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Frederick Abrams

The Underground Cathedral

Frederick Abrams

The Underground Cathedral

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SELF-SERVICE

Q. Would you like to speak about “Samoobsługa?”

A. “Samoobsługa” was actually a project in itself which began during my first visit to Poland in 1989. I returned a few times afterwards, first with a camera, then with a video camera, repeatedly to certain identical spots and recorded them again. I focused in particular on the tower of one church in the city of Wroclaw, where I’ve lived for more than two years.

The city, which is on the west side of the country, was a part of Germany prior to the war. The Germans and many Europeans still call it, “Breslau,” its German name.

Wroclaw / Breslau
Wroclaw / Breslau
Wroclaw / Breslau
Wroclaw / Breslau

I also concentrated on the Warsaw Metro. I had been invited there in 1989 by a man who had been a leader of a cultural underground during the final years of Martial Law and Communism. He had asked me to do some kind of an artistic project there, but I had no idea what that project was going to be. I couldn’t imagine how I would execute it, or with what materials. At the time it was when I had begun working with a computer and before that with stained glass and I really didn’t know what I would do. That’s when my photography started and I also made some graphic artworks there simply with a sheet of letter sized paper, a pencil and red felt pen. I didn’t know at that time that the project would go on for ten years. I didn’t know that I would ever live there, I didn’t know that I would ever finish the project there and that it would become “Samoobsługa,” which then became the final part of the original version of the film. By the time I had finished my project the man who had originally invited me was no longer alive. When I came back in 1996 to visit I learned that he had died in a car accident. In any case, when I was there I had repeatedly noticed everywhere two words that were, in my mind, iconographic symbols.

One, Solidarność (Solidarity), which became familiar to almost everyone in the West, was always reproduced in the same painterly graphic in red with the Polish red and white flag above it. But there was another word that I saw everywhere I went, “Społem.” It was always seen in the same very modernist graphic. One day I asked someone what this means.

I had seen it on windows of many shops, mostly bars and restaurants, on china and silverware, on a shop window where wedding gowns were sold (which I photographed several times during my various visits to Poland) and neon signs above department stores.

Shop in Wroclaw, Poland 1989-2000
Shop in Wroclaw, Poland 1989-2000
Shop in Wroclaw, Poland 1989-2000
Shop in Wroclaw, Poland 1989-2000

I was told that the word means something akin to “togetherness” or “unity,” and my first reaction was, “I thought that this is what ‘Solidarity’ means!”

An interesting irony struck me when I learned that this was the name and logo of the Polish Communist monopoly which controlled almost all means of production and distribution, the entity that Solidarność was unified against! While visiting Poland at this historical moment, I pondered the unusual relationship between these two words and what they represented. With simple red ink on paper drawings, I switched the graphics of Społem and Solidarność. Then I had another idea, of creating a hybrid of these two names and their graphics, upon contemplating what these icons would come to mean in the years after the end of communism. So, I made up the word, “Społemność.” Then, when I returned in 1996, I went to a cafeteria and asked a Polish friend what a huge word on the wall overhead above the cafeteria counter meant.

The word was, “SAMOOBSLUGA.” She said, “SELF-SERVICE.” I instantly thought, “Ah, ha! That’s the final piece!”

So, I drew a new icon using this word and the famous painterly red Solidarność graphic. This to me reflected another irony concerning how life had quickly changed in Poland. So, this became the basis for “Samoobsługa,” passing through the visual (material) change since that great historical moment when I had first visited. There’s a final scene, a still image, of a child. He’s on his knees staring at many candles on the ground. All is in red (with a black background for it is at night), the candles are in red containers, and you see on both sides of him very thick womens’ legs.

This was a very special moment in Warsaw in late 1989. It was a mass at a church where a famous priest named Popieułszko, who was a Solidarity activist, a handsome, charismatic young man who had become a hero in Poland, gave many sermons. It was also the fifth anniversary of his death, having been murdered by the communists. Many people believe that this was the defining moment that changed everything and made it impossible for Poles to support the Communist regime any further, and it led to Communism’s downfall throughout Eastern Europe. I’m sure many people would debate this, as there are many explanations for this phenomenon’s occurrence, but it was a moment that changed the hearts and spirits of Poles in a radical way, something akin to massive reactions that have occurred here in the US to police brutality against innocent black people in the streets. I sometimes wonder, “Where is this boy today? What is he doing? What is he thinking? Do people even remember that moment in their history?” I suppose an issue I have already brought up, about memory and its loss once again concerns the changing of times and passages etc. For me as an outsider who returned to Poland several times, this is something that I see in the thinking today. Many people seem to have completely forgotten that extraordinary transition, which was just a short time ago, what life was like then and what it is like now.

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