Installations, sculptures, walk-in art: Other cities shut them away in galleries and museums, but in Nantes, you meet them every step of the green line
The Great Elephant trumpets loud and long. Then it hisses, issues a many-voiced squeal and falls silent. The star of Nantes is a monster 12 meters tall made of wood and iron. Lumbering across the extensive parkland on the Loire river island l’Île de Nantes, it sways its hydraulic trunk from side to side, spraying water into the crowd and making children shriek.
In 2007, artists François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice began building a zoo of mechanical animals for the city of Nantes. Gigantic creatures now march, crawl or roll across the former shipyard premises and the Sea World Merry-go-Round, a panopticon of mythical sea creatures, charms children and grown-ups alike. The artists took their inspiration for the park from Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of mechanical creatures and the technical fantasies of Jules Verne, who grew up in Nantes.
When Orefice and Delarozière arrived, the five square-kilometer l’Île de Nantes island was not a pretty picture. Its shipyards had gone bankrupt or moved elsewhere more than a quarter of a century earlier, and all that was left were dilapidated buildings, broken windows and abandoned squares and streets – a vast industrial wasteland. “It was a spooky place where nobody went, even during the day,” recalls arts manager Jean Blaise, who has been trying to resurrect the city since the 1990s. “The decline of the shipbuilding industry was a tragedy for this city. Many people lost their jobs and Nantes lost its center.” Then, at the turn of the millennium, the mayor Jean-Marc Ayrault, who later served a term as prime minister of France, decided to revitalize Nantes’ river island.
His plan was for art and culture to rehabilitate the district, but unlike the mayors of Bilbao and Lyon, who spent millions on prestigious architecture, Ayrault trusted in the ideas put forth by Orefice and Delarozière, who were already well known for their street theater productions. “At first, the public thought that building an artistic amusement park was a very obscure idea,” says Orefice, speaking from his office in the forecourt of a shipyard building. Many would have preferred to see the money otherwise invested. “But the elephant soon won people’s hearts,” the artist adds.
Many locals had not set foot on the island in years when the Machines de l’Île creatures were unveiled. Now, some of the former industrial halls house offices and the city’s art school, and there’s a new justice building designed by architect Jean Nouvel on the riverbank. Ayrault’s dream has become reality: The new l’Île de Nantes district has become the city’s heart, the mechanical creatures its pacemaker.
The Compagnie La Machine is an internationally sought after forge for the production of exotic gadgets and apparatus, like the computer-controlled, fire-spewing dragon it produced for the Chinese city of Xiamen. The universe of mechanical creatures is also expanding in Nantes, which will soon have a 30-meter-tall artificial tree with branches you can walk on and where real flowers, shrubs and smaller trees will grow. Flocks of mechanical birds and insects will populate and circle this biotope, many of them big enough to ride. “You have to view the world through the eyes of a dreaming child to come up with ideas like these,” says Orefice. When the 35-million-euro project is completed in three years, he hopes it will become Nantes’ new and undisputed landmark. “Our Eiffel Tower,” as Orefice puts it.
Every year in July and August, Jean Blaise hosts Voyage à Nantes, an outdoor festival at which installations, exhibitions and performance art turn the city into an enormous open-air gallery. Blaise’ vision, his big idea, is to democratize art. “Art shouldn’t be locked away in a museum where only a fraction of the population goes,” he says.
The more than 50 works of art are connected by a ligne verte, a neon-green line ten kilometers long that has been sprayed onto the asphalt and guides visitors through the city. Following its twists and turns is like playing a game that takes you from one universe to another. If you start at Place Royale in the old town, the green line will lead you from a shopping district into quiet side streets, past cafés and specialty shops and back into the hubbub of big-city streets. It plays with visitors’ attention and with the topography of the city. After seeming to follow a straight course down a broad boulevard in the center of town, it suddenly turns a corner and disappears through a gap between modern buildings. On the other side, you come upon what looks like a traditional village, a small cluster of whitewashed houses, their walls crooked with age, each with a little garden blooming out front. Right next door, another glass office tower looms into the sky. If it weren’t for the green line, many visitors would never know about this magical little universe.
The idea is to flood the city with art, even the asphalt
The close connection between art and the city is visible all along the green line, and sometimes the two even fuse into one. On broad Boulevard Léon Bureau, for instance, crosswalk lines snake playfully across the street. “Traverses” (crossings) is film director and artist Aurélien Bory’s project. “The idea is to flood the city with art, even the asphalt,” Blaise explains. Maintaining a certain playfulness is important to him and appreciated by the public. When the festival ends, some of the installations are left standing to become part of the cityscape. Feydball, for instance, is a soccer pitch right in the middle of town near Carré Feydeau. But playing there involves running and shooting around corners rather than in a straight line because the pitch is not rectangular but curved like a bow. In a mirror distorted to match the curvature of the pitch, spectators can watch a straightened version of the game. All the playing-field lines are optically correct, only the players and the ball are distorted. Another example is the Ping Pong Park on l’Île de Nantes, an arrangement of ping-pong tables, some of them oddly shaped, with five sides, say, whereas others force you to play around a corner. A third tabletop in bold turquoise curves upward in a loop.
Art in Nantes, however, is restricted neither to the green line, nor even to the city. It extends along the Loire toward the Atlantic as far as the river mouth at Saint-Nazaire. Works by French and international artists line the estuary for more than sixty kilometers, alternately surprising, confusing and amusing visitors. Now a permanent fixture, these artworks also originated during a festival and were the brainchild of Jean Blaise. Most of them are best viewed from the water, best of all from the deck of the small ferry that travels back and forth between Nantes and Saint-Nazaire from April to October.
One of the artworks, “La Maison dans la Loire,” is a house that appears to be floating at a tilt in the middle of the river, looking uncannily real and at the same time a thing of fantasy. A sailboat built by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm lies stranded a couple of kilometers away. Although out of the water, it looks remarkably viscous, as if it had somehow absorbed the watery element on dry land. At any rate, it flops over the end of the dock as if wanting to join the other boats tied up nearby.
The final work of art along the river is the “Serpent d’Océan,” a sculpture by Franco-Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. The primordial-looking giant skeleton lurks among the Atlantic waves within sight of the beach at Saint-Nazaire. Parts of the spine and skull appear and disappear with the ebb and flow of the tide, as if, upon closer inspection, this spectacular serpent were in fact nothing but an illusion. Sooner of later, every visitor to Nantes and the surrounding area will come to realize that you cannot quite trust your eyes. Look again. And again. And perhaps a third time. You’re bound to discover something wonderfully fantastic.
A summertime art tour of Nantes (June 30 – August 26)
The art lining the Loire river is best seen from the water.
The family-owned Hotel Voltaire Opéra is in the heart of Nantes.
Enjoy multi-course meals and bar food in Art Deco surroundings.
The bar on the 32nd floor emulates a stork’s nest.