The summer festival layering public art year on year
Nantes in northwest France is something of a dichotomy — at once avant-garde and bourgeois, its acquisitive character epitomised by its ornate 19th century shopping arcade Passage Pommeraye with its kitsch, rococo statues. The city’s wealth was built on its notorious slave trade yet it had strong ties with the Surrealist movement. After its shipyards closed in the 1980s, its Socialist mayor Jean-Marc Ayrault, along with Jean Blaise, launched Le Festival des Allumées — cultural events intended to lift the metropolis, largely ignored then by the rest of France, out of the doldrums and put it on the cultural map.
In 2012, the duo established annual summer arts festival Le Voyage à Nantes. ‘We initially faced criticism but France’s highly centralised, Paris-based media, such as Le Monde and Canal+, supported us,’ recalls its director Blaise. In 2017, this festival, with its emphasis on democratic, site-specific public sculpture and micro-architecture, attracted 670,000 visitors.
It showcases new installations as well as older ones retained as permanent landmarks, for example Phillippe Ramette’s Eloge de la Transgression (In Praise of Transgression) in Cours Cambronne, a formal public walkway. This comprises an ambiguous sculpture of a girl in an academic, naturalistic style climbing onto, or down from, a stone plinth. Despite this ambiguity, it is clearly an ironic riposte to the bombastic statue of General Cambronne nearby —and feminist, given that public sculptures of female dignitaries are rare.
Perhaps Nantes’s anti-conformist streak seems to encourage mischief, self- deprecation and bathos. Stéphane Vigny’s witty, delightful installation Reconstituer on the 18 th -century Place Royal embodies these qualities with its 700 white reproductions of ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and souvenir-shop icons, such as the Statue of Liberty, radiating out from a fountain and riffing off the sculptures adorning it. As I half-expected, these turn out to be the mass-produced plaster statuary sold at garden centres, designed to magic suburban gardens into would-be stately homes.
Perhaps Nantes’s anti-conformist streak seems to encourage mischief, self- deprecation and bathos
Le Voyage à Nantes also celebrates overlooked nooks around the city. Flora Moscovici’s ghostly intervention, Vestige, highlights fireplaces visible on a partially destroyed building seen in cross-section. She has painted them orange, hinting at their original function as hearths. Their spray-painted quality evokes contemporary graffiti art yet the piece reflects her interest in highlighting historical traces in architecture. And Tadashi Kawamata has created a huge viewing platform called Belvédère de L’Hermitage in cool quarter Butte Sainte-Anne. Clinging dramatically to a precipice, his structure affords breathtaking vistas of the city. Le Corbusier’s La Maison Radieuse can be spotted in the distance, another glimpse of the city’s experimental past.
Le Voyage A Nantes runs until September 1.