Luxembourg: Does the art of the nation help explain its elusive identity?

Luxembourg. What is that? Who are Luxembourgers? What are they known for?

Identity is above all a cultural construction. It is linked to the history, tradition, values ​​and creative production of a nation or a people. The idea of ​​a city-wide exhibition showcasing Luxembourgish art and crafts could be a way to unravel the mystery of the country’s culture. Add to that the promise of a conversation with the Minister of Culture and Euronews went straight to the European Capital of Justice to try to learn something we didn’t know.

“Our identity is made up of multiple identities”

Sam Tanson, a 44-year-old former journalist, has been Luxembourg Minister of Culture for three years. A pleasantly unsupervised politician, Tanson tackles the question of Luxembourgish identity with good humor and sincerity.

“Luxembourg is a place that has really changed a lot over the past 20 or 30 years”, begins the Minister. “When I was young, it was quite different. We are very multicultural now, certainly if you look at the capital, we have 70% of non-Luxembourgers living in the city. Only 30% have Luxembourgish nationality. so a great mix of people who come from all over the world to work in Luxembourg. If you walk around the city on a weekend you will hear a lot of languages, and in fact a lot of English, which was not the case. case 30 years ago, it was much more French. “

“Over the past century, we are a country that has experienced constant immigration. At the beginning, it was workers from Italy and then from Portugal who came to do manual work. And now we have people from all over the world to work in our digital sector (s).

It sounds a lot like the UK, I dare.

“But we are not an island,” Tanson retorts. “We are very close to our neighbors and have so many influences from Belgium, France and Germany.”

Fair enough. But I hear a lot about influences and interpenetration. I still don’t have an idea of ​​what Luxembourg is, rather than doing it. I suggest it’s a mystery.

Tanson laughs. “No, it’s not. We have seen rapid change over the past 100 years. It was first an agricultural state that developed into a steel industry that eventually became banking. We are traditionally an open-minded people because we are a rather small country which needs its neighbors, which needs Europe, so we are a very European country. “

But are they first European and Luxembourgish second?

“No”, maintains the minister. “We have multiple identities in our heritage. We have our language, we are proud of our language (Lëtzebuergesch) and we are proud of what we have achieved coming from a predominantly agricultural state. “

A movement from the rural to the mercantile has led the country to a revealing GDP per capita. An industrial powerhouse that has become a banking center and e-commerce hub has created a stable-looking ship, though national debt is a record 24.9% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2020.

The way the country deals with its creatives is under the watchful eye of Tanson. She cites one of the ministry’s objectives as “to create a framework in which all possible conditions are created to allow an artist to practice his art”.

And one of those initiatives is the Biennale.

The city as a museum

The capital is the canvas for this multi-site exhibition. In many ways, it’s an experience where materials intermingle in spaces that weren’t made for fine art. A bank, a theater hall, a casino. Likewise, the emphasis is on mixed materials in singular works of art and there is a lot of talk of a “dialogue” between the elements.

This is the idea of ​​Parisian Jean-Marc Dimanche, a thoughtful and modest man whose passion for art and design knows no bounds. Indeed, borders are more easily abandoned in the creative world, and the capital’s museum of modern art, MUDAM, is no exception, where 25 years of exhibitions are celebrated this season. This eclectic collection seems to bring together the greatest hits of each vintage under one roof. While much of the “dialogue” between artistic modes may well take the form of “what is you to do here? ‘, it is always fascinating to observe such a variety.

“De Mains De Maîtres”, the nickname of the Biennale, is perhaps the perfect spectacle to raise the curtain on the country’s next cultural monument, the southern city of Esch becoming one of the three European cities of culture for 2022 One of the main drivers for this initiative is the notion of ‘Remix Culture’ described in promotional material linked to Esch as “using existing situations to give them new meaning”. It occurs to me that this is precisely what the exhibition at the bank, and the Biennale in general, does. Even more, it is perhaps a way of thinking about Luxembourg as a whole. A canvas to showcase people from diverse backgrounds who live and work here.

Jeanette Bremin’s work in the banking sector of this city-wide exhibition illustrates these elements.

On the right here, she talks about her work titled “Nereids”. In Greek mythology, the Nereids were 50 sea nymphs, the daughters of Nereus and Doris, and they often accompanied Poseidon, god of the sea.

