The word luxury comes from the Latin word lux, meaning “light” or “brightness” – in other words BLING, right?! Not so fast. Sure most of us think right away of expensive cars and jewelry, but the term ‘luxury’ is actually not easy to define. One man’s trash is another’s treasure. What does luxury really mean in today’s global society? An upcoming exhibition of Berlin artists at the German Consulate General in New York City is exactly exploring this question. Station to Station discussed the subject with our very own, Frieda Bellmann, the curator of Luxus: A Study of Luxury from Berlin Artists.
Frieda Bellmann: I have been researching the field of luxury for the past two years, ever since I briefly worked as a designer for a well-known luxury brand. Like so many others, during that preliminary time, I only scraped the surface of what luxury really means. Even though one frequently hears the saying “Time is a luxury, “ I was blinded by how it is treated in the media or what is written about the subject in the sparsely existing literature. But I wanted to know what else luxury could be, what influences it, how does it arise and how does something achieve the position of luxury in the first place. Through my research, I wanted to explore, analyze and interpret whether luxury it is a condition, object, or something irrational; something you can not explain. Luxury is an elusive term that has many definitions. Therefore, I invited 21 artists, designers, film makers and photographers to present their take on the subject of luxury in this exhibition and to supplement my own view.
S2S: Can you elaborate a little bit on the idea that proponents of luxury see it as a key to enlightenment, as you state in your press release?
Frieda Bellmann: The luxurious can be interpreted as something that has a special glow that is visible to all, while the owner hopes something of that splendor gets transferred to himself. Any effort that goes beyond necessity can be called a luxury. Therefore, the term itself is always relative to the context. It begs the question what is a necessity, and who determines what today, tomorrow or in 30 years in Germany, America or the Third World will be regarded as necessary. Luxury is and will remain a relative, subjective, place- and time-dependent term. One man’s luxury is another’s banality.
One scenario, for example, which is characterized exclusively by immaterialism and idealism would not only destroy any materialism, but also luxury in all its facets. Luxury needs the „thrill“ and requires attributes like limitation, irrationalism and sinfulness. Everyday life can never be a luxury, because luxury is the opposite of everyday life.
Luxury will always be in need of materialism, even if simultaneously through recent developments, intangible values have gained more and more prominence. This process can and will periodically but alternately change in the future, depending on external influences that influence the development of our world. In times of abundance there will be much more of an aim towards reduction and intangible assets but in times of crisis there will be the urge for material things. Because luxury is never synonymous with wealth.
S2S: As you already implied, time has become more precious. We live in a world where most of us feel the pressure to have to represent ourselves via social media, otherwise we might as well not exist. Not having to constantly be connected seems to be a real luxury. And in fact, there are those who have to write their twitter feeds themselves and others who can hire somebody to do it for them. Is time as a luxury item also addressed in the exhibition?
Frieda Bellmann: Many people in our technological world seek rest and free time. They want inward deceleration and the feeling of “regained consciousness.” In my research, many of the people I interviewed who experience this force of technology and media overload, described their luxury as spending time in nature or reading an „analog“ book again.
One of the art pieces included in the exhibition, for example, consist of four watches, one, a pocket-watch addresses exactly this problem. It costs “time” right away because it takes effort to operate it. A pocket watch requires ease and leisure to thread it from one’s pocket. It also becomes a symbol of a world from which we are far removed – a world without car navigation and apps, where the men smoke cigars together in their old gentlemen´s rooms. The pocket watch is combined with one of the most inaccurate displays of time – namely an hourglass. The hourglass is running about 20 seconds through the clock and gives the wearer a short moment of luxury in which he can breathe deeply and retreat back to the „old“ analog world.
S2S: By what criteria did you select the artists in the exhibition? And how besides your previous example do some of the artists, designers, filmmakers, and sound designers in the show deal with the subject?
Frieda Bellmann: The exhibition shows a “journey to luxury,” which I have trodden in my own luxury research. According to these criteria of finding my own luxury definition I have also selected the artists. Visitors starts at a station in the exhibition where they are asked to grapple with different definitions of luxury and to question their own assumptions. They will then see art works which deal with the topic of materialism and status symbols, such as a bag which was made from a mink stuffed animal, as if it is real fur. That is probably the closest to what most people think of when asked about luxury.
This is followed by an exploration of the themes ” wealth and poverty.” What does this really mean? Where lies the line between them? And is luxury actually really not necessarily tied to wealth? Two other works deal with the topic of religion and ideals. A gold-plated lamb, which hides under a pink balaclava and reveals a parallelism with the golden calf in the Bible. At this point the issue seems to keep running in a different direction and shows a strong irrationality of luxury. It is followed by a study of materials, such as high-gloss black circles, which look like expensive jewelry, but in fact are artfully crafted using an ordinary hot glue gun. Two other works confront immaterialism and values by demonstrating that even basic needs like freedom or sensory perception can mean a luxury in areas of conflict or for people with physical limitations. The finale consists of two works of art which shall inspire the visitor to a final definition, pointing out that it is up to each of us to find our own meaning.
S2S: Considering that the city of Berlin is deeply in debt and Berlin’s mayor famously stated that Berlin is poor but sexy, do you think luxury in Berlin is as conspicuous as in New York?
Frieda Bellmann: The Germans generally have a different sense of luxury than the Americans, especially in cities such as Berlin where it’s considered gauche to show off wealth. Unlike many Americans who love to present all they have to the outside, many Germans like to show understatement, even if they have money. Shabby Chic, furnace heating and flea market furniture not by necessity, not because they can not afford better but because it is the current trend.
S2S: Some of the artists who are shown in the exhibition will be present in New York. Who will be here? Have they all been to New York City before?
Frieda Bellmann: Twelve artists will travel personally to New York, about half of them have spent some time in the city before. They will be present at the exhibition open to answer questions and get into interesting discussions on luxury. Some of the artists have also been presented at Art Basel Miami and Preview Berlin Art Fair this year.
S2S: Since the exhibition is about luxury and held at the German Consulate, can we expect champagne and caviar at the opening versus the ubiquitous beer and pretzel?
Frieda Bellmann: Unfortunately, we have to be satisfied with ordinary drinks. True to the Berlin motto: Poor but sexy! And those who can not do without caviar and champagne have to bring it themselves.
S2S: What for you personally is one luxury that you would like to be able to afford?
Frieda Bellmann: For me personally, luxury is mostly something that is perceived as special or rare. Generally ‘luxury’ is located between desire and fulfillment. I might desire a precious object or wish I had time for an activity I think I do not have time for. I’ll take a nice stroll in the park or even settle for a fast, expensive car ;-)…
LUXUS: A Study of Luxury from Berlin Artists curated by Frieda Bellmann