Lying flat on my back beneath a ring of light, I close my eyes as psychedelic music plays from a speaker.
This trippy, transcendental experience is part of summer-long arts festival Lille3000, an event that’s been taking place in Lille and the Hauts-de-France region’s museums, art galleries and restaurants, for six editions.
But it’s 2022’s celebration, Utopia, that looks set to cement this French city’s reputation for championing abstract, mind-altering art.
Le Serpent Cosmique (The Cosmic Serpent) – the installation I’m listening to – is on show at the The Hospice Comtesse Museum (32 Rue de la Monnaie; €7/£5.95). Curated by journalist Fabrice Bousteau, it links strands of DNA with serpents, to highlight the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature.
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It’s not the only surreal work on display. I’m also enamoured by a vegetable-headed hominoid called Minitos. Created by artist Jean-François Fourtou, the outlandish piece was inspired by a tale he would tell his daughter about vegetable people who help make dinner and tend to the garden.
From the moment I arrived in Lille, an hour and a half on the Eurostar from London St Pancras, I was greeted by 10 large green urban art installations, erected in honour of the Utopia celebrations. It was a sign of things to come.
Lille’s relationship with modern art really took off in 2004, when it became the European Capital of Culture. Two years later, Lille3000 started with an aim of continuing the artistic momentum. This year’s theme focuses on links between people and nature in an era of climate crisis and unobtainable ideals.
It all sounds rather lofty, but what’s on display is actually a lot of fun.
At La Piscine Museum (roubaix-lapiscine.com; €9/£7.65) a gallery housed in an art deco swimming baths, I’m taken aback by the array of fascinating sculptures and artworks.
Pieces by Rodin, Picasso, Maillol and Giacometti are centred around a huge pool with a sunrise and sunset at either end. Several of the bath’s original showers and bathrooms have been restored, adding to the quirkiness of the place.
At the Palais des Beaux-Arts (pba.lille.fr/en; €10/£10.50), I enter into immersive exhibition La Forêt Magique, curated by Bruno Girveau and director Régis Cotentin. It includes a giant mirrored image of the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, Nottingham, created by the English artist Mat Collishaw to symbolise his distaste for Brexit.
The tree – the biggest oak in Britain – is famous as it allegedly provided a shelter for Robin Hood and his men, and still attracts thousands of visitors yearly in Nottingham.
In Collishaw’s work, it is only surviving because it is being held up by chains and supports, which he takes to mean that being alone, or independent, does not necessarily mean success. It’s a fair and chillingly valid point.
I continue my art trail at Gare Saint-Sauveur (garesaintsauveur.lille3000.eu), a former goods station transformed into an exhibition centre, which also has a nightclub, a stage and a bar.
Free access exhibition Novacène, curated by Alice Audouin and Jean-Max Colard, is housed in the vast open-plan space
. Of all the post-apocalyptic pieces on display, one in particular catches my eye. The Last Human, created by Maarten Vanden Eynde, is a skeleton with computer chips in his brain, lying next to a petrified gas station.
Though quite a blatant social commentary, this work did make me feel an unrecognisable pang of sadness and urge to self-reflect upon my own habits and wants.
My final museum trip is to the free exhibition, Les Vivants (Living Worlds), at Fondation Cartier (fondationcartier.com).
It explores current major environmental issues and has the most unnerving, but intriguing artworks.
Particularly grotesque but incredibly interesting is a man made out of clay, with water tubes extending from various parts of his body (including his eyeballs) and soil spewing from his mouth.
As Saturday night dawns, I head to the main square to watch the Utopia parade.
While sipping champagne from the third floor of the Belle Vue Hotel (one of the best viewing spots), I watch dancers dressed as playing cards, closely followed by men jumping on stilts.
A giant wooden puppet and huge inflatable fish compete the glittering picture.
My night ends sat next to a lake surrounded by crowds staring skyward at a beautiful fireworks display.
It’s a true moment of togetherness and a reminder that although occasionally high-brow and esoteric, art still has the power to connect us all.
How to plan your trip
Utopia Lille3000 runs until October 2, 2022. Visit utopia.lille3000.com
Rooms at Hotel Okko (okkohotels.com) start from €250/£215 per night with breakfast.
For more information on the destination, visit lilletourism.com.