Frederick Abrams

The Underground Cathedral


Q. You have spoken of the relationship of the cathedral and the large glass that you made. But for someone who watches the film for the first time, one could make a direct relationship between the metro and the cathedral. Could you develop this idea, not with the large glass but between the metro and the cathedral?

A. It has to refer back to this large glasswork because the idea came from making a stained glass window of the Paris Metro map and the name came from this. Stained glass, cathedral, metro, metro. But over time there were some ironies that I hadn’t planned for that made this idea more apparent to me. For example, when I went to Poland for the first time ten years ago, I was taken on a tour of the unfinished Warsaw Metro as well as an exhibition in a new post-modern cathedral which was directly above one of the two unfinished stations of the first, and only, metro line. In the basement of this cathedral was a large art exhibition called “Labyrinth.” I subsequently wrote a song about Poland which actually is not in the project, and that song is called, “The Underground Cathedral.” The song is about persevering through anything and everything. The chorus goes, “In the underground cathedral where hope never fades, one persevers even if never repaid.” An idea which keeps striking me in my own life is reinforced by my own experience of witnessing and participating a bit in Polish life at that historical moment as well as having lived in Poland years later. I have been witnessing dramatic change within a society that has endured, that has struggled through so many dark eras, in fact, most of its history, and persevered and survived. This notion of commitment to something in one’s life is now central to my project. Not long after visiting that church exhibition, I was taken into the underground station by one of the metro directors and told of a running joke between the head priest of the church and the head foreman of the metro construction concerning whose project would be finished first. The song continues, “The priest said to the foreman, we’ve got one thing incommon. Neither may be finished before Armegeddon.” There came a point where when someone would ask me what I am trying to communicate first and foremost, I realized that I had almost lost all sense of anything beyond simply the conviction to never give up, because there have been times during the process of working on this project that it has seemed as if all of the forces of darkness combined were against continuing. I suppose that in a spiritual or religious context this is when one turns to a higher calling, an inner voice that guides one and provides unyielding inner strength, which is necessary when building cathedrals, metro systems or climbing Mt. Everest. There is nothing more at that point to be explained, intellectualized or articulated.

Q. You make a comparison between the construction of the metro with the construction of the cathedral on a social level, on an architectural level.

A. We’re also talking about the role of humans in the collective sense, in the social sense. These are projects that have a social purpose outside of the concepts we have of systems in an economic sense, although public transport tends to be primarily government funded and cathedrals are funded through donations and God knows what other methods. Of course, religion is often connected to economics and politics in various ways, but in the pure sense of it these are places for all humans that are affordable to all humans and are grand expressions of our abilities as humans in an artistic sense, in a technical sense and in every sense that distinguishes us from other forms of life, I suppose. However, this goes back to my first artworks connected to metro systems by exploring biological systems, because in fact, you could even compare a metro system to an ant colony, I suppose, to the patterns of the tunnels that ants make underground, to other forms of life that in natural ways create patterns and systems, such as spider webs, for example.

Q. You started with an artform exploring transparency and light and ended up exploring a place that is often dark and somber.

A. Notre Dame’s interior is very dark, very somber. But the beautiful stained glass “Rose Windows” high above are like jewels from heaven. There is no magic to a lit candle under a sunny sky. My work has always been influenced by this contradiction between darkness and light. I trace this back to childhood where my first light art inspirations derived from fireworks during July 4th, the Christmas lights that decorated homes at night and the flourescent environments that were inside of dark tunnels that little train rides take one through in amusement parks such as Disneyland. Later in the late ’60s ultraviolet light became the basis of psychedelic art, including light shows at concerts. All of this has influenced my work.

My film deals with both surface and depth, such as heavily textured computer generated “oil paintings” which are illuminated images derived from photographs taken inside of metros or abstractions of metro maps. The next image is an abstracted map of the Buenos Aires Metro superimposed over a scene of people awaiting an arriving train in Prague.

When you look inside of something there’s darkness, yet in that darkness there’s often light. Such contrasts are to be found repeatedly throughout the film.

There is a scene in “About to Depart” that the abstracted lights of a train coming directly into the foreground which was shot from inside of a dark tunnel of the Paris Metro are mixed with the skyline overlooking some beautiful architecture that is seen as a silhouette over the Seine River.

As the abstract light representing a train comes closer and closer into the foreground, the sky changes from night to a beautiful multicolored cloudy sunrise. There are many such instances in the film where what is above and underground becomes mixed together. In “Moving Spirit” there is a scene of a Paris Metro train passing through a tunnel and at the same time one sees beautiful violet and yellow flowers slowly waving in the wind in a garden near the Louvre.

Another way of discussing the contrast as well as relationship between the cathedral and underground, in “The Tunnel’s End” one sees the exterior of Notre Dame at the same time that one sees arrows in an underground passageway pointing downward to the metro below.

The cathedral points upwards to the heavens, the metro to the core of Mother Earth. In “Antenna Man” a musician I converse with speaks of two underground cities at the earth’s center where there is a center sun.

I symbolized this using an illuminated orange circle with the letter “F” in the center.

This is one of the many such illuminated colored circles with either a letter or number in the center representing the various color coded train lines of the New York Subway. Likewise, the maps that I created with an architectural computer are brilliant colors on a black background, as previously mentioned, often reminiscent of neon, or stained glass. The relationship for me between darkness and light is an essential part of life and I’ve tried to explore this in my film and in my artwork.

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