Mosaic from House of the Faun discussed

Extract from a piece in the Independent, which includes a photo of the mosaic discussed

The beautiful mosaic of sea
creatures, discovered in the House of the Faun in Pompeii, is a fine
lesson in visual relations. Mosaics tend to bring shapes to prominence
because they don’t have a blur or fade-out option. Their hard-edged
tiles tell you, abruptly and precisely, where a thing comes to a stop.
Arranged on a black/blue background, these 21 bright forms of fish,
shellfish, eel and polyp couldn’t (in some ways) be clearer.

The
picture probably has a culinary agenda. It’s like a menu-board. The
creatures, one of each kind, are sharply islanded so we can identify
them. The image celebrates the wealth and variety of available marine
food, and uses its quite limited repertoire of colours – red, pink,
brown, ochre, grey, buff, white – to conjure a real succulence and
luminescence of sea flesh. At the same time, the presence of
scene-setting elements such as rocks and coral suggests more. We’re
looking into the depths of something, maybe a tank, maybe a section of
the sea itself, in which all these different individual creatures are
swimming together.

They aren’t all islanded, either. In the
middle, a big octopus firmly overlaps a big crayfish, or more than
overlaps, since they’re entangled in a struggle. That’s the only
definite intersection of shapes, and the only definite point of
physical contact. But around them, darting forms are touching or
bumping, edge on edge, while others are involved in near-misses. It all
feels impossibly jostling, an incredible coincidence. The next instant,
the ocean will be a pile-up.

Or will it? We don’t know. The
mosaic makes use of an uncertainty that’s characteristic of pictures
(although, again, there’s no term for it). It’s hard to judge how far
things are from the front of the scene: 2D positions often won’t tell
you about 3D positions, especially here, where forms are mostly
non-overlapping, and set in an underwater environment with no ground
level to help orient things in space.

Their adjacent edges may
make us see every form on the same level, and anticipate imminent
collision. But the jostling of these sea creatures could be visual, and
only visual. The next instant they might all pass one another, swiftly
and safely, like planes in a sky.


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