06 May 2020
06 May 2020 - Written by Leila Kozma
Luis Cobelo’ Chas Chas pays homage to the much-fabled neighbourhood, casting new light on its wondrous spiderweb-like streets that mingle magic, mystery, and folklore.
For Luis Cobelo, getting hold of a copy of Parque Chas, the cultic comic book by Ricardo Barreiro and Eduardo Risso, was nothing short of a miracle. A lifelong fan of magical realism, the Venezuela-born photographer recalls how he had to set up a makeshift exchange at Naples’ train station, where a friend smuggled him a precious copy of the long-discontinued comic book. With the pass in his hand, he was ready to plunge himself into the mysterious, magical Parque Chas. Built in 1925 on the order of Francisco Chas, the nephew of General Manuel Belgrano, the spiderweb-like structure of the Buenos Aires neighbourhood has long fascinated architecture aficionados and everyday people alike. With a proliferation of myths positioning it as a portal to hell, the area is frequently hailed as the local taxi drivers’ worst nightmare, the place where cars crash into themselves, an alternative dimension that you can enter but never leave. It’s a place where the rules of physics, gravity, and common sense cease to apply, the hotbed of spiritual activity.
Hi Luis, how did you learn about Parque Chas?
It all began with the comic "Parque Chas" by cartoonist Eduardo Risso and screenwriter Ricardo Barreiro. I discovered it in a popular Argentine monthly magazine called "Fierro", which came into my hands when I saw it in a kiosk in Caracas 32 years ago. I was an amateur collector of Spanish and Italian comics, so seeing something of the genre made in Latin America was great to me. The "Parque Chas" comic tells the adventures of a writer who is trapped in the neighborhood and to whom crazy, fantastic, surreal things begin to happen. Many years ago the myth was created that Parque Chas is a parallel dimension to the one in which we live. The reason that out-of-the-ordinary things can take place is because the center of the neighborhood was planned and constructed like a spider web. This is the magic core of that dimension.
So what drew you to the neighborough lately?
In the summer of 2018, I was in La Coruna, Spain when the comic randomly came to mind. I went to Google Search and hundreds of stories appeared, to my surprise not all related to the comic. Among all of the search engine results, a phrase hit me like lightning: "Everything you ever lost in life exists in Parque Chas". I knew right away what I had lost, and I wanted to go there immediately. With everything I found on the Internet, I made a notebook that I named “Chas Chas” provisionally. I crumpled and squeezed it for 6 months, along with the comic, and the rest of the influences, until I went to Buenos Aires to find “that” which I had lost in life. I found much more than I could have ever imagined. The initial idea that there is a place where everything is possible was too tempting and exciting. It gives you the freedom to use all the magic tricks, to have them at your disposal and create a possible reality in your head. And if it's possible in my head, then why couldn't it be possible in everybody’s heads? Before the project, I had been to Buenos Aires quite a few times. It is a city that I have always felt very close to and where I move very naturally. I always wanted to make a story there that was not for the media I use to worked, but for me. A tribute to a place that has given me a lot of music, literature, art and culture.
What’s the relation between the comic book and your photography project?
Well, I studied the comic again, thanks to all the experiences I have lived throughout the years. Back to 32 years ago, at that very young age, it would have never occurred to me to make something like "Chas Chas". Above all I focused on the dialogues that are the writer's own reflections, his work and his writing. From there I jumped into literature and found a regular in my life: Borges. It blew my mind. Then came Sabato, another one that takes your breath away, and Dolina, more contemporary and sarcastic, fabulous. From magical realism (with which I worked in “Zurumbático”) I jumped into fantastic realism, a classic of Buenos Aires literature. It all started to make sense. I think the comic was an inspiration for all these writers. That is, fantastic realism is undoubtedly an original Argentine brand and I would venture to say that it is something inherent in the life of the porteño: that of creating fantasies and myths in the corners of the neighborhoods, in the subway tunnels, in the plays of the football players. They are adept at embellishing what is simple and making it believable. They have been baroque since they were born. All these elements were my guides. I started borrowing characters, stories, and objects from the comic, processing them and stuffing them into my mental mixer along with reading the aforementioned authors, my Internet scrapbook, and my own experiences from the city. When the first day in Parque Chas arrived, I didn’t expect to see blue flying unicorns or technicolor butterflies. Instead I saw sparks caused by flashes of the sun in the sewers of the cobbled streets, flowers that came out of the corners of the walls, people who watched me and disappeared from the windows. I heard live Cumbia music that came out of a seemingly abandoned house, I saw a heart drawn on the wall with the initial of my name and some keys tied to a stop post with a keychain of the Eiffel tower. I was in the right place.
What’s your artistic process like?
Lots of research – months and years. The production time is much less. For example, the Zurumbático photos I made in three weeks. Chas Chas took me a couple of months. It is obviously a very intense process of making photographs. When I was working on media reporting with my own ideas, it was the same. It was fine, but now it's nicer and better. I think that the subject should choose you and not the other way around, although you have to be careful, with antennas on, because stories do not fall from the sky. Having this in mind allows me to work based on a more consistent expectation of an unknown future, without believing that I will have a best seller. That prevents me from taking a big slap in the face. Maybe just a little one.
So you feel you stumble on your subjects accidentally, or do you tend to plan ahead?
