Although he was best known from his years in Paris, actor/singer Jacques Brel (1929-1978) was actually from the Belgian city of Brussels. Twenty-five years after his death, his birthplace is paying tribute to his life and his career with a walk-though exhibition designed by Stan Colders of Nexus Creative People, a company based in Antwerp, Belgium. Colders worked in conjunction with the Jacques Brel Foundation run by Brel’s widow and daughter. The lighting design is by Brussels-based designer Koert Vermeulen.
“Nexus won the competition to create the exhibit, and came up with the walk-through concept,” says Vermeulen, who was brought in as part of a creative team that included lighting, sound, video, and scenic designers, as well as an illustrator, props person, and architect. He also points out that the Brel Foundation contributed volumes of material from its archives including videotapes, posters, photographs, audio recordings, press clippings, and taped interviews.
“The idea of the walk-through was to create different scenes from Brel’s life, from his childhood through his Paris apartment to his concerts and his final years in the Marquise Islands, and let him tell his own story,” notes Vermeulen. “Our job was to make the concept a reality.” This reality came together over an eight-month production period in a two-story space at the Artesia Art Center (50, rue d’Ecuyer) in the center of Brussels. The exhibition opened last February and runs through January 17, 2004. It will then move on to Paris and Montreal.
All photos: Alain Dereymaecker. Courtesy of Fondation Brel/Nexus Creative People
“The audio-visual elements are stunning and complicated for a semi-permanent exhibit,” says Vermeulen, who used lighting to complement the scenic design in defining each location within the 90-minute walk-though tour. The sets were built with great detail by Procultus in Antwerp. “Each room tells a story on an imaginary set, from a square in Brussels to Brel’s childhood bedroom.” The soundtrack for each scene is made up of segments from up to six Brel songs edited and cut together.”
In lighting each of these scenes, Vermeulen took many of his cues from Brel’s lyrics. “He always spoke in colors in interviews,” says the designer. “Brussels was always dull and gray, Paris was livelier and happier—so yellow and violet.” The time of day is also indicated by the lighting, as certain scenes shift from afternoon to sunset to evening. As the exhibit progresses, the lighting moves from a greenish gray to a yellow white in order to take the audience on this tour through Brel’s worlds.
One of the early scenes is that of an imaginary square in Brussels, the Place Ste. Justine. “It is an imaginary place from Brel’s childhood, that he sang about,” explains Vermeulen. The set surrounding the place is a three-story row of facades, with the tail end of Tram 33, the tram that Brel took to school. Next to the tram is a projection of one of Brel’s most famous sayings (“If you can only succeed at one thing, succeed at making your dreams come true”).
“This is the highest space in the exhibit,” he adds. Using numerous gobos (the 200 gobos are all from Rosco, including colorizers, prismatics and steel units) in Strand Lighting SL ellipsoidals (50 degree and 36 degree), as well as eight ADB 2kW PC spots, and four ADB 1kW Fresnels, Vermeulen was able to play with the light, and shift the scene from afternoon to evening. “Every fixture in there that could have a gobo, has one,” he says. “They helped me communicate the different atmospheres.” Vermeulen used the Rosco Colorizer “Featherlight” break-up gobos in blue, green, and lavender to dapple the floor as scene shifts to night.
The tram reappears in another scene, but this time the audience sits in it to watch a series of projections about Brel’s life, as well as a timeline of things he would have seen as a child, including images from WWII. Vermeulen added brown tints and sepia tones to the lighting in keeping with the old photographs.
A small cobblestone street scene called simply “La Rue” has the largest concentration of lighting per square foot. “This represents the street that led to the doorway Brel’s house,” explains Vermeulen, who used 90 degree Selecon Pacific fixtures with Rosco animation disks and gobos to create a rain effect against a grayish-green light that conveys Brel’s unhappiness in Brussels as a boy.
The windows in the facades at Place Ste. Justine and La Rue light up, with eight Par20 fixtures, four ADB PC spots, and three period fixtures retrofitted to house halogen lamps that can be dimmed. There are also fluorescents that Vermeulen toned down using Lee double CTB to dim to a dusty blue gray, with light brown, steel blue, and a brown-green on the walls.
Things cheer up considerably when Brel gets to Paris and finds happiness with the artists and nightclubs on Place du Tertre in Montmartre. This famous square is recreated here with a large rear-projection screen cyc sitting atop an outline of the Paris skyline, and cafe tables and chairs in front of nightclubs. An Eiki 3000 LCD projector is used for the video images on the cyc. “I frosted the lighting that hits the middle of the screen so the video could be seen more clearly,” explains Vermeulen. On the video Brel explains what France meant to him and how happy he was in the world of his fellow artists.
The lighting here moves from bright yellow afternoon to evening to night, with a setting sun against a dark blue backdrop. “The sun is almost gone and there are dappled clouds,” Vermeulen notes. “The light goes from yellow to lavender and magenta.” At night, the Paris skyline twinkles with small lights and light boxes with posters on the facades of the nightclub are turned on as well.
With a floor of faux cobblestones, Vermeulen used gobos on only the walls to accent the “old” look of the sets. A ceiling rig in the center is strung with a festoon of light bulbs to help hide the fixtures that light the walls. These include 12 Strand Coda 500W cyc lights, 16 Strand SL ellipsoidals, four ADB 2000W Fresnels that serve as backlight, and dimmable fluorescents, some for the light boxes, some for the Paris skyline. Additional fixtures include LSI QM200 architectural wall washers, used to light a wall of Jaques Brel posters located on the wall of the square opposite the cyc.
In the final scene of the Marquise Islands, where Brel spent his final years, the lighting is bright and sunny with gobos to add a tropical flowery feel. The light dims for a series of projections in which Brel talks about his life, his songs, and his friends. It took 25 years after his death so far from home to bring his legend back to life in the city where he was born.
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