The city of Lyon, located in the heart of the French hexagon, is a beautiful and vibrant one, bursting with a wide spectrum of cultural events that is ever-surprising in its variety and seemingly never-ending in its frequency. It’s arguably little wonder then, that after choosing Lyon to be the location of my compulsory Year Abroad last year, I was just as excited to experience the weekly art markets and the annual film festival as I was to explore the city itself. However, there was always one highly-acclaimed event that stood out in the calendar more than most and that I looked forward to from September onwards: Lyon’s annual Fête des Lumières, coming to town on 6th December.
A gigantic festival of lights, it’s not difficult to see why just the idea of the Fête des Lumières held such appeal for the History of Art student in me. Each year on the first weekend of December, every corner of Lyon is illuminated: building-sized video installations, pyrotechnics and dazzling light displays stretch from the concrete housing-block communities of the inner suburbs to the sprawling, fountain-laden squares of the city centre, and transform after-dark Lyon into a living, breathing canvas. Thousands of artists apply each year with the hope of securing a small area of the city to show off their expertise in their chosen field; the festival undoubtedly gives many installation artists an unparalleled opportunity to exhibit their work in an imaginative way outside of the gallery.
Subsequently, after seeing numerous photos of the spectacles offered by previous years, I was understandably excited to see what 2013 would bring, and assumed that the citizens of Lyon – being lucky enough to have this event on their doorstep – would feel the same.
Nevertheless, in the lead-up to December, I found that, upon talking to local residents, most of them didn’t seem to share in my excitement. Some groaned with dread at the thought of the imminent collapse of public transport in the wake of all the tourists, but many more bemoaned the fact that the festival had become so commercial in recent years and that the “true spirit” of it had been masked by gimmicks and consumerism. After learning more about the history and facts of the Fête, it became clear that both of these viewpoints were fairly understandable.
After all, amazingly, Lyon’s Fête des Lumières is the third most-visited annual festive event in the world, with only Rio Carnival and Oktoberfest beating it in the leaderboard. That’s to say that, on average, four million tourists flock to Lyon every year for an event that is barely advertised outside of the city itself, and is practically unknown in the UK. Suddenly, the transport-related anxiety made a lot of sense. The argument of the Fête being overrun by commercialism also seems to follow on pretty naturally; the origins of the festival are far from concrete, but the generally-accepted version of the narrative is that the Fête is a tribute to the Virgin Mary for saving the city from the plague during the 1600s, and that lighting up building façades and placing candles in windows is the Lyonnais way of giving thanks for the miracle. However, it’s easy to see that this prominent spiritual aspect of the festival could be easily forgotten amongst the bright lights and fireworks.
So when the Fête des Lumières finally rolled around in December, I was no longer sure what to expect. Was it going to prove to be the commercialist extravaganza that I’d been warned about, or the enormous, explosive art installation that I’d hoped for?
I was pleased to find that it was predominantly the latter. Although perhaps many art critics would not consider a festival of lights to be an example of installation art in its traditional sense, there is no reason to dismiss it from the category altogether. The way in which the existing architecture of the city was moulded to fit each artist’s requirement was extraordinary: with the use of incredibly-intricate lighting projections, the town hall and fine art museum were seen to be “demolished”, before being rebuilt into a rainforest and then an underwater kingdom, amongst many other creative destinations.
An existing mural painted onto the side of a local boulangerie was “animated”, its characters brought to life, while the banks of the Rhone river were transformed into a light-up orchestra. Of course, the streets were fit to burst with bodies cramming to see the spectacles, and the sheer number of stalls enthusiastically selling mulled wine was much higher than I would have expected, but a touch of consumerism didn’t mean that the event could not still be regarded as a prime example of the flexibility of installation art.
In fact, witnessing the festival made me think back to a question that all History of Art students will be very familiar with from the first few nervous weeks of first year: What is Art? It doesn’t always have to be a Pre-Raphaelite painting from the National Gallery, or even the most recent and most ‘out-there’ Damien Hirst creation. At its basis, art is arguably about producing a reaction, and there’s no question that the Fête des Lumières continues to do that year after year, showcasing the best talent of this specific artistic niche in an unorthodox, citywide exhibition that celebrates and the Lyonnais landscape and adds a touch of magic to it too.
So if you ever want to experience an installation exhibition with a difference, Lyon in December may just be the place to go. It may not be “high art”, but it certainly shows how adaptable and all-encompassing art can be, and you’ll never be short of a glass of vin chaud as you watch architecture metamorphose before your eyes.