The top five artistic creations and initiatives that have left their mark on contemporary art in Luxembourg

Art can arouse a wide range of emotions and is open to various interpretations. Certain artists, through their work, strive to provoke debate and contribute to critical thinking in society. In this article, we will present five works of art which, since the year of culture in 1995, seem to have pushed the boundaries of art in the Grand Duchy. By raising questions and controversies, they bear witness to the openness and artistic freedom - essential principles of creativity in Luxembourg!

Art is also about tolerance

Let us take you back to 1995 when Luxembourg city was the European Capital of Culture. During the procession at the end of the Octave (an annual period of prayer and introspection), pilgrims walked past a veiled sculpture in the Avenue de la Porte-Neuve. This mysterious artwork was not created by the artist couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who were known for their large-scale, site-specific installations that involved wrapping buildings in fabric. Instead, it was a sculpture by the Franco-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle that had been hidden under a cover by a local authority employee.

Nike de Saint Phalle, "La Grande Tempérance", 1992
© Les 2 Musées de la Ville de Luxembourg, Christof Weber

Was "La Grande Tempérance" too provocative for religious believers? This "Nana", with her opulent, colourful and concealed forms, certainly caused a stir! She even found herself at the centre of a parliamentary question about freedom of expression and censorship.

In the end, it wasn't what it looked like. The sculpture was part of a series of 11 works of art which adorned the capital's public spaces from 30 May to 15 September. They were installed one by one, but they could only be unveiled together at the official opening. Therefore, "La Grande Tempérance" was covered up on the day of the procession.

Today, the "Nana" stands proud in the park of the Villa Vauban, where she continues to dance in all her splendour.

Is it art or can we get rid of it?

After much debate, the initial project for the Mudam – Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean designed by the famous Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei was split in two: The Fortress Museum – today known as the Musée Dräi Eechelen - and the Mudam. The building is located on the site of the Fort Thüngen in Kirchberg and has approximately 4,800m2 of public space and exhibition areas. Construction began in 1999, with a budget of € 88 million. The budget allocated to art acquisitions in 2005 was € 825,000.

The inaugural exhibition, which was held in early July 2006, was called "Eldorado". It presented a panorama of contemporary creativity: paintings, sculptures, art installations, new media, photographs and other works by around sixty artists. Amongst these works, was a piece by New York artist Joe Scanlan called "Pay Dirt" (2003). The installation, was made from coffee grounds, gypsum, sawdust, bone powder and salt minerals. It didn't appeal to everyone's tastes and expectations, and many people believed it has no place in this museum. The compost, a criticism of consumer society, is described as just a mound of earth; it became the symbol of the "Pei-Musee" which, according to its critics, was not worth taxpayers' money.

Today, the work of art remains part of the collection of the Mudam. The museum has since become one of the region's most renowned museums with an international reputation.

Joe Scanlan, "Pay Dirt" 2003
© Mudam Luxembourg, Christian Aschman

The difference in perception of an artwork

Plagiarism, vile parody, true profanation, lamentable construction, etc. These are just a few of the statements made about "Lady Rosa of Luxembourg" by the Croatian artist Sanja Iveković. The work is an appropriation of the Gëlle Fra, a memorial to the soldiers who died for Luxembourg and one of the Grand Duchy's most iconic monuments. The sculpture, representing a pregnant woman, and its base were installed near the Place de la Constitution in spring 2001 as part of the "Luxembourg, les Luxembourgeois" exhibition of the Casino Luxembourg – Forum d'art contemporain.

Sanja Ivekovic, "Lady Rosa of Luxembourg", 2001
© Casino Luxembourg

Thirty patriotic and Resistance associations joined forces with opponents of the "Gëlle Fra 2". Together, they collected 5,000 signatures. They also protested against this "misrepresentation" of their iconic monument and drew attention to the sacrifices of the local fighters who lost their lives fighting for freedom. Some people called for the Minister for Culture to resign.

However, the artist never intended to hurt the feelings of Luxembourgers. She merely wanted to draw attention to the problems faced by women in war, crises and conflict. At the same time, she sought to question the image, condition and status of women in society. As such, it pays tribute to the bereaved, the women who were raped and the victims of war, but also to those who honour the heroes (such as Gëlle Fra), mothers, prostitutes and many others, as shown by the inscriptions on the base.

