A Fantastic weekend in Lille

by Mike.Martin

A silver, bulbous UFO hangs from the ceiling of the train station and a ghost train features a small girl crying over her dead badger. It can only mean one thing, the Lille 2012 festival, Fantastic.

The Lille 3000 Fantastic festival has brought together some great exhibitions featuring artists such as Breughel and Bosch, through the early 20th century in the Magical City exhibition and right up to date with a gothic Phantasia exhibition at the Tripostal space, plus some great examples of that much-maligned concept, street art.

After an easy Eurostar journey of just 1hr 20mins to the heart of Lille, and a five-minute walk to the hotel, it was time to see the whole festival kick off. It did with a typically mad street parade featuring giant floating lizards, worms and beetles, with dance music in the handsome town square followed by a huge firework display, but that was just to warm everyone up for the fun to come.

Lille has 20 installations dotted around town, and all are great fun to discover and ponder. In the Flanders train station a UFO lights up platform 2, and the expression of surprise on commuters’ faces when they see it soon turns to a smile. It’s actually the creation of a Welshman, Ross Lovegrove, who is a designer for the likes of Apple and wants to bring a fresh sense of wonder to people.

In the middle of a shopping street is an ad board which appears to show the other side of the street, but is actually a video screen showing the same street 24 hours earlier – so the pavement could be wet when it’s dry, the people could be wearing different clothes and the light could be completely different. It’s an idea by Thierry Fournier, who explained: “What it’s showing is completely uninteresting, but the question it asks is interesting – what’s happening here? Who are these people? It’s a window into the past.”

It’s all good lively stuff, but the real meat of the festival is in the exhibitions in the city’s varied exhibition spaces. Out in the suburbs at the LAM, Lille’s Museum of Modern Art, there is a show called The Magical City which is well worth the short commute on the tube.

The Magical City shows the effect of the creation of huge cities on the 20th century, mainly New York, but the surrealist feeling of the whole of Lille 3000 is never far away. There are paintings by Magritte and de Chirico, some stunning black and white photos by Brassai and a real treat for film fans. We’ve all seen how influential Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis was on early cinema, but here we get photos of the set, some great clips from the film, and drawings and storyboards. There are also some glorious posters, plus clips from Berlin – a Symphony of a Great City and Man With A Movie Camera, all of which show the stunning speed at which cities sprang up and mechanised everyone’s way of living. The Magritte men with bowler hats and de Chirico empty courtyards emphasise how alienating it all was for the human.

There’s also a wonderful section on the growth of film noir, with Fritz Lang’s M at the centre of it and some gloriously gloomy black and white photos of gangsters and tired looking policemen. The whole exhibition is a glorious meeting of Russian expressionism, American film noir and surrealism from much closer to these parts, a very Flemish sense of the bizarre. There’s a very nice catalogue for €35 with great reproductions but it’s only in French.

LAM is always worth a visit for its under-rated permanent collection, especially strong on cubism with some great Picassos and Braques, but also some excellent paintings by Miro, Modigliani, Leger and van Dongen.
If all that surrealism has got you in the mood there’s more fun to be had at the glorious Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille. The exhibition Flemish Landscape Fables shows paintings by Bosch, Breughel, Bles and Bril, around the theme of heaven and hell.

Anyone who has seen the film In Bruges will remember the scene where Colin Farrell gets close up to a Bosch painting of hell, and here there are lots of examples of this painter’s extraordinary imagination. Painted around 1500, his version of hell, in a time when most people could not read and the catholic church was in trouble, is propaganda of the most extreme kind. Naked bodies writhe in hell’s fire, men turn into beetles and frogs, monsters appear in every dark corner, eggs are cracked and empty, women’s faces are wracked with disease and ageing. Breughel’s depictions of heaven and hell are no less awesome in every sense of the word, but his religious meanings are even clearer and more powerful.

Having guaranteed nightmares for a week you might as well go the whole way and visit the weirdest ghost train you’ll ever see. At Gare Saint Sauveur, an old train station transformed into a great space, the Train Fantome features a Jacques Brel puppet singing out of tune, a disembowelled horse and a girl weeping loudly over the death of her pet badger.

It’s the perfectly surreal way to end a weekend in Lille which proves that few European towns have injected more time, money and passion into holding a festival with something for everyone. Much of it will baffle, some will delight and some will make you think, but all of it is superbly staged and just great fun.
Eurostar operates up to 9 daily services from London St Pancras International to Lille with return fares from £69. Fastest London-Lille journey time is 1hr 20 minutes. Tickets are available from www.eurostar.com.

Standard Premier offers calm, spacious surroundings with on-board staff offering a light meal and a selection of magazines. Standard Premier fares start from £189 return.

Eurostar Plus Culture is a unique partnership between Eurostar and some of Europe’s most popular museums and galleries in Brussels, Paris, London and Lille. Travellers simply present their Eurostar ticket to take advantage of 2-for-1 entry into paying exhibitions.

Lille galleries and museums include: Le Palais des Beaux-Arts, La Piscine – Musée d’art et d’industrie André Diligent, LaM - Lille Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut, MUba Eugène Leroy, Tourcoing, Le Fresnoy – Studio national des arts contemporains.