flesh once, walking through (I think) the Christchurch Public Gallery on my way to look at something else, and it stopped me in my tracks. A good image will obliterate context and that I recall neither its exact location nor size is to its credit. I do think I remember it being glossier than it appears in print, but that might be my own embellishment since I am a retrospective mental polisher for some reason.
The first thing that struck me was the gigantic field; stretching infinitely away into the deep, drowned green of dreams, the sort of colour that sucks at your eyes and glues your feet to the ground while your mind swallows it whole, leaving everything else to choke or dissolve. It is sleeping green, a cousin to racing green, but much, much slower. Buried in this primordial colour is a perspective that yawns and rolls and refuses to be reconciled, no matter how hard you stare; the horizon is imperfectly reflected where it lies like the slick silt of an empty beach, distance reckoned in the darker, oozing green that drips toward the land. I presume it is land, just as I presume the rest is sea, but am tempted to second-guess myself.
The sun is supposed to have sent Icarus earthward but here he falls from darkness, his pallid vapor trail more consequential than his puny form. This is fitting, since Icarus is just a walk-on in the larger and far more absorbing legend of Daedalus. In this image he is made an almost arbitrary object, a remote spectacle to an audience equipped with everything he lacks- wings instead of beeswax and presumption, belonging instead of intrusion. Homo Sapiens is a stranger to these islands and the first arrivals might have met a naive avian empire that shared its spirit with Hammond's birds. Here they stand composed, laconic, indigenous witness to an exotic failure. They are inscrutable, like all birds, mysterious even in their choice of clothing, their splendid livery bearing only oblique relation to our own, accommodating arms as well as wings, their sleek little hands communing with the branches as though they were parental limbs. They are a people in the only way we understand it, and drawn that way to help us understand, wearing shapes that are of value to us as conceited hominids. But The Fall of Icarus walks straight through Rousseau's simplistic notion of cthonic nobility, treating it like the pointless phantom that it is and getting so much closer to our reality, spectating our egotism, the belief that our consciousness is the most precious in existence, that somehow occupation signifies possession. We see ourselves and then miss the point completely. This is a solemn, timely piece of eloquence.
Others have found the birds that hang suspended to be dolorous portents, spectres flagging their own demise at the hands of impending human invaders. I find them serene, contained, almost delinquent and personally feel more empathy and solidarity with these feathered observers than with the bulk of my own species. I too watch the stranger crash into the water without pondering his name, and then go back to whatever I was doing. While there is immeasurable tragedy in the species we have lost and will lose in time to come, this image reminds me above all of the value and dignity in singularity and survival.
These birds are with us yet.