An intimate snapshot of Luxembourg, DELANO

October 30, 2019

An intimate snapshot of Luxembourg

Luxembourg is home to over 613,000 residents and a place of work for over 450,000 people. But this population rarely has a chance to speak its mind frankly, until now.

“Maps are often a top down effort,” Dutch graphic designer Annelys Devet explains. It was from this starting point that in 2003 she devised the first Subjective Atlas. Through a collaborative effort, which she has since fine-tuned, Devet found a way to create an atlas that weaves in the “voices of the ciitzens and bottom-up perspectives of where they are from.”

Over the intervening 15 years she has transposed this fascinating participatory project to twelve locations. The latest is Luxembourg, whose own atlas was launched on Sunday by Subjective Editions in association with Casino. The book, work on which began in August 2018,  is “not a blue print, the atlas tries to capture the reality at this moment,” says Devet.

Across 191 pages of photos, charts, drawings and text by artists and other contributors, it presents humorous, charming and sometimes sombre snapshots which, when combined, offer a glimpse of the “real” Luxembourg as seen by the people who live and work there.

For Casino, which hosted some of the first workshops around a purpose-built, 15-metre table, the book was an opportunity to “bring together everything that we do,” says cultural programme chief Véronique Kesseler.

Her own contribution was a series of photos of the Verwurelter pastries sold in Luxembourg, a nod to her grandmother’s baking and “the only good thing about carnival time”.

“I think I love all of the contributions because every time I look at them I also see the people who did them.” She shows me two pages of photos of smiling cyclists, “a very dangerous thing to do in Luxembourg at the moment,”  pages which follow photos of cycle lanes blocked by roadworks. “It’s also very humourous, that’s true,” Kesseler laughs.

The “Subjective Atlas of Luxembourg” was launched on 27 October 2019. Photo: Delano

Then there are the street signs, written once in French and in German or Luxembourgish, which often have little bearing on one another. “For example, rue de Prague is Berlinerwee in Luxembourg, that’s two different capitals! Nobody understands it but it’s something that we know somehow but nobody notices anymore.”

With 47% of its population from abroad, the over 100 people who contributed had diverse origins: only 40% said they were born in Luxembourg. Kesseler observed the foreign population tended to have a more positive image of the country while Luxembourgers were generally more critical.

“Nobody felt relaxed by being rich”

Devet, meanwhile, was struck by how often she heard contributors talk about the paradox of living in one of the richest countries in Europe and the pressure on family and work that come with living in such an expensive country, like high rents and traffic. “Nobody felt relaxed by being rich,” Devet says.

The project came at an interesting time, as Luxembourg is in the middle of a period of mass growth. For Kesseler, this transitory phase made it an ideal time to create a snapshot like the Subjective Atlas. “It would be really interesting to do the same exercise again in a few years,” she says.

At the same time, the timing came hot on the heels of a State-led nation branding project, the result of which was not favourably viewed by some contributors. “It was too simple for them. It represents something very complex and diverse,” Kesseler says.

The dangers of reductionism are echoed in the refreshing introduction by journalist Anne Schaaf, who makes the link between the rise of populism and our need for easy answers.

The “Subjective Atlas of Luxembourg” sets out to fill in some of the gaps, expressing experiences and ideas of identity right down to a sensory level, as best depicted in Lucie Majerus’ cover photo showing the colour and smells of Luxembourg.

What is more, contributions like Vito Labalestra’s photographic record of the view from a popular Luxembourg bar, demonstrate artfully that national identity, like the country, is always changing. Schaaf sums it up nicely in her introduction: “That [pluralistic] identity resembles a kaleidoscope in which particles of colour and shape are constantly shifting-especially in an agitated ocean like ours.”

The “Subjective Atlas of Luxembourg” is on sale at Casino, Alinea and Ernster bookstores for €19.50.