Voyage à Nantes

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

Art and Culture
Shake Up Provincial City

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Jean-Luc Courcoult’s ”La Maison dans la Loire.” Photo © Gino Maccarinelli

In Nantes, it is not uncommon to run into Parisians who have fled the French capital for the pleasant city on the Loire and who swear that they will never return. One native of Nantes is heading the other way, however: its mayor since 1989, Jean-Marc Ayrault, as handsome and charming as his city, who has just been renamed prime minister of France by President François Hollande after the Socialist Party sweep of the French legislative elections. Last week, just two days before the second round of those elections, he gave a speech at the kickoff of Voyage à Nantes, an ambitious two-month-long local art festival.

It was a proud moment for Ayrault, who had suddenly been catapulted onto the national scene from relative obscurity, and something of a vindication of his administration’s ongoing policy of investing in art—not an obvious way of reviving a city that had been battered for decades, first by heavy bombardment during World War II, then by the demise of its industry. Today, however, you would never take this attractive, apparently prosperous city built of white stone to be a victim of industrial decline. With Voyage à Nantes, the city is continuing to invest in art as a way of attracting visitors, boosting its economy and adding to its already considerable appeal – it is often ranked high on lists of most livable and most innovative cities.

A great way to get a feel for the region before jumping into Voyage à Nantes is to start with a relaxing three-hour Estuaire 2012 cruise, which takes you down the Loire River from Nantes to Saint-Nazaire, the once-great French shipbuilding center. Along the way, you pass remnants of France’s industrial heritage, a nesting site for 25 pairs of storks and numerous works of art commissioned for the Estuaire art biennale, many of which play with those industrial references. A few sights that might startle you as you cruise along: a

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“La Villa Cheminée,” by Tatzu Nishi

gargantuan pendulum (“Le Pendule,” a converted 1960s concrete mixer, by Roman Signer), a tilting stone house half-sunken in the river (“La Maison dans la Loire” by Jean-Luc Courcoult), and a cute little local-style cottage and garden perched on top of a power station’s red-and-white chimney (“Villa Cheminée” by Tatzu Nishi, which you can actually rent for the night; call 02 72 64 04 79). Six rooms wittily done up by artists are also available for rent in the Château de Pé, set in a lovely park in Saint Jean de Boiseau (call 06 09 43 01 63 or 02 72 64 04 79).

Back in Nantes, there are literally dozens of individual artworks, exhibitions and new attractions to see. For the Voyage à Nantes artworks, the city has conveniently laid a hot-pink line on the sidewalk to guide you from one to the next.

Here is a quick rundown, in no particular order, of some of the things I saw during a two-day visit:

• “Péage Sauvage”: In a nice irony, La Petite Amazonie, a former swamp in the heart of the city, dotted with bomb craters and long set aside for a never-built highway, has gone back to nature and been turned into a bird preserve. The Dutch art collective Observatorium has built a wooden “toll booth” that serves as a meeting place and observation tower for bird watching. Visitors can enter this city-center forest only when guided by members of the bird-watchers association, the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux de Loire-Atlantique.

• “Le Nid”: Continuing the bird theme, a “bird’s-nest” of a bar by Jean Jullien has been opened on the top floor of the highest building in Nantes. Have a drink on an egg stool at the bird-shaped bar or just go to enjoy the great views.

• La Galérie des Machines and Le Grand Eléphant: Kids (and adults) will go nuts for these two beautiful and beautifully built contraptions in the Parc des Chantiers that look like they are straight out of a Jules Verne

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Le Grand Eléphant. © Le Voyage à Nantes

novel: a sort of gigantic merry-go-round populated with magical creatures from the sea, and a far-bigger-than-life-size robotic elephant that takes visitors for rides.

• “Playgrounds!”: An exhibition of crazy games designed by artists at the Lieu Unique (the former LU cookie factory). Wear 3D glasses to shoot baskets on a 2D hoop, for example, or play miniature golf with a spike-heel club.

• “A Perfect Day”: Painter Yan Pei-ming’s full-length three-part monumental self-portrait in black-and-white, in the Musée des Beaux-Arts’ Chapelle de l’Oratoire:

• “Des Chambres en Ville”: Filmmaker Agnès Varda pays homage to her late husband, director Jacques Demy, a native of Nantes, with an installation in the gorgeously over-the-top 19th-century Passage Pommeraye shopping gallery.

• Mémorial de l’Abolition de l’Esclavage: A water-level quayside memorial to the abolition of slavery, by Krzysztof Wodiczko and Julian Bonder, evokes the below-decks area of slave ships. Nantes was France’s main port for the slave trade in the 18th-century.

• In Saint-Nazaire, a sinister concrete-block submarine base left over from World War II has an evocative rooftop garden, complete with rows of trees whose tops are visible only from a distance, by landscape architect Gilles Clément, and, on the ground floor, in a space called Le LiFE, a wonderful installation in the dark by Finn Geipel that requires visitors to feel their way to its core.

• Architecture fans should visit the “Manny” building, with a sound work called “Air” by Rolf Julius; the Maison Régionale d’Architecture, with an installation put together by French artist Alain Séchas that includes “Flea Market Lady” by Duane Hanson; and the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nantes (designed by Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal), with a colorful, monumental sculpture, “L’Absence” by Atelier Van Lieshout on the esplanade, and an exhibition called “Futurologia,” with works by five Russian artists, inside. Perhaps most interesting architecturally, however, is Jean Nouvel’s Palais de Justice. From the outside, the black building, all strict straight lines, is one of the most sinister-looking structures you will ever see, but once you enter, you are overwhelmed by the majesty and stark beauty of the cavernous, all-black hall. Justice doesn’t feel friendly here, but it is certainly impressive. A work by Jenny Holtzer spells out French legal texts in neon.

For all the information you’ll need to find these and the many other events, go to, or

When you get to Nantes, go to Nantes Tourisme (9, rue des États, 44000 Nantes; tel.:

08 92 46 40 44) and pick up a copy of the excellent (free) Voyage à Nantes guidebook, in French and English. To get to Nantes from Paris, take a train ( from Gare Montparnasse (slightly over two hours).

A good place for a meal: Beckett’s Canteen (3, rue Guépin; tel.: 02 40 48 76 46), run by a displaced Irishman and his family.

Voyage à Nantes and Estuaire continue through August 19, although many of the works will remain in place permanently.

Heidi Ellison

Reader Richard Ewan writes: “You have to credit the French for providing the public with worthy community art. In the US we have underfunded, understaffed and underpaid individuals picking mediocre work submitted through too much paperwork and resulting in watered down artistic projects to please the conservative governing establishment. There is something to be said for the long history of magnificent French art’s impact on modern life.”

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