Le voyage à Nantes: western French city becomes an epicenter of eccentricity

Big skate installation
Started five years ago, Le voyage à Nantes is a summer-long citywide cultural festival in the French city. Complemented by a multitude of events, a programme of site-specific works can be found among the city’s cultural and historical landmarks. Pictured: 'Le Skate Ô Drome' by Fichtre, 2015. Copyright Franck Tomps / LVAN
(Image credit: TBC)

'Nantes has changed, very much so,’ says architect Thomas Cantin, who has watched his home city’s creative community flourish over the past 12 years. Cantin forms part of Nantes-based artist collective Fichtre, just one of a growing number of creative studios that have chosen to make the French city their home, favouring its laid back pace over the freneticism of Paris. ‘I knew it was comfortable here, not far from the sea, but now it’s the place to be,’ agrees Breton-born designer Isabelle Rolland of Rich Lighting Design, who recently moved back to the city from Lebanon via Paris. ‘I was so pleased to see how the creative community here has grown.’ 

After a century that brought Nantes much misfortune – its beautiful canals were filled in to create multi lane boulevards in the 1930s, its buildings were bombed during the Second World War and its shipyards closed in 1987 – the late 1980s marked a turning point for the former shipbuilding centre when the city welcomed Jean-Marc Ayrault as its new mayor. 

Impressed by the work of an entrepreneur named Jean Blaise who had launched the Research Center for Cultural Development in Nantes in 1984, Ayrault took the decision to invest heavily in culture and the arts in an attempt to reverse the city’s fading fortunes. The investment paid off and while Ayrault went on to become Prime Minister of France (from 2012 until 2014), Blaise, who had served as his right hand man, continued the work that the two began now over 26 years ago. Having set up numerous cultural events in the city and founded the Le Lieu unique arts centre, Blaise’s focus is now on a summer-long festival named Le voyage à Nantes.

Celebrating its fifth installment this year, Le voyage à Nantes is an artistic trail marked by a green line that snakes around the city streets. Smile-inducing interventions lie at every turn – a telephone box turned into an aquarium by Benedetto Bufalino, a giant tape measure collapsed at the side of a building by Lilian Bourgeat, a meandering pedestrian crossing by Aurélien Bory, or a topsy-turvy ping pong park by Laurent Perbos. While most of the city’s art works are temporary, some have found themselves a permanent home, such as the installations created in 2007, 2009 and 2012 as part of the Estauaire programme – a series of 30 contemporary artworks spread over 120 kilometers of the Loire estuary. Its legacy includes an amorphous blue sculpture-cum-bar by Atelier van Lieshout that popped up in the forecourt of the Architecture School in 2007, as well as Jean-Luc Courcoult’s ‘La Maison dans La Loire’ – a partly submerged house that sits on the river bed, revealed and then hidden by the tide each day.

But perhaps the most spellbinding sights on Nantes’ green line can be found at ‘Machines de l’Île’, a ten-year-old project that has given birth to a fleet of giant mechanical creatures including a 12 metre-high elephant that parades around the city’s old shipyards, a giant moving spider that hangs inside a warehouse and a towering three-tiered sea-themed steampunk carousel. It is within the workshops here that the city’s next showstopper is to take shape – a 35 metre-high and 50 metre-wide tree topped by two mechanical herons that will carry sightseers in baskets under their wings.

It’s difficult to imagine a city in which the population would embrace such a wildly ambitious and fanciful artistic program, but in Nantes, it seems to fit. On a tour of the city’s artworks, our local guide tells us 'they call us "être à l’ouest”’ – an idiom that means ‘Westsiders’ but also suggests being ‘slightly crazy’ – a badge that the Nantais wear with pride.