I make a list of situations and characters, taking inspiration from all the elements of my research that later become the photographs. It is true that I stumbled spontaneously on many of the photos in the book, which later paradoxically became the iconical ones of the project. That happens because I am in a mode of maximum concentration, with sharp eyes. Then I find things that agree with what I'm doing, with pieces of a puzzle that I was looking for that fit into my imaginative mechanism. I create my own dimension of things, of time. Even having planned almost everything in advance, when I decide on the photo, the results are very different and surprising. Later in the editing and assembly of the book, the photos acquire a new conceptual nuance, without distorting their initial element.
What do motifs like the book about Evita, a football trophy, the makeshift barbeque or the burning heart symbolize? Would it be plausible to draw a parallel between the series and say, a set of Tarot cards?
They symbolize things that are in my head, in the popular culture of Buenos Aires and Argentina, in the daily life of a neighborhood, in the surprise encounters with objects that appear to us all the time and yet we do not get closer to looking beyond what they show us. The examples you name in your question are the mix of everything. Often we tend to go through the same places and not look at what is around us. The truth is that you only need to open your peripheral vision. We all have it and let it pass, but for that you must also be a search engine, inspired and motivated. There is no preconception of each title. I was putting them as a game, though now I know that it is like cards or tarot. You noticed, and you have not been the only one; several close friends told me so from the beginning. What if, randomly, luck, fortune, sex, death or the future are in the photos, along with the elements of fire, air, water and earth? But that wasn’t my intention. It was a fluke.
To what extent is your work inspired by folklore?
"Chas Chas" is a very local story, from Buenos Aires. Unlike "Zurumbatico" that was inspired by a worldwide hyper work known as "One Hundred Years of Solitude", yet also located in one area, the Caribbean. In “Chas Chas” I went to the South of the South. It is still Latin America, although we are not all the same Latin Americans. In addition to personal interpretations I made of comic characters that may be clearly identifiable, there are many situations and metaphors inspired by popular culture that perhaps only an Argentine or porteño would understand; however, the project and each photograph leaves enough space for subjective imagination that goes beyond a single place, always poetic of course, because the poetic is always in us and yet is impossible to master. You just feel it and that's it.
Does the series try to subvert the colonial gaze in this way or does it rather serve as a psychological landscape, a means to project personal impressions onto a more ‘concrete reality’?
Maybe, but not everything is palatable for everyone. I understand that there are people in the world for whom rationality and make sense of everything is fundamental and who do not feel like thinking or reflecting in front of the photo of a woman with her head in a pool full of water entitled "Elisa is a spider who never pretends to be a spider in the labyrinth". They need concrete facts, precise titles, absolute truths even without being theirs. They need to belong to the "reason club" when being right only means you have it. It is a matter of each person and how they feel about art, about creation. What is clear is that "Chas Chas" is for everyone, except for those who want to know how magic tricks are done. “Chas Chas” is undoubtedly a personal approach to a specific place that is real, that exists. I created a parallel reality of a neighborhood that has houses, streets, cement, shops, and sidewalks. Where people live, of different genders, of all ages, who think differently from each other, who eat, go to the bathroom and sleep, have pets, scream, make love, kill, hit, dance, kiss, smell. For me, both realities are valid and credible. I am not inventing coal or trying to establish a pattern that things should be done my way. Basically, I'm Luis, making art in a place where many say incredible and fantastic things happen, but really, the place where those things must happen is in my head, so that later they will happen outside of it. Otherwise, nothing will happen…
What role does sexuality play in your work? Your photos tend to depict object-like, inanimate, completely subjugated bodies. Is this a deliberate choice?
It is very present. I am an absolute fan of the folds of a body, preferably feminine. They belong to people who are part of my personal experiences. They represent an emotion, and then they become a permanent memory. They are my own sexual fixations, my tastes, under the aesthetics of my gaze. I do not see them as objects, photographically perhaps they give you the impression of being subjugated because you see them static, but they are alive and they vibrate for me. When you see it in the book it is because they are part of a story, and I am the one who creates the story. Then the story can be yours.
Is the series told through the perspective of a fictive entity, or an alter-ego like Zurumbático?
I think so, but I didn't realize it, or do it consciously. It just happened. Zurumbatico felt more like a mental state, where I entered a dimension that was the town of Aracataca. In Chas Chas almost the same thing happened in different places, with some similar connections: the language, the heat, the drama, and passion. In Chas Chas, I discovered many things from my past regarding my paternal family, who lived and died in Buenos Aires. So in addition to entering a dimension, after all this, the real fact is that it took 32 years to know why I am right here, alive, writing this.
Luis set out to Parque Chas with the specific purpose of immersing himself in the art of myth-making. According to him, what brings together Argentinians is their rare penchant for presenting hyperboles, far-fetched stories enriched by details borrowed from magical tales or folklore. Fables so vividly colourful they lead their audience to question whether it could have ever happened. Taken independently, the photographs offer a rare glimpse into the strange everyday life of the inhabitants of Parque Chas. Taken together, they transport the viewer into a fictive, perfectly-proportioned, and masterfully-created alternative universe. “Everything you ever lost in your life, it exists in Parque Chas,” goes the common saying. Chas Chas is the proof.
From Chas Chas © Luis Cobelo
Chas Chas by Luis Cobelo
Designed by: CAE González – Estudio La Chancleta Voladora
Printed by Laboratorio para el arte by Estudios Durero. Bilbao, España
Hardcover // 23 x 32 cm // 112 pages
Luis Cobelo is a Venezuelan photographer working independently across borders. He develops documentary projects in America, Asia, and Europe, and has been published in magazines and newspapers across the world. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.