Angela Chambers | Flanders Today, 1 August 2013
Hans Op de Beeck uses hundreds of volunteers in his installation for the Red Star Line Museum
This week, 800 people will gather in Antwerp to perform in Dance, a film about migration throughout history. The film will be a permanent installation in the city’s Red Star Line Museum which reopens in September, while the museum focuses on the millions of Europeans who departed from Antwerp on the eponymous ocean steamers to start a new life in America. Dance will broaden the migration theme to an abstract and global perspective.
Brussels-based contemporary artist Hans Op de Beeck was selected to develop the project. “The film won’t give you too much data or relate to this very specific history”, he explains, “but instead is a poetic reflection, that I hope will get viewers emotionally involved.” Parkloods, a large historic warehouse, is the site of the one-day production. In the morning the crew will film 300 adults in a shower scene to depict those who had to go through an arduous cleaning procedure before travelling abroad. The afternoon shoot will feature 500 (fully clothed) volunteers of all ages performing synchronised gestures such as saying goodbye and packing suitcases.
After watching dancers' movements in a production in Marseille, Op de Beeck was inspired to create this silent film featuring choreographed scenes. “Daily life can be seen as a kind of dance, and the effect of a large group doing something synchronised is very moving”, he says.
Desks will be arranged in Parkloods to represent the interrogation offices where migrants had to be approved for travel. The interrogators will wear caps, while the migrants will not, depicting the uncomfortable class distinctions. The groups will move together in such a way that the viewer will know who was accepted and who was rejected.
Migrants from poor families had to undress and go through a disinfection process. Op de Beeck believes this is an important part of the migration story. His images can be a reminder of horrific circumstances like the Holocaust, but in others can recreate the banal, everyday routine of taking a shower. “When you take off your clothes, your whole identity is gone and then you’re all equal”, he says.
The artist likes the idea of representing both the negative and positive connotations of large groups. “There is enormous power radiating from a large group; it can carry someone forward - or destroy them”, he says, “Hundreds of football hooligans could be dangerous, but there are also peaceful demonstrations.”
Volunteer actors will have expressionless faces because the artist believes a “quiet, wordless gesture can be very intense” while highly emotional scenes may take away from the overall message. Op de Beeck is inspired by Japanese puppet theatre in which life-sized figures have static faces yet are still moving. The volunteers will wear the same, timeless clothing so that it is difficult to place migrants in one particular period.
While Op de Beeck has worked with about 200 people in a previous production, he hasn’t tackled something on this scale, especially with an all-volunteer cast. But he’s looking forward to the challenge and will be assisted by fellow artist Peter Germis. “It’s a fantastic idea, and I immediately jumped on it”, says Germis.
Op de Beeck has been staging multimedia exhibitions for more than a decade. The museum’s board chose him to produce Dance after being impressed by his other work, in particular Sea of Tranquillity, an installation about a fictitious cruise liner that explores themes of work and leisure time, as well as luxury and false values.