To hold an exhibition about luxury in an age of austerity could be interpreted as either radically defiant or blissfully naive. The V&A’s new exhibition ‘What is Luxury?’ seems unsure of which path to go down. There’s something strangely clandestine about the duo of small, dark rooms tightly packed with 100 alluring objects of contemporary and historical design; a bit like the exclusive sample sales that take place in hotel rooms. Staged in collaboration with the Crafts Council, the exhibition comes with a dash of cultural theory that suggests academic rigour. But overall the experience feels a lot like glorified window-shopping.
The curators must have known they were in for a bit of stick. Luxury has long been blamed for the ills of civilisation: Diogenes preached from a barrel in the marketplace; Rousseau railed against the spendthrift bourgeoisie. The have – wisely – chosen to steer clear of historical critique, splitting the show into material and conceptual manifestations of luxury. While the first room allows us to lavish our attention on handmade horology and haute-couture, the second questions our perception of value, presenting a series of films, installations and fictional scenarios which play upon the new luxuries of today: time and space.
‘Uber-luxury’ likes to think of itself as being beyond branding – the recognition of a suit by Carol Christian Poell or a briefcase by Studio Ruuger is a mark of your own good taste. Nevertheless, it seems the language of brand is the best way to explain luxury to the layman, and we are quickly equipped with a breathless accumulation of buzzwords, emblazoned across each display cabinet. ‘Innovation’ is a Hermès saddle and a Joris Larmaan bone chaise; ‘Extraordinary’ is a chandelier crafted from dandelion clocks and some alarmingly phallic looking glass jellyfish. The word ‘Passion’ has long been sapped of meaning in the commercial sphere – here it’s resurrected to describe a headpiece made from ‘golden fleece’. Tactfully translated into curatorial Newspeak, ‘Uselessness’ has become ‘Non-Essential’: a perfectly good folding chair has been customised to become pointlessly complex, its mechanisms exposed through a series of springs and counterweights. Everything is arranged around a monumental hourglass-inspired installation created for the Viennese glassware company Lobmeyr.
The second room is more ‘meta’. In it, you’ll find a diamond created from carbonised roadkill (complete with certificate); a deco-style dressing table with combs crafted from human hair; and a whimsical travel kit to help you lose track in a world mapped by GPS. Here the centrepiece is a bizarre contraption by Studio Caviar – a real-time publishing platform which, if you enter your postcode into Twitter, will create a custom-made art book featuring images from the classified ads in your area. Flash photography of stained sofas and cut-price kettles are about as far away from luxury as you can get. But the booklet is bespoke, and that’s what matters.
Finishing with a batty stop motion film, the exhibition knows how to send itself up. However, one crucial component of luxury is notably missing: any sense of price. The only exception is the ‘Tea Cup Connoisseurs Set’, £50 in the V&A shop and inexplicably included in the exhibition (buzzword: ‘Pleasure’). When I followed the principle of ‘price on request’, the gallery attendants looked appalled – it was a bit like walking into Dior with Parisian dog shit on your shoes. Then again, perhaps I deserved it. After all, I’d committed the cardinal sin of confusing art with money. Who would do that?
‘What is Luxury?’ is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 27 September.
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‘She changed how we encounter sculpture’ – remembering Phyllida Barlow (1944–2023)