With music festivals now coming in at a dime for probably three dozen, contemporary art fairs and festivals have arguably become the new way for cities to show off their impeccable cultural cred. Yet Lille3000 actually started all the way back in 2004, when its namesake city was chosen as that year’s prestigious European Capital of Culture.
Now occurring as a regular triennial, 2019 was thus timed for the sixth edition – so we hopped an Air France flight to see what all the fuss was about. Especially as this year’s “themes” particularly intrigued. First, Mexico was the partner country – so many of its top artists were invited over for that spark of cross-continental vitality. Secondly, the mythical Spanish kingdom of Eldorado was employed as muse…and, well, we do love a bit of mythological inspiration.
The city itself (just an hour by TGV from the capital) had been through some tough postwar years – and as is so often the story, eventually employed cultural strategies as a method of revivification. Needless to say it worked very well, and Lille has since emerged as a galvanizing creative force (to wit, Yayoi Kusama is not only a participant in Lille3000, but her 2003 The Tulips of Shangri-La has sat proudly outside the Gare de Lille since 2004). Still and all, just strolling around the city, you wonder how such a visually beautiful place could have ever been down.
It’s important to note that it is also far enough north to be almost more Belgian than French – and its captivating mix of Flemish and Beaux Arts architecture strikingly bears that out. And like the Flemish, there is a palpable penchant for aestheticism (Lille is designated a World Design Capital for 2020), and, naturally, a tendency to drink more beer than wine.
During our visit we were admittedly very much swept up into the art happenings of Lille3000, which runs into November – though we left there adamant that at any given time, Lille can now confidently be counted amongst the A-list of French destination cities.
Here’s what we saw.
The visually daring Euralille has been on the starchitect groupies’ “must lists” since opening in 1994. Designed by Rem Koolhaas, it sort of epitomizes the hope that shiny new contemporary business districts can bring to a city in search of a new way forward. It’s now a stylish mix of offices, dining options and retail – everything from Adidas to G-Star Raw – as well as housing a pair of railway stations. The complex also includes the sleek Crowne Plaza hotel, from whose windows one can admire a vista that epitomizes the juxtaposition of old and new.
But most importantly, when arriving by train, there is an immediate sense when you look up that Lille is very much a “somewhere,” a place that is helping to shape the contemporary cultural conversation. Which is surely what everyone involved had hoped for when first envisioning Euralille.
The Lille3000 flagship exhibition is impressively fitted into Le Tripostal, a cavernous old post office facility now used for just such happenings. The show itself is breathtaking in its scope, and yet still very much aesthetically and intellectually cohesive. From the get, one of Yayoi Kusama’s Mirror Rooms offers a bit of the fantastical and celestial (one genuinely does get the feeling of floating in space), before the exhibit crashes back to Earth. Indeed, in Chen Zhen’s ominous Precipitous Parturition 1999 – which was once precariously suspended at the Guggenheim – a dragon gives birth to newly produced automobiles, a biting commentary on capitalism and the perpetual supply-demand-consumption cycle that holds the Western world so decisively in its grip. It’s followed by Marnie Weber’s sardonically titled Happy Go Lucky, a Boschian fantasy of demonic creatures on some unexplained metaphysical journey.
No surprise, it being France, politics and resistance are front and center. For example, Stefan Bruggemann’s Headlines + Last Lines in the Movies 2019 is a massive graffiti-on-glass installation which makes its feelings well known regarding President 45; while Lucy & Jorge Orta’s United Assemblage 2016 uses the 1977 Argentine social unrest as a metaphor for our current socio-political zeitgeist. Most striking is Anne & Patric Poirier’s Danger Zone 2001, a makeshift dwelling in a protective glass dome, representing a future ruin – poignant, to put it mildly.
One of the key Lille3000 events, this exhibit at Le Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse boasts 48 works from the permanent collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Mexico. Included are notable pieces by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Francisco Toledo, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide, Germán Venegas and Daniel Lezama. Yet hardly just some “best of” museum assemblage on loan, the show has a rather vivid common thread, keenly playing with the concepts of identity and nationalism – especially relevant in these days of rising right wing nationalism.