Man on a bicycle outdoors in public

For 2016, over 30 artists have created new installations, including a series of posters by London-based Nantais graphic designer Jean Jullien. Pictured: 'Recyclage' by Jean Jullien, 2016. Copyright Franck Tomps / LVAN

(Image credit: TBC)

Pedestrian crossing with a series of wiggling curves and a baby face with a big diamond structure

Pictured left: Aurélien Bory’s ‘Traverses’ on Boulevard Léon-Bureau disrupts the traditional straight white lines of a pedestrian crossing with a series of wiggling curves, in order to slow traffic and encourage visitors to meander as they cross. Copyright Franck Tomps. Right: since 2014, Le voyage à Nantes has offered retailers the chance to have their brand reinterpreted by selected artists. Pictured: Viva Las Vegas! by Quentin Faucompré, Olivier Texier et Pascal Lebrain, 2014. Copyright Martin Argyroglo

(Image credit: TBC)

Creative shop signs hanging outside of the store front

The results can be seen on the creative shop signs that hang outside of store fronts throughout the city. Pictured: Viva Las Vegas! by Quentin Faucompré, Olivier Texier et Pascal Lebrain, 2014. Copyright Martin Argyroglo

(Image credit: TBC)

Silver fish structures above a swimming pool

A new installation named ‘Mes tripes sont des poissons d'argent’ by Julien Salaud serves as a commentary on the bond between man and nature... Coyright Bernard Renoux / LVAN

(Image credit: TBC)

Silver fish structures above a swimming pool

... A white figure stands on the diving board of Nantes’ Léo Lagrange public pool, while a shoal of silver fish spill out of his stomach and across the ceiling. Copyright Bernard Renoux / LVAN

(Image credit: TBC)

A sculpture of a high voltage mast next to a brick building

Seemingly toppled into the moat of the city’s Château des ducs de Bretagne, artist collective HeHe’s ‘Undercurrent’ – a sculpture of a high voltage mast – is incongruous to its surroundings. Copyright Franck Tomps / LVAN

(Image credit: TBC)

Blue topsy turvy table design

Laurent Perbos has conjured a subversive ping pong park that reinvents the traditional game by way of some topsy turvy new table designs. Copyright Franck Tomps / LVAN

(Image credit: TBC)

A gigantic Calder-esque mobile next to a building

A gigantic Calder-esque mobile by Julien Berthier is made up of huge corrugated metal shapes cut from shipping containers and suspended by a crane in the centre of the city’s Place du Bouffay. Photography: Copyright Julien Berthier / LVAN

(Image credit: Julien Berthier, LVAN)

Fleet of giant mechanical creature next to a carousel

‘Machines de l’Île’ is a ten-year-old project that has given birth to a fleet of giant mechanical creatures, including a 12 metre-high elephant that parades around the city’s old shipyards and a towering three-tiered sea-themed steampunk carousel. Copyright Jean_Dominique Billaud / LVAN

(Image credit: TBC)

People playing on a soft silvery sphere with trampolines

Detroit Architects has joined forces with artist Bruno Peinado to create ‘Let’s walk on the moon’ – a soft silvery sphere with trampolines installed in its sunken craters. Up above, the earth hangs on an invisible wire, illuminated from within. Copyright Franck Tomps / LVAN 

(Image credit: TBC)

Amorphous blue sculpture-cum-bar next to trees and a river

This amorphous blue sculpture-cum-bar by Atelier van Lieshout popped up in the forecourt of the Architecture School in 2007 as part of the city’s Estuaire art trail project

(Image credit: TBC)

A house resting on a river's bed

Also part of the Estuaire legacy, Jean-Luc Courcoult’s ‘La Maison dans La Loire’ is a partly submerged house that has been resting on the river's bed since 2007. Copyright Bernard Renoux/LVAN

(Image credit: TBC)

A giant tape measure laying on the ground at a construction site

A giant tape measure created by Lilian Bourgeat as part of Estuaire tangles itself in the courtyard of construction company Aethica. Copyright Bernard Renoux

(Image credit: TBC)

INFORMATION

’Le voyage à Nantes’ runs until 28 August. For more information, visit the fair’s website (opens in new tab)