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What is Luxury? Victoria & Albert Museum interrogates and expands understandings of luxury
Installation view of 'What is Luxury?'. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

LONDON.- What is Luxury? aims to interrogate and expand understandings of luxury by presenting exceptional examples of contemporary design and craftsmanship alongside conceptual projects which interrogate fundamental ideas of luxury, its production and future. From a diamond made from roadkill to a vending machine stocked with DNA, a golden crown for ecclesiastical use to traditional military tailoring, over 100 objects address how luxury is made and understood in a physical, conceptual and cultural capacity.

The opening section of the exhibition considers objects defined as luxurious by the excellence of their design and craftsmanship. On display are objects which celebrate the investment of time and application of skill in the process of making, including the Space Travellers’ Watch, an entirely handcrafted mechanical timepiece by renowned British watchmaker George Daniels, a laser-cut haute couture dress by fashion designer Iris van Herpen, a chandelier by Studio Drift featuring real dandelion seeds applied by hand to LED lights, a Hermès Talaris saddle which combines traditional leather craftsmanship with a technologically innovative structure, and the Bubble Bath necklace by Nora Fok, made from more than 1000 hand-knitted nylon bubbles. Time Elapsed, a large spirograph designed by Philippe Malouin for glassware company Lobmeyr which rotates to draw patterns made of sand, comments on the time-intensive process of making fine crystal and acts as a centrepiece.

Seemingly disparate objects are juxtaposed and presented alongside terminology associated with luxury in order to focus on specific aspects of its many possible interpretations. Bowls by the artist Chung Hae-Cho created entirely through building up multiple layers of lacquer are placed alongside a menswear ensemble by designer Carol Christian Poell, known for his devotion to critically examining and perfecting techniques of tailoring. The grouping demonstrates how a high level of expertise is refined and investigated in making exquisitely finished objects.

What is Luxury? also considers time and space as fundamental aspects constituting luxury, especially within a 21st-century urban context. Works including Time for Yourself, a playful toolkit for misdirection which features a watch with no dial and a compass which spins to random coordinates, invite visitors to contemplate the idea of getting lost and their relationship to the luxuries of space and time.

The exhibition speculates about the future of luxury by presenting a range of design and art projects which interrogate relationships between luxury, value and materials. Hair Highway by Studio Swine sets human hair in resin to create highly decorative pieces of furniture and accessories. The rich surfaces of the objects on display are reminiscent of valuable but limited luxury materials such as tortoiseshell, horn and exotic wood, but are made of one of the few natural resources which increases along with the world’s population. Aram Mooradian’s A Comprehensive Atlas of Gold Fictions re-examines our relationship with gold, a finite luxury material. Everyday objects made from gold mined in Australia, including a headphone jack and a pendant, are engraved with personal local histories to encode them with a new cultural value. Also on display are a set of vessels by Unknown Fields Division made from toxic mud collected on a recent expedition to the Rare Earth Elements’ mines in Inner Mongolia.

What is Luxury? provokes thinking and debate through fictional scenarios that consider issues like privacy, resources and access that could determine future ideas of luxury. American artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo’s DNA Vending Machine contains pre-packaged DNA samples and invites visitors to consider our increasing access to biotechnology and how privacy and ownership of one’s own DNA may become a luxury in the future. In the installation The Boltham Legacy, artist Henrik Nieratschker tells the fictional story of a British billionaire who sends altered bacteria into space in an attempt to find valuable metals on distant planets. The piece speculates about the luxury of having exclusive access to resources.

Through the movement from more traditional explanations of luxury to conceptual projects, What is Luxury? aims to take visitors on a journey and prompt them to consider what luxury means and how it relates to their own lives. Visiting research fellow Leanne Wierzba, co-curator of the exhibition, says, ‘What is Luxury? will reveal the stories and craftsmanship behind the exquisite and intriguing objects on display and demonstrate the precision, time and application of skills invested to produce them.’ V&A curator of Contemporary Furniture Jana Scholze and co-curator of What is Luxury?, adds, ‘As its title suggests, the exhibition questions the very idea of luxury today. It challenges common interpretations of luxury, invites close examination of luxury production and extends ideas of what luxury can be. Essentially, the question of luxury is a personal one.’

Rosy Greenlees, Executive Director, Crafts Council said: “We are delighted to collaborate with the V&A on this third exhibition following Out of the Ordinary (2007) and Power of Making (2011), which both delighted audiences by offering new perspectives on craft. What is Luxury? brings together the distinctive expertise of our two institutions to explore the intricate connections between craftsmanship and luxury. Over 100 remarkable objects look beyond the widely understood perceptions of luxury involving skill, time and rarity to question what luxury means in the 21st century and in the future.”

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