Particularly affecting are Las Soldaderas, 1926 by Orozco; The Revolution Gives Back Culture by David Alfaro Siqueiros; and a self portrait by Rosa Rolanda.
The old Saint Sauveur station building is an awe-inspiring space for just such an exhibition, which explores how the natural world can be superimposed onto the Eldorado myth – a poignant interaction between nature and culture. Especially captivating are David Gumbs’ Echo-Natures 2019, a wildly colorful, nature-referencing “tunnel” which offers a curiously calming, contemplative immersive experience; and several works by Renaud Jerez, which depict fantastical creatures with strangely ominous, robotic features. In another particularly engaging installation, several artists were asked to each design a space for an imaginary hotel, seemingly hidden in the jungle – and yes, you can “sleep” in the bed.
Other works that captured our imagination at Tripostal: Christopher Kullendren Thomas’ New Eelam, 2019, which presents a sort of system for life, leaving it to the viewer to decide if it is possibly real or just imagined; Qiu Zhijie’s sprawling One Has to Wander Through All the Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End, 2015, a stupendous work of cartography, with handblown glass figures relating to different regions of the world; and several paintings by French-American artist Jules de Balencourt, which were exceptionally aesthetically captivating.
Another can’t-miss at Tripostal, New York photographer-provocateur Ryan McGinley and French painter Claire Tabouret’s group show will be on exhibit through September 8.
And at the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art, we caught a brilliantly and very intelligently executed exhibition on the exalted Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, which reminded us of his significant influence on later artists like H.R. Giger.
With all that art so decisively stimulating our intellect, we made sure to make the occasional stop for epicurean restoration. Meert, founded in 1761, is an absolute must, one of the few most famous pastry/chocolate shops in France (they now also have three locations in Paris and one in Brussels). We cheerfully waited in line for the obligatory and very famous waffles, the city’s rightly famous take away pleasure…and as elegant a street food as you will ever enjoy. We later fell in love with Le Lion Bossu, a second floor charmer of a restaurant, hidden exquisitely away in a 17th Century building – where we dined on poelee de Saint Jacques, ris de veau and joue de boeuf braisée in a gorgeous brick-walled setting.
In the neighboring town of Roubaix, La Piscine literally began life as a very fancy indoor swimming pool in 1932 – a function which lasted all the way into the 1980s. It became a museum in 2000, and a further nine-million-Euro restoration was just unveiled in 2018.
Amazingly, the pool remains the museum’s centerpiece, dramatically lined as it is with classical statuary – and just begging for multiple Instagram opportunities. But this is very much a serious musee, counting amongst its permanent collection paintings by Ingres, Mondrian and Robert De Niro Sr., sculptures by Rodin and Camille Claudel, as well as design pieces, textiles, and even ceramics by Picasso and Chagall, amongst others.
Meert also happens to run a restaurant on site, where we lunched on French classics in original Art Deco surrounds – and with particularly lively people watching.
Just a short drive from the center of Lille, for devout modernistas this is the new and almost imperative religious pilgrimage. Completed in 1932 by French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, this modernist masterpiece – consider it the anthesis of all the showy gaudiness of Hearst Castle – was built for Paul Cavrois, a local textile industrialist. Opened to the public in 2015, it is now starkly furnished as close to the original period as was possible. And there’s a functionalist yet also visceral beauty to the style that seems to take Adolf Loos’ famous proclamation “ornament is crime” as an unbendable manifesto.
And walking from room to room, what is astonishing is just how true it is to the principals of anti-ornamentation, as laid down by Corbusier and the Bauhaus School. And everywhere – we mean everywhere – there are terraces from which to survey the exquisitely beautiful grounds, including a tranquil reflecting pool. Perfect for moments of contemplation amidst such a universe-altering aesthetic accomplishment.