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Marjan Laaper: Ramses Shaffy Lifelines at Amsterdam metro station

Marjan Laaper: Ramses Shaffy Lifelines at Amsterdam metro station

Meet Marjan Laaper

Photo: Guus Vreeburg

Photo: Guus Vreeburg

Artist Marjan Laaper (1971) is a 1994 graduate of WdKA’s BA Fine Art. Later, she attended the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam and did several residencies in the USA, Japan, China and Iceland. Since then she specializes in large-scale video projections, installations and public art commissions.
In 2012, she participated in a competition for the Vijzelgracht-station at Amsterdam’s future North-South metro-line. It was to be an ode to the late Ramses Shaffy, an iconic Amsterdam singer who had lived just around the corner. In February 2013 she won the competition with a design for the huge glass ceiling above the main escalators. Last December 8 2016 saw a sneak preview of the work – a giant LED installation presenting a special portrait of Shaffy.

Ramses Shaffy (1933-2009) was a Dutch actor, musician, chansonnier and cabaret singer. He was born in Paris; his father was an Egyptian diplomat and his mother was said to be a Polish countess who had fled Eastern Europe after the First World War. After living seven years with his mother in Cannes, young Ramses landed in an orphanage in the Netherlands. Shaffy became a symbol and an icon of the Amsterdam of the roaring 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s.
Some of his songs now are classics.

“The starting point for the competition was to honour Ramses Shaffy and to make a design for the huge glass ceiling (24 x 13 meters) above the escalators in the Vijzelgracht metro station.
I was intrigued by the way his life started and how he ended up being an inspiration for many people in the Netherlands. I decided to map 28 influential people that played vital roles throughout his life – his parents, friends and colleagues. They literally made him. Each person is represented with his/her own lifeline.

 28 people in Ramses’ life
Photo: Jorrit ‘t Hoen

Photos: Jorrit ‘t Hoen

The lifelines highlight the important moments in each individual’s life in relationship to Ramses Shaffy. These lines at first resemble metro lines. The lines are made of small LED’s that light each line separately. When lit jointly, a portrait of Ramses Shaffy becomes visible. I used a 1968 photo of him, with him looking right into the lens. At first, it appears right in front of you, but as the escalator takes you deeper, the portrait starts hovering above you on the escalator’s high glass ceiling: you have to look up to see it – like Sammy in one of Ramses’ most famous songs (‘Kijk omhoog, Sammy!’). As you ride deeper, the portrait slides out of view.”
“When I started working on my sketch proposal, it was a difficult period in my career. My two dear galerists from Rotterdam’s MKgalerie, who I had worked with for over 18 years, had just died in a car crash. I had to leave my studio, I had no commissions coming up and I lost my teaching job at WdKA. It felt like an end to my career. Then someone who knew my situation told me about this art competition. Since I felt I had not much more to lose I decided to participate.
When I presented my sketch to the jury, they admired the fact that this work wasn’t just about Ramses, but about life in general. The work generates questions: Which people have an influence in your life? What choices do you make and how does fate influence your destiny? I wanted to make a connection between the people who are actually traveling through the metro station and the journey we all make in our individual lives.”

Research for the project: “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration”

“Although I remembered some of Ramses’ songs from my own childhood days, I actually knew very little about his life. So I started reading about his biographies and other texts I could lay my hands on. I kept wondering why his mother could not take care of him, and how her decision to sent him to Holland had influenced his further life. In the late 1940’s a well-to-do foster family took him up; they encouraged him to develop his musical talents.
I also read about all the other people on his way that made him the person he finally came to be. I recognized Ramses’ urge for freedom and liberty, and his issue with love and relationships. This brought me the idea of the ‘life lines’ of the people in his life building up his portrait, and fading away again…”
“Where so far I had worked with video projections, it became clear to me right from the start that in this situation that would be impossible. So I had to search and find alternative solutions. These would have to meet both my own visual standards (clarity and diversity of colours, brightness and high definition), the contractors’ technical capacities – I had to work with the same contractors that built the metro line and its stations – and all the city’s building and fire regulations. All these proved far more complicated than I had foreseen in my sketch proposal. I had to search and analyze all sorts of new materials and techniques, and test them out in my studio. It also took seemingly endless meetings and discussions with all parties involved – where, as an artist, I had to defend my proposals and bend along with all winds to have all noses in the same direction in the end.”
“The glass ceiling consists of 175 plates of hardened glass of 180 x 100 cm each, mounted in a metal grid. This glass had to be of milky quality and layered, so that safety standards could be met. Behind these glass-plates the LED lights had to be placed. It took many meetings to get the original design of the ceiling changed to have enough space to place the LED lighting.
Behind the glass finally these red/green/blue LED lights have been installed. A computer programme that has been custom designed for this purpose is directing them. At first I looked for big commercial companies, but in the end through the help of a light-artist who had successfully worked with them in the past, I found specialists to do that for me. They’re a really small company, but much more flexible than these bigger firms. Through this software I can programme all 28 individual lines of the Shaffy portrait, including their colour, their brightness, the speed they take to fade in and fade out, and some other essential variables.”

“For the public preview on December 8, I had completed a 10 minutes loop with two distinct patterns of the lines fading in and out. At the official opening of the new metro line, which is planned for 2018, I want to have 20 individual patterns, so that travellers hardly run the risk to see the same patterns twice. Until that time I shall be working on that in the station’s hall, wrapped up in padded suits and hot water bottles: it’s so cold down there…”

What’s next?

“I’m very happy with the project. It took a lot of searching, researching, listening and discussing – I’d say about 90% of all my time since I started the project in 2011. But it was worth it. I was very happy to see all parties and collaborators that I’ve worked with at the preview – satisfied with the project that they’d all contributed to. As to myself, apart from all technical knowledge and experience that I gained from it, the most important result is a new self-confidence that I’ve made it throughout all the obstacles on my way. I know that I’ve proved able to realize my original creative idea and met a lot of inspiring and great people on the way. ”
“Right now, apart from fine-tuning of the Ramses project, I’m doing research for a proposal for a large scale project for the new town hall of the city of Zoetermeer.”