Frederick Abrams

The Underground Cathedral


Q. In your film in contrast to the darkness associated with the metro you also use a lot of transparency in your images.

A. This is something that has remained a constant in my work. It goes back to the idea of working with light and with glass, which is something you see through but also reflects. So, you can be observing more than one image at the same time. Sometimes in the film you are seeing an image or a scene where this happened naturally at the moment of photographing or videotaping. Also in “The Tunnel’s End” as well as two other parts in the film there are scenes at night when I was videotaping a mirror directly across the street from the Moulin Rouge which had a light density of beaded water on its surface. When you look at this you see a reflection of the Moulin Rouge in the background, but it’s backwards. Then the focus changes.

At first the focus is on the neon light of the Moulin Rouge and later the focus is on the little drops of water on the mirror’s surface and the Moulin Rouge becomes a complete abstraction. There are numerous scenes where you are looking through glass. There’s one inside of the Louvre metro station and you see a sculpture in a glass box and then a train passes by, but that train is like a ghost image that is seen as a reflection through the glass.

So, this frequently occurs naturally but, as in a few such examples already described, I also often create this illusion myself using computer video effects whereby one image is transparently superimposed over another. This is also how I’ve managed to represent what’s underneath the ground and what’s above at the same time, the city above and the city below. Basically all of it has to do with my sense of being in a dream state, which is what the large glasswork is about, traveling through different lines of the metros with the names that provoke multiple meanings and thoughts in the way that occurs when we dream. They are unconscious and accidental. I did many experiments of creating such artificial superimpositions and often the best results were an “accidental” consequence of trial and error.

There’s one such example, in fact, in “The Tunnel’s End,” which I think is very humorous, one which I imagine some staunch feminists would perhaps find offensive. I was actually shocked by what I saw before my own eyes for it was completely unintended, but it is so wonderfully synchronized and so symbolic for so many reasons that I could not resist to include it in the film. The basic scene is of a street painter outside of Notre Dame who is wiping his painting of the natural scenery outside of the cathedral in circular motion with a sponge. Very quickly and spontaneously, as I often did, I tried inserting various still images over this video clip.

One of images I chose is of Ingre’s famous nude painting, “La Grande Odalisque,” but with a Paris Metro ticket covering her eyes. To my surprise, her body fit nearly perfectly over the painter’s canvas and, as if God were laughing at my creative spontaneity, the end result is that he’s wiping the area of her behind in circles with the sponge. I then slowed down the motion lending some sensuality to his movement.

This immediately made me think of Duchamp’s painting of the Mona Lisa with a beard and mustache, “L.H.O.O.Q.” When spoken quickly, the phonetic sound of those letters in French could be interpreted as, “Elle a chaud au cul,” which loosely translated into English means, “She has a hot ass.”

Q. There is a strong contrast in your film where you are travelling in trains above ground in various scenes between the individual chapters.

A. I really did this to show in an abstract way movement from one country to another, one city to another, even though it’s not always realistic sometimes just as sometimes there are scenes of different cities within the same segment of the film. But back to this dialectic of light and darkness, there is a real big leap in whatever is that reaction that one has from being in the underground spaces to suddenly being in a train looking at the countryside. What I did was every time I traveled on a train with my video camera I put its lens directly onto the window facing the scenery outside. I did this in different seasons, geography and times of day and night. Alas, here too this is about light and darkness, the constant change, about the reality that we pass through light and dark everyday. I also do this in unexpected ways. For example, there is one scene of riding along the beach outside of Barcelona where people can be seen sunbathing. Almost imperceptibly the scene fades into one of traveling through fog in Poland as the train passes by a big factory.

Q. When you are inside of the metro you look out the
window and it is only dark.

A. This is another reason why I use a lot of superimpositions because when you’re in the metro, you look out the window and there’s nothing there. You can see your own reflection or the reflection of other people inside of the train, or you can go into your own dream state and think of whatever. I’ve talked to quite a few people about their own experiences inside of metros the result of working on this project and have learned that this is true in many senses. One woman told me that she writes poetry inside of the metro and finds that it is the only place where she can do it. Several people I’ve talked to have led me to the same conclusion that it’s a place where people do tend very often to go into an unconscious state of daydreaming.

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