22 June 2014
Alive. Dead. Forgotten.
Human skulls displayed on what looked like an extra-large screen set up near the church’s altar. An eerie music playing in the background, unfortunately largely covered up by the chatter and noise of visitors. I approached humbly, slowly, through the centre aisle, half-curious half-intimidated by the projection of so many skulls lit up from the darkness. I thought of genocide and the piles of bones in mass graves. I thought of what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s with the memory, engraved in my mind for ever, of that young Bosnian boy lying on his hospital bed and who was smiling, optimistic about recovering from his pains as he was waiting for surgery. It was during the four-year-long siege of Sarajevo; the boy didn’t know there wouldn’t be enough electricity for the surgery to take place.
As I got closer, I realised the image was in fact a large painting, three by six metres wide. I kept some distance, sat down on a bench towards the front rows. I couldn’t get my eyes off that painting. I thought of my own life, how I was wasting my time not feeling alive, that I was perhaps not much more than a skull among many others, that I would certainly be one of those dead whitish skulls one day.
Visitors kept coming inside the church. It was Melbourne’s White Night, a cultural event taking place the whole night, opening up museums, lighting up building façades with projected images, showcasing the work of artists in various landmarks – such as this painting in a small church located in the city centre. The painting’s title was Forgotten, a piece completed by Australian artist Terry Taylor as she was inspired by the catacombs in Paris to give an homage to the past (in particular to her father who had just died) and a tribute to the living. But ”the memory of most men is an abandoned cemetery where lie, unsung and unhonoured, the dead whom they have ceased to cherish”, wrote Yourcenar whom I will quote again below (in French, the quote goes like this: “la mémoire de la plupart des hommes est un cimetière abandonné, où gisent sans honneur des morts qu'ils ont cessé de chérir”.)
Very few visitors stopped more than a few seconds in front of the painting, others giving a cursory glance before exiting the church through the side aisles. Was I the only one seizing the irony of the situation? Live human beings were swarming into the church almost following the same path along which those dead skulls seemed arranged on the painting.
I positioned myself on the side of the painting and started filming some more. I wasn’t however sure who was more dead or alive, between us barely glancing at a painting that could not but offer some introspection at our living the rat race, and those painted skulls – were they perhaps even laughing at us knowing what was awaiting us? I couldn’t suppress a sad smile when hearing at the same time those visitors saying “they couldn’t see” (their way out), blinded by the projector’s light as they were walking past the oil painting.
“Memento mori” (remember that you will die) would a slave remind a victorious general as the latter was parading in ancient Rome. Rome and its empire, Rome and its emperors. One of them, Hadrian, had his meditative thoughts rendered into beautiful fiction by French writer Marguerite Yourcenar in Memoirs of Hadrian (Hadrian’s actual autobiography has been lost):
“Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again… Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes…”
And here’s the original version in French:
“Petite âme, âme tendre et flottante, compagne de mon corps, qui fut ton hôte, tu vas descendre dans ces lieux pâles, durs et nus, où tu devras renoncer aux jeux d'autrefois. Un instant encore, regardons ensemble les rives familières, les objets que sans doute nous ne reverrons plus... Tâchons d'entrer dans la mort les yeux ouverts…”