Light festivals—from the spiritually steeped Hindu holiday Diwali to the newer contemporary art-focused events like SIGNAL in Prague—have become much-loved around the world. Regardless of race, religion or geographic location, there’s a shared human awe and appreciation for the beauty of lightness against the backdrop of the nighttime sky.
Undeniably, one of the most famous and oldest Festival of Lights isn’t found in the “City That Never Sleeps” nor even the “City of Light,” but instead in Lyon, France. Fête des Lumières was born out of a tradition started over 160 years ago, when the city installed a golden statue of the Virgin Mary atop the Fourvière Hill for miraculously protecting them from a potentially dooming plague in the 17th century. Due to stormy weather, however, the ceremony and celebrations were abandoned—but the residents made the best of it by spontaneously placing lit candles in their windows. Every year since, it’s become a unique Lyonnais tradition to place candles in the windows the weekend closest to the 8 December as a way of honoring and thanking Mary.
In 1989, city authorities decided to elevate this tradition and transform it into a major public event that could further unite the town. With the notoriously foggy weather in Lyon (caused by the two rivers flowing through the city), it was a welcome setting for organized lighted artworks and performances. This year CH was on the ground and in the thick of the 75 different projects scattered throughout Lyon, made by 175 artists (including students, thanks to a dedicated competition to seeking out and supporting new talent). “We really want to preserve a tradition,” a Fête des Lumières spokesperson tells CH, emphasizing the importance of staying artistic and poetic. “This is not a technology competition. We want people to be moved and amazed.”
And the city seriously pulls out all the stops, including a hanging disco ball atop the Fourvière Basilica—Lyon’s most iconic historical monument that overlooks the entire city on Fourvière Hill.
For one weekend, Lyon becomes an outdoor art gallery. Streetlights are covered with red cellophane; budding teenage entrepreneurs and restaurants sell “vin chaud” (hot wine) for two euros a cup. The impressive variety of projection mapping, sculpture, performance art, interactive works and more keeps attentions rapt and draws not only the local residents to the streets in the piping cold, but more and more visitors—over three million—from the rest of France and the world.
The specially commissioned, site-specific works play with Lyon’s monuments and urban spaces in a new way, and re-engage residents with their city. Buildings passed during daily commutes are suddenly cast in a literal new light. The lawn at Place Antonin Poncet is peppered with a thousand glass spheres that light up—making the cosmic journey of “Laniakea” (a galaxy supercluster defined by a group of astronomers which included Helene Courtois of the University of Lyon) expand into a three-dimensional experience.
At Place de Jacobins, a fountain is covered with a lampshade to become a nightlight, and surprisingly, it’s the grownups, not the kids, who are singing along to childhood lullabies, played in music box style. A pedestrian bridge over the Saône River, leading to the neo-classical Palais de Justice (a historic courthouse), becomes a large-scale “Test Your Strength”-like carnival game—where passers-by swing a mallet with all their might to try to trigger a spectacle of music and lights.
Not all of the projects are video-mapped projections, nor stagnant sculptures. The transparent, light-up Dundu puppets traveled all the way from Stuttgart, Germany to interact with the different light installations and festival attendees. A team of five people (and a wheel) smoothly maneuver each five-meter-tall puppet, which wade through the crowds with astonishing human-like movements, as an accompanying musician rhythmically plucks a West African kora. They aren’t just eye-candy, however—the Dundu team travels all over the world in an effort to lower cultural barriers and bring peace and harmony to all. And as cheesy as that sounds, we couldn’t help grinning after receiving a pat on the head from a gigantic marionette—its simple positivity is contagious. It’s equally inspiring to see five different people work together to move a puppet in unison; even the tiny Dundu baby puppet requires the five people to come to life.
Our hands-down favorite from the festival is “Color or Not,” at the Cathedral Saint-Jean, a Gothic-style structure noted for its 14th century astronomical clock and the headless statues of saints (decapitated centuries ago during the French Wars of Religions—not during the French Revolution, which is a common misconception—and intentionally unrestored as a mark of history) decorating its exterior. As crowds gather in the square every 10 minutes, a burst of technicolors and textures take over the cathedral’s intricate exterior, creating a gigantic optical illusion accompanied by classical music. (The artist, Yves Moreaux, is now a four-time alum of the Festival of Lights.) True to the festival’s mission, it’s a symbolic example of how the old merges with the new for a relevant, awe-inspiring experience.
Even if the Festival of Lights isn’t your first time in Lyon, it entices visitors to travel on metro, bus and on foot to explore most of the city in a way you wouldn’t on your own agenda. While the first day, Friday, seems manageable in walking around, a true bottleneck happens Saturday night—so we advise arriving early to Lyon (in which you can also catch glimpses of rehearsals before the official opening on Friday night), catching the last leg on Monday night or just keeping the festive spirit in mind during the more crowded moments. We’re already looking forward to next year’s iteration.
“Laniakea” and “Color or Not” image courtesy of Muriel Chaulet, all other images by Nara Shin