La Chacarita, Buenos Aires, the subject of Gregory Rood’s photographic threnody, is the national cemetery of Argentina. There is a garden cemetery and a concrete catacomb. It is the catacomb which he has memorialised.
It is inevitable that one understands Rood’s photographic series in epic terms: a voyage to a Dantean underworld; it is no less inevitable that one sees this journey of sequential images as much in terms of film as still photography.
Rood’s award-winning films – on the Brazilian footballer Romario; on the Spanish painter Antoni Tapies; on the flaming oil fields after the first Iraq war, to name but three – are always epic. Like all the few true artists he pitches himself against the eternal. His photographs of of La Chacarita demonstrate the point with great emotional depth and delicacy of feeling. We do not feel this is a voyeuristic view of a forbidden subject, a cold witness to the grief of others. On the contrary it is a lamentation, a de profundis. And because it is a lamentation it offers hope. This is in the spirit of the place. The people buried here believed in the Resurrection and so do those who mourn them; who have placed a crucifix on the door to a cubicle and adorned it with a bunch, it would seem in almost every case, of synthetic flowers. They come from the world of sunshine and life into the half-lit, subterranean, world of death. But they have no doubt that somehow they will meet their forebears and lost loved ones in paradise. Yet how sad to see those corridors unadorned with flowers or chambers left open, their contents rotting. We should respect the dead just as we should protect the poor and bereft.
At every step, round every corner of the catacomb, with its buckets and brooms and ladders, each in its way symbolic of death, one follows in Rood’s soft and considered footsteps, expecting the worst.
And yet, and this is where resurrection can be found in the midst of the desolation, Rood views everything, even the least things, with the most tender sensibility. He has an artist’s eye, knowing that all art comes from art. The lit simplicity of a vacant wall gains something of its arrested drama from the paintings of Vermeer. A trolley-propped scaffold could be a surreal Giacommetti. A pasted notice peeling like the bark of a tree has an oriental refinement. And, of course, there is always an awareness of that master of texture, his friend Tapies, whose very name means wall. But ultimately one is reminded of cinema: the foreboding mood and detail of Orson Welles; the abstraction of Godard and, especially, of that manipulator of sound and silence, that connoisseur of the monumentality of insignificance, Tarkovsky. Rood is right to finish back in the sunlit world of the living, only the concrete ventilator chimneys reminding us of the dank depths from which he has escaped. We should respect the dead, we should happily co-exist with those we have loved and lost. We should pray to be united with them in a peace beyond imagining. But he also tells us that we should treasure the miracle of life in all its forms, from nascence to dissolution, in the tragically brief and always uncertain time allotted us.
Author and critic