The highly controversial discussions surrounding the Lady Rosa were significant and underlined the various interpretations and values of a historic monument and contemporary art. In 2011, Lady Rosa was exhibited in New York at the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art) as part of a retrospective on the artist. In 2021, a play entitled "Moi, je suis Rosa!" gave her the chance to speak again. Today, the artwork is housed in the reserves of the Mudam Luxembourg.

All is art

In 2007, the Grand Duchy and the Greater Region was the European capital of culture. This time, it was the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye who caused a stir in the press and popular culture with his work of art Cloaca. The "Wim Delvoye: Cloaca 2000 – 2007" exhibition was organised by the Casino Luxembourg in collaboration with the Mudam Luxembourg. The monograph was entirely devoted to the Cloaca project and, for the first time, brought together the eight machines created so far, as well as original drawings, 3D photographs, X-rays, models and other objects. Also, for the first time, the three Cloaca were in operation at the same time: two were active at the Casino for almost the entire duration of the exhibition and one for three days (for the Night of the Museums 2007) at the Mudam. For the artist, his machines fulfil one of mankind's dreams: to reproduce the digestive functions of the human body. For some visitors, however, the exhibit represented a nightmare.

Excrement smells. Nevertheless, in the eyes of biologists, it proved to be an interesting reproduction of our digestive system. Eight restaurateurs from Luxembourg city "fed" the machines at the Forum d'art contemporain and a supermarket supplied unsold food for the "Super Cloaca" at the Mudam Luxembourg. The artist was aware that the public would not find this practice "politically correct", but he was in fact toying with these emotions.

Cloaca produces "excrement" and the artist sells "excrement" (vacuum-packed as a product with artistic value). Artistically, this concept is not new. Piero Manzoni had sold tins of "Merda d'artista" in 1961, but the message remains the same today: we live in a consumer society where you can sell anything at any price, even "excrement". 

Wim Delvoye is an entrepreneurial artist with a fervent commercial sense. But he also has a taste for the absurd and mockery in the tradition of Belgian surrealist artists. While its critics argue that it is in bad taste, enthusiasts see it as a celebration of humour and art.

Wim Delvoye, "Cloaca New & Improved", 2001
© Casino Luxembourg, Wim Van Egmond

This is not a provocation

On 29 October 2014 (Ascension Day) the French-Luxembourgish-Italian artist Deborah de Robertis exposed her genitals in front of Gustave Courbet's painting "The Origin of the World", which is part of the collection of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. The artist was wearing a golden dress, her face was made up with golden tears and the performance was accompanied by the soundtrack of Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" and her recorded voice. A handful of visitors clapped, but in general the performance caused a mixture of panic and excitement, and even led to a confrontation with the police. Despite spending a few hours in custody and receiving a caution, Deborah de Robertis was soon released. As a result of this performance, she became an overnight celebrity, creating a buzz in the international media.

Deborah De Robertis, "Mémoire de l'Origine", 2013 - Photograph from the series in which the performance "Miroir de l'Origine" is included
© Deborah De Robertis

Editor's note: the photo above does not represent the work that caused a scandal at the Musée d'Orsay. It has also been edited.

For the artist, it was not a question of provocation, but of redirecting attention. By exposing her genitalia, she also wanted to confront the viewer with his gaze. Through this work she aimed to question the position of women as models in the history of the arts, the naked female body as an active subject rather than an object of the male gaze, and the position that an artist can freely take. At present, sex is everywhere and easily accessible to everyone via the internet, but when you move it into the world of art, the rationale changes. For Deborah de Robertis, nudity is a form of protest and a tool for critical reflection, which challenges the systems of patriarchy in the artistic world.

The artist continues to showcase her performance art and political artwork. She lives in Paris, Brussels and Luxembourg. The work entitled "Miroir de l'origine", can also be seen in the exhibition "Lacan, l'exposition. Quand l'art rencontre la psychanalyse" until 27 May 2024 at the Centre Pompidou-Metz