“Man With Fish”

"Man with Fish" fountain

What?

A fountain of a man holding a fish equally as tall as him. The man wears work attire and stares into the distance. The fish spouts water into the air. Depending on which way the wind blows, the water falls on the man’s head.

When?

Installed Sept. 2001.

Where?

In front of the Shedd Aquarium at Grant Park.

Why “Man with Fish?”

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I once caught many dozen fish, flung them into the air and shot them out of the sky with a shotgun. The job paid well. With the clouds of blood I caused, I made enough money to buy a whole new outfit.

That’s my best fishing story.

As a nearly lifelong vegetarian, I only had this experience in a video game called “Ridiculous Fishing.” In the game, you play as a pixellated old man with a white beard, clearly modeled after Ernest Hemingway. You make money not by writing compelling fishing tales, but by catching fish and shooting their pixels with your guns.

The game takes the classic trope of the too-good-to-be-true fishing story to an extreme — much like my favorite statue in Chicago, “Man with Fish.”

The German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol created the 16-foot-tall bronze statue “Man with Fish” in 2001. The Shedd Aquarium added the piece to its entrance in September of that year, according to a plaque on the pool that surrounds the statue. I can’t imagine what it had been like to celebrate the installation of such a whimsical piece during such a horrific month.

“Man with Fish” has a stupid beauty akin to a Henri Rousseau painting. Incorrect proportions come across as delightfully comical. The man’s face, in particular, looks wonderfully imaginary. Despite holding a giant fish, he wears forgettable office clothes — a white collared shirt and black pants. He could be anyone.

Although his life backstory is unknown, this giant man had the fortune of acquiring a fish just as big as him. He holds the fish as if he’s presenting the body to passerby and showing the fish off as an accomplishment. He wants you to know he’s a man with fish.

He doesn’t look happy.

His thousand-yard stare may be expressionless, but I sense an existential dread in those rotting eyes. His fish continually spouts water into the air. This water tends to land on the man, slowly destroying his paint. His flesh decays because of the fish. His eyes become more and more black.

He cannot escape the fish. He cannot even tower over the fish as a dominant rung in the food chain. He and the fish are equals in stature.

The fish is his ruin.

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My love for the statue has not perplexed me. The statue achieves a unique dumbness I find admirable, especially given its prominent placement in Chicago’s tourist-heavy Museum Campus. By being so imperfect, “Man with Fish” rises above the boring, lifelike statues that tend to fill these spaces. The paint disintegrates right in front of our eyes, causing the subject to look increasingly monstrous year after year. My beautiful, decaying husk of a person is an aesthetic wonder.

The extent to which I’ve found this man relatable has confused me though.

In an abstract way, it makes sense. It’s not hard to see the parallels between this man and Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” another fishing story of sorts. Everybody should be able to relate to the moral that accomplishing your dreams can come at great cost. That a white whale or a baffling large fish just doesn’t deserve your entire being and soul.

Then I recalled a memory I hadn’t thought about in years.

I had been the man with fish.

In college, I found myself incapable of making many friends at first. Although that’s a common and uninteresting problem for young students still trying to figure out a place in this world, I decided to try and solve this loneliness in an atypical way.

Over the course of years, I spent almost all of my free time (and the time I should have been doing homework) slowly taking over clubs on campus. I figured if I ruled over these clubs, then the members would have to be my friends, or at least, talk to me. At my height of power, I simultaneously led around a dozen separate organizations and controlled six-figures in funding.

In this time, I spoke like a robot, even in casual settings. I couldn’t stop thinking and talking about these projects, causing my personality to die somewhere along the way. I had accomplished a resumé to talk about at parties. I also often ran the parties. But nobody wants to talk about your resumé. My number of acquaintances grew substantially… but friends? Not so much.

This all reached a terrible zenith on the night of my greatest accomplishment at the time. After months of stressful, obsessive work, I co-founded a music festival on campus that attracted thousands of people across the state. As an event, this had been a huge success and it led to a joyous after-party that night.

A fish of great scale.

I had to help tear down the stage for a few hours and so I showed up late to the party. I soon found a girlfriend I loved dearly, but had neglected all semester while trying to pull off my self-imposed workload. I hadn’t seen her all day.

Almost immediately, she said she couldn’t do this anymore. She couldn’t spend her life waiting around for me. She didn’t want to have to hang out with a soulless automaton. My growing hubris had blindsided me to the fact I had lost the human connection I initially set out to accomplish with the accomplishments. I started crying right in the thick of the party, maybe 30 minutes after I got there. I sprinted out the front door and I sobbed all the way home.

My giant fish had destroyed me.

An acquaintance saw me on the sidewalk and asked if I was alright. I said I was fine and kept speed-walking away. Maybe I should have said, “I’m not crying, it’s just my giant fish spouting water onto my face.”

Maybe that’s my best fishing story.

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If you go to “Man with Fish,” you can listen to Steve Carell portraying the man. The city put a QR-code on a sign next to the statue that causes the man to call you.

In the audio clip, Carell portrays the man as someone who makes constant groan-worthy fish jokes to mask his loneliness.

“Oh man, maybe I should scale back on the fish jokes,” the man says before bursting into forced exuberant laughter. When the laughter stops, he says, “Oh, none of you are laughing.”

At one point, he summarizes his situation in a heart-wrenching two sentences.

“You really have to amuse yourself when you’ve been holding a fish in a cold city for many years,” the man says. “It gets pretty lonely.”

Holding onto the heavy fish makes him immobile. And all he can do is talk about the fish. His giant fish.

As the audio comes to a close, the man starts begging the listener to stay.

“Don’t go away,” he says repeatedly, with the mounting anxiety of being left alone again.

“Come back,” he says. “Please?”

He asks the listener to tell friends to visit him.

And so I am.

Although this man may be forever doomed, I encourage you to go visit him. Like Atlas cursed to hold the Earth, this man will never change. But perhaps he’ll inspire you to do so.

You’ll see what the fish has done to him. You’ll give witness to the darkness that peeks through his flesh. And in its stupid beauty, you’ll feel the weight of the fortune you have to still be alive.

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