Bremin uses embroidery with hand-dyed woolen threads, cotton threads and fabrics on canvas painted in acrylic stretched over a wooden frame. His work is partly mythical, partly astronomical. A source of light, a star (a city, a financial center perhaps?) And entities that move there as a source of light, life and possibility.

Another of his works, titled Psamanthe, is the image in the header of this article. The same elements and the same theme apply.

“Psamathe was one of the first in a series of works of art that I made,” Bremin told Euronews.

“I combine abstract painting with embroidery of different types of threads. Wool, cotton and linen threads each have their own shine, texture and shadows which give an interesting impression in combination with the painted background and the fabric.”

I ask about the planetary influence.

“In the middle of the painting / working process, when I got to see what the painting was starting to look like, I researched the different planets in our solar system, their names and how they relate to Greek mythology,” she says.

The range of materials in the mix here at the Old Bank is exciting and sobering. Polymers appear to be a natural extension of wood in Pitt Molling’s Mimicry, that of Caroline Andrin Skin play combines tinted clay and manganese, while Marion Hawecker’s Echo is a velvet mix of ostrich feathers that baffles the brain in its search for a shape – Escher could have drawn a sleeping dog that way.

The unbearable absence of touching

Everything you want to do is touch these parts. Surrounded by handcrafted materials that have been meticulously chosen for the exhibition: rodium, bronze, glass, feathers of all poultry, copper wire, steel. The ecstasy of aesthetics is matched only by the torture of our inability to touch anything.

But then, on the other side of town, there is a small gallery for the Biennale jewelry exhibition. These are meant to be worn. And what a collection. Just like a city in which 170,000 inhabitants move every day, we have distinguished visitors from across the border.

A brooch from Salavador Dali, a bronze from Max Ernst and even a gold domino mask from Man Ray.

But the focus of the exhibition belongs to Luxembourg artists and artisans. And it is a source of pride for the Minister of Culture.

“I think De Mains De Maîtres is something really great because it gives a platform to a specific branch of artists that are unknown to the public. It puts them in the spotlight. But it’s also important for our artists to be seen abroad so we have discussions to help our artists become visible outside Luxembourg. “

To this end, the ministry has created a new body, Culture | lx, essentially an Arts Council, to help promote local artists abroad as well as develop their careers in their country.

Tanson is a theater lover, and of course a politician. But the two will never meet. Not under his watch.

“Freedom of art is a fundamental right,” says Tanson, who refuses to be part of a system where a government or municipal authority interferes with the program of events or plays for political reasons. . “My role is to create a framework so that the artist and the institutions can develop and be free to work in the best possible conditions.”

Luxembourg’s cultural spending represents around 0.5% of its incredibly high GDP. And it’s one of the highest rates in Europe (Ireland and Bulgaria, for example, spent just 0.1% in 2019). That was $ 87 million that year, and the outlier was the Philharmonie Luxembourg concert hall which cost $ 21 of those million. But with nearly 100 salaried musicians and top-of-the-range classical programming, there is no need to be alarmed. Artists here from all disciplines seem to be protected and promoted, so Luxembourg’s cultural strategy is strong and clear. But the identity is still somewhat elliptical. There don’t even seem to be any stereotypes.

One of Luxembourg’s steadfast mottos, recognized by all who have grown up here over the past 50 years, is ‘we want to stay as we are’. But Tanson is quick to inform me that this has recently been changed. “Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn” (we want to stay as we are) has turned into “Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir ginn” (we want to remain what we become), a much more progressive message, and a message that the Luxembourg uses it as a banner in their pavilion at the Dubai Expo this winter. But what will become of Luxembourg and Luxembourgers?

The future will be confusing

The exhibition also presents associated educational programs outside Luxembourg. Svenja Kalz, master’s student at the University of Trier, works with textiles and other materials in her collection titled “The future will be confusing”. Willingly or not, Kalz went so far as to describe Luxembourg’s facets of belonging and non-belonging, cohesion and uprooting, while doing an intensive introspective study of herself. “The states of confusion, conflict and ambivalence remain present in every part of the work, which has become, after all, a collection, a snapshot – without claiming the answer or the truth about what the present, the past or even the future could mean to us. “

De Mains De Maîtres is open until November 28, 2021.

James C. Tibbs