“Our work is shown at night, where facts are of no great importance.”
–Helene Richard, co-creator of “Dream of Colors”
Sometimes (or is it always?) it’s the unplanned elements of travel that turn out to be sublime. On our way to points south, we took a one-night stopover in Reims, France, intending to basically break up a long drive: visit the Musee de la Reddition (site of the German surrender in WWII); see the Marc Chagall windows in the 800-year-old Reims Cathedral; sleep; get back in the car. And we did all those things, but none of them compared to “Dream of Colors.”
Our French host recommended something I’d vaguely heard about online—something like a light show at the cathedral, that had been running all summer and was in its final nights. Hastily concluding dinner a few blocks away, we hustled to the cathedral just as all the lights in the square were put out at 21:00. Tourists and locals stood together, or sat on curbs and benches and pavement. A droning music, almost Celtic, drifted overhead. To this accompaniment, color began to rise like the sun on the church, and the journey began.
For nearly a half-hour, animated projections fell perfectly over and over again onto the facade of the cathedral, drawing our attention to each line, shape, and detail. The display showed us nothing that was not there already, and yet was completely… illuminating. Every arch was traced in colored light; every circle seemed linked. The building became, once again, as it must have been to travelers hundreds of years before: Stunning. Magnificent.
After dazzling initial sequences of colors and shapes, the facade appeared as a cathedral under construction. Shadows of men and women in medieval garb moved up and down ladders, carried stones, pressed glass into place. A man way up at the highest point on the right worked at something with a chisel. The rhythmic movement drove home the reminder that a church like this required the labor of several generations, the life’s work of people who knew full well they’d never see its completion. (And yet Reims’s legacy speaks in a way that many medieval churches’ can’t: the names of four of its original architects are actually known—written into a now-gone, but captured in illustration, section of the floor.)
This west portal features 2,000+ carved figures—and every, single, little figurine was accurately and vibrantly depicted. In a pair where the heads are long-missing, the projection depicted them the same way.
The artists behind this work are Jean-Michel Quesne and Helene Richard of Paris’s Skertzo Agency. The pair left a background in theatre to light outdoor spaces. To date, they’ve done more than fifty of these large-scale illumination productions, mainly in France but also in locations including Jerusalem and Tokyo. This interview talks about their process and gives a sense of the finished product:
“Sometimes you walk past a building a hundred times and never notice its beauty,” Richard says. “By means of lighting you…see it with different eyes.”
After the program ended, people moved curiously toward the still-lit church, reaching out and touching the stones in a new way, pointing at details. Anyone whose language I could understand was saying how they’d never seen anything like this. “Every cathedral in Europe should do it,” Tim declared. Following a fifteen-minute break, the program began for the evening’s second and final run, and even though we were cold we lingered for a repeat. I took a couple short videos, though they don’t fully capture the motion.
Seeing hundreds of figures with their robes in color, their facial expressions revealed, brought to my mind the opening of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, where the statues of York Cathedral begin to speak, telling stories of crimes they have silently witnessed over hundreds of years. Walking away from Reims Cathedral, I felt I had experienced no less magical a phenomenon.
More of this summer’s amazing large-scale art: At the Bregenz Festival Set