If it can be said that the freshest of the fresh artistic creations bubble up from "underground," then it should come as no surprise that the vast network of tunnels that comprise the coiled entrails of Paris
' infamous catacombs
has long served as a place where creative Parisians bent on escaping the trappings of society, hemmed in by signs and signifiers girding the city's surface, retreat to the "freedom" of the damp and hard-cut, cramped lawlessness that thrives beneath the streets, expressing themselves with dim-lit abandon. Veteran graffiti artist Psyckoze
has spent more than 25 years traversing, tagging, sculpting and mapping the catacombs beneath Paris, a perilous proclivity that makes the documentary Dead Space
The Parisian catacombs have always held a certain fascination, whether it be a fear of the dark-generated late night creepshow
vibe (must be because of all those skulls 'n' things down in there) or a more sensationalist ghost-hunters of "reality" television programming feel, the mere mention of the m
ysterious, bone littered underworld beneath the French capitol always stirs the imagination. In following Psyckoze on several adventures throughout the underground maze, documentary film-makers Marielle Quesney
and Jean Labourdette
nearly destroy their camera (they claim it was held together by duct tape by the end of shooting) and find themselves lost on more than one occasion while Pyschoze, or Psy, encounters graffiti and scrawls of years (sometimes hundreds of years) gone by, often stopping to update his own tags with the fresh designs of his evolved artistic style, and discovers a myriad of threats and claims laid by
various catacomb clans, gangs (like the Rats, who were prominent in the eighties) and wanderers who have at one time or another called the catacombs home. There is even a faction of preservationist catacombers who seek to stop taggers like Psy, arguing that the tunnels should be cleaned and restored to their natural sandstone tones (which is not unreasonable, really, when you consider the quarry origins of the catacombs, which were once used to mine and transport building materials as far back as 1000 years).
Shot on a shoestring budget over the course of two years, Dead Space
follows Psy as he conducts a surprisingly cohesive tour of the catacombs below Paris (clad in his habitual rubber boots and mining helmet catacomb gear), stopping here and there to highlight several of the more famous subterranean hang-outs like "the Beach" (a large, sandy chamber with a huge painting of a wave --- styled after Hokusai's famous woodblock print
--- where parties often rage underground for days) and revealing Psy's personal secret hideaways, including his "castle" --- a sprawling freehand relief sculpture of breasts, faces, battlements and turrets comprising what has to be Psy's ultimate psychedelic masterpiece, laden with personal significance (example: Psy carved a turret in the castle for
every year his good friend and fellow catacomber spent locked up in a Thai jail, nine altogether). However, it is clear that most folks who venture down into the catacombs have something other than artistic creation and personal reflection in mind.
It would seem that those crazy enough to descend to navigate the dank and muddy tunnels of the catacombs have serious partying in mind and, apparently, those who do
go down there to indulge in dark and lawless soirees get so completely wrecked that they usually lose track of when and where they are. In one room Psy laughs gleefully when he discovers a block of severely dried hash, speculating, while he makes ready to smoke it, how completely high and disoriented the owner who left it behind must have been. After all, there are but a few maps of the catacombs and it would seem that the ones that exist aren't that reliable. Perhaps that accounts for Psy creating his own map, or Plan des Catacombes
. Even still, Psy himself often gets turned around and has, in his longest stint underground, spent over 72 hours in the maze.
It was really lucky for Psy to find a thick, if aged, stash of weed in his underground haunt, because there are so many more
unsavory things to be found in the vast blackness of the Parisian catacombs. The makers of Dead Space
discovered and captured on film Psy encountering all manner of human elements from lost, sleeping and partying catacombers (and subsequent piles of puke) to tunnels riddled with the tea-stained remains of Parisians of years gone by. The "bone room" sequences of Dead Space are so jaw-dropping that this viewer could barely keep her trap shut. The image of Psy as he crawls carefully, stopping every six feet or so to light a candle and plant it in a skull or fixture of bones, through a tunnel way so stacked with human remains that he can barely fit though the open spaces is burned into my brain forever. This may look like Goonies
, kids, but this is the real shit.