It was a hot sunny afternoon in Geneva, Switzerland. I walked across to the Quai du Mont-Blanc, intent on capturing the rainbow that appeared to be emanating from the waters of the Jet d’Eau on my camera, when a sculpture caught my eye.
I was unable to grasp its form, and as I walked closer towards it, I realised I was looking at Lake Geneva through the figure. I became intrigued as I read 'Melancholy' and 'Albert Gyorgi' on the plaque at the lower left corner of the display.
Gyorgi was not an identifiable name. I may have seen his works of art at an earlier time, but I could not recall; the title Melancholy of course was not unfamiliar, given my psychoanalytic academic background. I looked back at the sculpture and then realised it was a person sitting on a bench, head drooped down, shoulders unevenly slumped, arms nearly crossed with the right hand over the left arm, and most of the upper body hollow.
Under the bright rays of the glaring sun, there sat this metal shell of a human being, devoid of facial features, with rough arms and legs, and with a small head in comparison to the size of the body and the limbs.
This bronze work of art was also popularly referred to as “emptiness of the soul”, and I could not think of a finer piece that was so evocative of loneliness.
‘He was an incongruous figure among the tourists’ as they say, and the first impression was a jarring one, as there were people all around him jogging, walking, talking, laughing, eating, posing, photographing, reading, contemplating, tanning, and more.
How explicitly the artist captured loneliness, I thought. Yes, I am a logophile, but as I stood and recalled my own struggles with isolation, I felt that it was a near impossibility to define and describe it in words.
I experienced many occasions where language had unfairly diminished or abridged my own feelings of aloneness, and as I examined the sculpture and its surroundings I realised how depictively nuanced it was, and how it evoked emptiness in context.
A figure with no discernible expression, yet he conveyed sentiment, while his weight and immovability illustrated the heaviness and the paralysis of his solitude. Was he sitting down as he was unable to get up and face the world?
I wondered about his head too, was it looking down in shame and despair, or was it symbolic of himself turning inward? Or both? Did the small head imply that the perceptual space he occupied in this world had shrunk? He was not physically dead, but he was mentally disappearing. His soul had depleted, and all that was left of him was a damaged body.
The metal body signified impermeability perhaps, that he was not able to transmit or absorb. And maybe that he would remain this way for many years to come, that it was too late to recover, and that the effects of loneliness were irreversible. Yet bronze was an excellent conductor of heat and electricity.
Why did the palms of his hands face down? Was it because he would not reach out to anyone? Or was it the case that no one could shake his hand or clasp theirs in his?
I had questions and more questions. As I stared at him and through him I was reminded of Sigmund Freud’s descriptions of the melancholic: “an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale… represents his ego to us as being worthless, incapable of any achievement…abases himself before everyone…” (Sigmund Freud: Mourning and Melancholia)
And then I wondered, should he even be here? Was it fair to him and his kind that he was an exhibition? Or would it be further injustice if he were to be removed and taken elsewhere? A quiet place, where he would not be objectified, and where we would not have to confront the grim fraught realities of loneliness.
The brief encounter with 'Melancholy' in the busy park revealed to me the dialectical opposition between individual loneliness and social spaces. I was rather impressed with this intensely powerful voiceless and cadaverous figure sitting at the intersection of a soul and a lack thereof.
Chintamoni grew up in Dhaka, where she will always belong, but never quite fit in. She is an enthusiastic traveller, a compulsive procrastinator, and a contumelious raconteur.