Frederick Abrams

The Underground Cathedral


Everything changes yet stays the same. This cliche profoundly struck me during the period that I lived in Barcelona between 1990 and ’96 as I witnessed this great Catalan metropolis undergo a dramatic evolutionary process of redevelopment following Franco’s death back in 1975 and vastly accelerated in the name of the ’92 Olympics. In the midst of urban renewal construction all around, I became fascinated by one human figure who could be found almost daily standing in precisely the same spot of the platform where passengers come and go in the underground metro station known as “Liceu.” “Liceu” is the name of the famous Barcelona opera house directly across the street from the station entrance. Below was a partially blind beggar who ritualistically chanted the same phrase as passengers came and went. Juggling coins of Spanish pesetas in his hands, in the same melody he sang, with occasional variation: “Una limosna para Paquito” (A little spare change for Paquito).

Then, in early 1994, a terrible fire destroyed the Liceu leaving only the outer walls intact. Suddenly, Paquito and the great opera house became
ironically engaged in the same activity of fund raising.

I first photographed Paquito in 1991 and later videotaped him a few times in ’95, all scenes in this film from one short shooting session. The graphic
artworks include cutout portraits of both Paquito and three musicians
originally photographed in the metro undergrounds of New York, Brussels
and Paris, all seen here situated amongst the destroyed opera interior’s

The film opens with a camera panning across the front exterior of Antonio
Gaudi’s famous church, Sagrada Familia, with cranes seen high above
its tall towers, an edifice still far from completion many years following
Gaudi’s accidental death. Statues of celestial white gowned musicians who
appear above the church’s entrancelead into another panned scene which was added to the film after the original version’s “completion” in 1996, that of Liceu during reconstruction in 1997. This is followed by a mirrored reflection of a metro train’s entrance as an electronic announcement from inside of the train can be heard, “Proxima estacion (Next station) Liceu.” Paquito is then intimately viewed in a series of brief scenes interspersed with various images of Liceu’s destroyed interior, the slow assembly of a mythical accompanying group of underground gypsy musicians. In each case, a ghost like image of a metro train passes through the ruins, in the final instance through the opera’s interior prior to the fire, which is almost identical to that of the renovated theater. Paquito is repeatedly heard in his melodic chanting and trains passing to the accompaniment of the original sound track. In the fall of 1999 the Liceu reopened, its interior faithfully
recreated yet with a highly modernized stage design. Yet, Paquito was no
longer to be found.

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