Europe XXL

March 24, 2009By Heidi EllisonDaytrips From Paris


The city of Lille inaugurated a major cultural festival called “Europe XXL” on March 14 with a massive parade, the burning of giants papier-mâché falla sculptures (a heritage of the time when the city was part of the Spanish Netherlands), a spectacular fireworks display and a late-night street party. During the festival, which will continue through July 12, the city and surrounding communities are holding no fewer than 50 art exhibitions, many of them in renovated industrial sites, and some 500 events. The idea is to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall by offering a forum for artists and performers from the other side of the old Iron Curtain.

The rather stale European theme may be not much more than an excuse for the city to draw attention to itself and build on its success as the European Cultural Capital in 2004, but why not? This once-fading northern industrial city, whose fortunes were revived when it was chosen as the Eurostar link between London, Paris and Brussels, has plenty to offer – not least its friendly population – and is enthusiastically and energetically trying to make the most of assets that were once considered drawbacks, like the disused factories that have now been converted to new uses. The Europe XXL festival is organized by Lille3000, a private-public association headed by the city’s mayor, Martine Aubry, head of the French Socialist Party and possible presidential candidate (and daughter of EU founder Jacques Delors).

The centerpiece exhibition is “Frontières Invisibles,” a contemporary art show at the Tri Postal, a cavernous former postal sorting center located behind the Gare Lille-Flandres in the centre of town that gives artists plenty of space to stretch out. In conjunction with this show, the hot Russian art collective AES+F has lined the Rue Faidherbe, which starts in front of the train station, with a series of colossal shiny black statues of creepy baby “Angels and Demons.” Inside the Tri Postal, their video installation “Last Riot” (2007) is one of the highlights of the show. Disturbing and beautiful, full of suggested violence and dreamy imagery, it is a must-see in this mixed bag of a show. Other highlights include Romanian artist’s Dan Perjovschi’s graffiti installation on the black walls of a vast space at the beginning of the exhibition, with its humorous and provocative commentary on the new Europe.

Like the exhibition “Vidéos Europa” at Le Fresnoy, a school for video artists in the neighboring city of Tourcoing, much of the work shown in “Frontières Invisibles” is an uncomfortable mix of politics and art; many of the works shown are not really art at all, but documentaries. In both exhibitions, the most successful pieces are those that rise above the purely documentary to enter the realm of art – hard as it might be to define, you know the difference when you see it. A couple of successful examples at Le Fresnoy: Czech artist David Možný’s “Rahova,” an architectural fantasy full of flying concrete, and Paris-based Romanian artist Mircea Cantor’s similar “Zooooooom,” in which an army of pointy-headed humanoids magically constructs a pyramid.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the rest of the festival’s shows:

The Gare Saint-Sauveur, a former train station, has just been transformed into a sort of crazy community center complete with play spaces for children and fabulous “hotel rooms” decorated by artists (they can be reserved for free for up to one hour). It is holding a great show (through April 12) of photos by German artist Martin Liebscher, who makes complex large-format photos featuring dozens of images of himself in naturalistic poses in various settings – a factory, for example, or a beach – as well as a show on art with Berlin as its subject.

The Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, one of France’s leading fine-art museums, set in a handsome 19th-century building, is featuring Turkish contemporary artists in a show called “Istanbul Traversée,” but should also be visited for its excellent permanent collection, ranging from Antiquities to European painting, sculpture, ceramics and drawings.

The Hospice Comtesse, a 17th-century hospital and chapel converted into a museum, has an interesting exhibition entitled “Hypnos,” an interdisciplinary look at the way ideas about the unconscious have been depicted in art, especially by Central European artists, among them Jean Arp, Brassaï, Victor Brauner, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Hilma af Klint, Frantisek Kupka and André Masson.

The deconsecrated Eglise Sainte Marie-Madeleine, a splendid Flemish Baroque church now used for temporary art exhibitions, is the site of an installation called “BornHouse,” which consists of a house-like structure made of cardboard, set in a side chapel, that is lit from within and pierced with Swiss-cheese holes of varying sizes. Visitors can enter this “house of maternity,” conceived by Russian architect Yuri Avvakumov, and peer through the holes to see installations on the theme of birth by other architects.

In the Maison Folie de Moulins, a wonderful old brick brewery converted into artists’ studios and exhibition and performance spaces, visitors can see a number of projects by resident artists, most notably the complex, highly entertaining photographic collages by Tim Roeleffs.

The nearby town of Roubaix is a must for two spaces. One is the fabulous Musée de la Piscine, a gorgeous Art Deco swimming pool that has been beautifully converted into a museum showing 19th- and 20th-century paintings, sculptures, ceramics and fabrics. The current temporary exhibition features zany, colorful fantasy clothing – a dress might also serve as a birdcage, for example, or have wheels attached to it – of Spanish designer Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, an iconoclastic aristocrat who likes to wear a dress sporting the Republican flag to Spanish royal weddings. The other is La Condition Publique, a converted warehouse-like building with space to drive trucks through that was once used as a government textile-inspection site. It is now hosting an exhibition of works by artists living in Berlin.

The city of Tourcoing offers two other exhibitions in addition to the show at Le Fresnoy. “Dada East,” a look at the Romanian contribution to the Dada movement, merits a visit more for its setting, the Musée de Beaux-Arts de Tourcoing, a now rather dilapidated but once grand 19th-century mansion, than for the show itself. “Laboratoire du Réel” is a small show of pieces by Romanian designers, also presented in an interesting setting, the Hospice d’Havre, a 17th-century convent.

As you can see from this brief survey of Europe XXL events, Lille and its neighbors are busy making the best of their heritage rather than tearing it down. Only an hour from Paris by TGV, it’s a great destination for a long weekend or even a day. For full details on all Europe XXL events, visit the site

Note: The Europe XXL Pass offers free entry to all but one exhibition (Musée de la Piscine) and reduced rates on concerts and other events. It cost €35 for one person, €60 for a couple. A day pass is avaialbe for €7. See, “Infos Pratiques” for a list of vendors or to order online.

Heidi Ellison

Click here to read more about visiting Lille.

More reviews of current art exhibitions.

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