Frederick Abrams

The Underground Cathedral


Q. Could you tell me the title of your film and speak about it?

A. The Routes of the Underground Cathedral. My work from the very beginning was an idea of blending different media, which I’ve done over a period of time. This includes sound, music, visual art and craft, and the cathedral is an environment that encompasses everything in this sense. But in a more specific sense it started with the craft of stained glass, which I did for quite a few years. It began by just learning the basic techniques and exploring different styles of the medium that were used both for secular purposes and in churches and cathedrals, but at a certain point I started experimenting with it as an art form, making autonomous art pieces. Actually, the entire project started as a joke. It was when I had seen an image in a book from my childhood called, “The Seashore,” of a diagram of a plant life form at the floor of the ocean that is somewhere between plant and animal, and I decided to make this into a stained glass window which had something to do merely with its graphic form.

Later during my first trip to Paris, back in 1979, I picked up a hand sized map of the Paris Metro and was amazed at how similar it looked to this type of form which I had also developed into a

Paris Metro map 1979

series of artworks, one which in 1976 had reminded me of a subway map and I gave it the subtitle: “A Proposal Diagram for the Los Angeles Subway System.” There was none at the time in Los Angeles. I had grown up in a city which depended on the automobile, so fascination with metros became connected with my travels, and particularly when I first came to Paris.

Sectional Diagram of a Zooid
(A Proposal Diagram for the Los Angeles Subway System)

As these different relationships evolved, I had the idea of transforming this map of the Paris Metro into a stained glass window, and from there eventually the title of “The Underground Cathedral” emerged. The meaning of it has actually become more apparent to me since I gave it this name. It’s continued to prove itself to have a relevancy to my project as my concept has evolved over many years. And the idea of a cathedral to me – well there’s many symbolic references – one is the concept of a project that is created over larger than one’s lifetime. The Great Cathedrals were built over well over a century if not more, and I always thought that the work that an artist does is a lifelong process. If you look at the process of almost any artist’s work over a lifetime you see a connection between everything and the individual works that are shown in a gallery, a museum, whatever are presented as objects for collection, for sale, for exhibition, but in their entirety they make up one statement and to me the cathedral also represents this.

Routes of Civilization

Q. How do you tie this into your subtheme: “The Routes of Civilization?”

A. When I did a study of various metro maps I found an amazing visual relationship with the first known forms of life under the ocean. The idea of The Routes of Civilization then came to me and this became a word play which is in the film.

In the very beginning you see it says, “Routes,” (R-O-U-T-E-S), whereas R-O-O-T-S has the same phonetic sound. So, one is “routes” as in routes of transportation and the other is “roots” as the roots of a tree, a plant or lineal heritage. Whereas metro maps, are very graphic and yet have something of an organic quality to them, when reduced drastically in size they also look a lot like some kind of ancient scriptures, something like the characters of Asian languages or hieroglyphics. This is where my interest in the evolution of civilization came from, and I also find the underground itself to be related to the cathedral in various ways. For one, it’s another great invention/project of humankind serving the public that is developed over extremely long periods of time, is always evolving, growing, and, in fact, metros are projects which maybe never do have an ending point of their construction/evolution. Also with respect to the life of humanity, the life of all people who enter into a cathedral or enter into the underground, it’s a very open environment to everyone. I wouldn’t give the underground the same spiritual connotations, but there’s something else in the sense of being in an unconscious dream state. When one goes into the cathedral, the atmosphere is intended to release one from one’s body and oneself and become part of the collective whole. When you go into the underground and into the train, very often you can see nothing out of the windows so you go into your own dream state and inner world, which also becomes part of a collective unconscious. This is where the stained glass map comes into the story.

Q. Describe it to me.

A. It is leaded stained glass done in the tradition of church windows. It’s about 3 meters (10 ft) tall and about not quite 3 1/2 meters (11 ft) wide, it’s free standing and it’s modular (it can be taken apart as 12 separate 75 x 75 cm [30 x 30 inches] glass panels and a huge wooden frame and reassembled so it can be moved).

Les routes de La Grande Odalisque
(The Large Brain)

When I first studied a hand size map of the Paris Metro it reminded me of several things. One was the diagrammatic shape of a brain. The thin colored lines representing the different train routes made me think of patterns of a graphic representation of all of the information stored in a brain, which also led me to thoughts pertaining to memorization and computer technology. So, other connections occurred to me aside from the origins of life, also concerning the relationship between all systems, both macro and micro, organic or manmade, socio-political, economic etc. The entirety of an underground transport system is something that we cannot see. It is a map that’s only charted by an interpretation which is then graphically represented. This is very different from a topical map which can be very accurate just by having taken photos from an aerial view. So, as this map became a metaphor for the collective unconscious, the names on the map became the source of a free association word play, whereas what I did was place my own names on the work, removing the proper names from the original map. They’re not placed precisely where the stations were on the original map but this is not really important to me. It’s more about following along the different colored lines from name to name. Where the lines intersect, which in French is called, “correspondence,” I think of these points as “synaptic junctions.” So, one can follow the routes in whichever directions one chooses, changing directions at the “synapses,” creating one’s own sort of free form poetry. In this way, one’s own imagination is provoked by the artwork that I created.

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