Art of the matter - The Estuaire project

This month sees the unveiling of the next phase of an innovative project along the Loire estuary. Self-confessed art cynic Kevin Raymond went to take a look

Nantes was once one of the largest ports in France, for centuries the western gateway to the Loire and the heart of the country. Its standing as an industrial hub is long gone, but it is now enjoying a growing reputation as a cultural leader, thanks in part to an ambitious scheme called Estuaire.

The second phase of Estuaire launches on 5 July. The project aims to rejuvenate the Loire estuary, raise the international profile of the region, stimulate tourism and strengthen the historic links between Nantes and its little brother Saint-Nazaire, which sits at the mouth of the river.

The project is based at the Lieu Unique, – formerly part of the iconic LU biscuit factory opposite the ch�teau in Nantes, but now transformed into a nationally recognised social and cultural centre, with a restaurant, bar, bookshop, Turkish bath, and gallery and performance areas. The Estuaire project, though, goes beyond the confines of galleries and out into the countryside, and beyond the conventions of art and into architecture and education. While 2009’s programme of events and installations is still under wraps, 2007’s permanent works are mostly still on show, and give a feel for what might be to come.

I have to admit upfront that I was sceptical about the whole project. The first sniff of artistic pretension tends to send me running. But having visited the area, seen some of the artworks and spoken to Estuaire’s director Jean Blaise, I might have to revise some of my prejudices.

Blaise was responsible for the original 2002 Nuit Blanche in Paris – the all-night city-wide cultural festival aimed at increasing public access to contemporary art, now an established event on the international art scene and inspiration for similar events worldwide. The Estuaire project is in the same ambitious vein, taking in a huge swathe of countryside and every environment from pristine wetlands to industrial blight. It covers tiny ephemeral artworks all the way up to enormous permanent installations.

International profile Blaise says that the project, financed by local government agencies, the Ministry of Culture and private finance, is a long term one: “The structure is that every two years – 2007, 2009, 2011 – we’ll ask artists to create these works, some temporary, others permanent. So from the 2007 programme, there are currently six permanent works in situ.

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“From 2011 we’ll be concentrating on improving access and on promotion – this is a project that covers 800,000 inhabitants over 60 kilometres of estuary. On the local level we’ll be trying to work with holiday homes and campsites to bring everything together, but in a very particular way, using architects and planners to highlight the surprising and varied nature of the area. And we’ll be working on tourism at a European level, trying to raise our international profile.”

At the mouth of the Loire, the biggest work of all is in the once-thriving dockyards of Saint-Nazaire. In fact you could say the whole dockyard’s been turned into one huge work of art. Felice Varini designed a scheme of painting triangles onto roofs, silos and walls over an area covering at least a square kilometre – a huge task. And the results only make sense and come together when viewed from one spot – in this case the roof of the submarine base. It’s impressive, certainly, although you may find yourself asking, Is that it..?’. The answer is not quite’, as there are also son et lumi�re events on an equally grand scale, and to get to the viewing area you can follow a trail through the dockyards which shows you all the individual triangles from different angles before you suddenly see the full effect.

At the other end of the scale, the smallest of the permanent installations is also the least self-consciously arty’ – and the most fun. Erwin Wurm’s Misconceivable at Le Pellerin on the Loire’s south bank. Blaise explains the background: “It’s on a lock of an old canal, and on the canal is a kind of graveyard of sailing boats, rotting away slowly. Wurm spent a lot of time there getting to know the area, and he imagined the boat escaping from its sad fate, leaping over the canal lock”.

Nautical first The boat itself is no fibreglass replica, but a detailed, traditional sailing craft built to Wurm’s design. This had unexpected consequences, says Blaise: “Obviously it was supposed to be a one-off. No one knew how to make one, so it was entrusted to a local boat-builder who was enthusiastic about the project. They built it using traditional techniques and did a great job. But since then Wurm has been asked for other, similar boats by collectors, and they’ve all been built by the same builder, who’s now a sort of world specialist in soft boats!”

If Wurm’s boat has been a success, one of the other permanent exhibits had a rougher ride – Jean-Luc Courcault’s La Maison dans la Loire. Courcault took an imposing stone house, strengthened it and lifted it into the river at Lavau-sur-Loire with a huge crane, where the water would reveal or cover it according to the state of the tide. Unfortunately the house sideslipped almost immediately, but it’ll be back in place for this summer. “My biggest mistake,” says Blaise, “was to put too much trust in engineers – they said we could put a house on the river bed, and they said we could float a 26-metre tall rubber duck down the Loire, but they completely underestimated the power of the elements out here.”

The inflatable duck in question rather embarrassingly got a serious puncture shortly after launching, which was latched onto by critics of the whole scheme as a sign of artistic pretensions being punctured. Deflating ducks aside, further out in the estuary there’s much else that many perhaps wouldn’t categorise as art at all – Kawamata’s Observatoire and Marayuma’s Le Jardin �toil� in particular. The first is a simple wooden tower and platform looking out over marshland, the second a complicated and apparently haphazard grouping of steps, platforms, flags and buildings, for which the artist enlisted local schoolchildren as part of the design and building process. On the other hand they are practical structures, you can clamber over them, they can be used as bases to explore the river and its secrets, opening up an area that would otherwise be far too easily passed by. Marayuma’s Jardin in particular is used as an educational base for schoolchildren to find out more about the environment.

At Cou�ron on the north bank, Did I Miss Something? by Jeppe Hein is another installation that divides opinions. A passer-by sitting on a bench by the riverbank unexpectedly activates a 20- metre-high fountain which gushes up from under the surface of the river. When they stand up again, the fountain stops. The point presumably being that you only see the embellishment of the fountain if you’ve already taken the time to sit and look at the natural view that’s already there – pass by in a hurry and you miss everything. I like it, although for me that’s not art, just clever engineering.

But I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter what you call it – if it makes you think or even just makes the place look and feel better, it’s a success. And speaking of success, there is one of 2007’s permanent works that I’m completely, unreservedly, in love with – Daniel Buren and Patrick Bouchain’s Rings. Eighteen galvanised steel hoops, each four metres in diameter and lit by hundreds of LED lights, are set alongside an old wharf on the �le de Nantes. They look stunning, lit up on a warm, clear night, overhanging and reflecting on the waters of the Loire and framing the city itself from multiple angles. And once you’ve seen them in place, you couldn’t imagine the same scene without them. What will 2009’s festival include? We’ll have to wait and see, but if it brings just one new work to rival the Rings, it’ll be worth a visit.

For more information visit http://www.estuaire.info/