Expensive experience

November 17, 2019

10,000 years of luxury exhibits the luxury and function of cultural artefacts through human history and geography

Fallen Tree by Valerie Matraverne and Benjamin Graindorge.

“Art outlasts individual whims, family pride, society’s orthodoxy: art always has time on its side.”

Julian Barnes

The notion of ‘luxury’ varies from society to society. One recognises the complex contexts which emulate the idea, while walking through the exhibition 10,000 years of luxury, at The Louvre, Abu Dhabi. Curated by Olivier Gabet in collaboration with Cloe Pitiot, it is the biggest curated show at the museum, with approximately 350 exhibits on view.

Tactfully divided by altering notions of luxury products and their functions, the display comprises pieces from around the world. It begins with the oldest pearl in the world, dating back to c. 5,800-5,600 BCE, from the Marawah Island, Abu Dhabi in 2017.

The exhibition depicts mankind’s association with luxurious items for religious, royal and domestic consumption. Communicating how humanity has been fascinated by these objects of desire, beyond their basic utility — call it exquisiteness, decoration, art, fashion or all of the above. One of the pioneers of advertising, Earnest Elmo Calkins, once said, “Goods fall into two classes; those we use, such as motor cars and safety razors, those we use up like toothpaste, soda or biscuits.” We spend our lives purchasing things to consume them, but there are things which consume us. We spend time, effort and cash in the acquisition of goods we carefully keep yet eventually must leave behind. The items in the exhibition on the other hand are like art whose lifespan outruns mortal human beings.

Looking at the Funerary Jewellery found in Syria, 1600-1185 BCE, or the Cosmetic Spoons from late 18th or 19th century Egypt, one can only wonder at the maker’s mastery, material’s value and object’s beauty. On display are Roman cameos, Greek rings, African earrings, Near Eastern necklaces and bracelets, Middle Eastern vases, and utensils from China and Pre-Colombian America — evidence of the times and spaces, where the concept of luxury flourished.

The exhibition broadens the definition of luxury as it places objects under general labels — From miniscule to monumental, Luxury at table, Luxury at court, and The far reaches of luxury. The last one highlights how the Far East associated with luxury from the West. Interestingly, its title has multiple modes of interpretations for the trading of cultural artefacts, rather than a strictly European subtext.

In that sense Abu Dhabi, or for that matter the Gulf States, are the future layout of the planet, in which location is not confined to territory.

The Louvre in Abu Dhabi is an apt example of a liberating location. It is a French museum situated in the UAE, that aims to dismantle the division of artefacts by regions of power — imperial, colonial or consumptive — given how their regular display is curated, with objects from various parts of the world grouped together, signifying a singular idea.

Similarly, the layout of 10,000 Years of Luxury communicates the transition of societies from comfort to pleasure, consumerism to fashion, possessive to exhibitionistic desires. The exuberance, elegance and expensive taste of these objects show how, while made for consumption, they express the higher tastes of a community. Here power, religion and politics converge through art.

When one gazes upon the large-scale tapestries for the court, Le Festin (The Banquet) from Brussels and the porcelain vase from Qing Dynasty China (1644–1922); they discover the common desire and drive for executing a piece of reverence, beauty, and utility. It often dispenses with its original meaning and purpose, and survives as an experience — to take the viewer into another realm.

Medieval European cathedrals, African ceremonial masks or Arabic calligraphy of sacred Muslim texts — art has been tasked with transporting the viewer in another realm. In modern times, two other forms of human expression have also joined the ranks — tourism and fashion. Both promise an ideal, eternal setting for anyone who can afford the ticket for a cruise that sails to exotic lands; or purchasing a dress which elevates the consumer to a higher status.

The exhibition illustrates this aspect through a poster of C.G. Transatlantique’s liner Normandie (1935), and by introducing dresses, right from c. 1785-90 to Hermes (autumn 2014); with riding hat, saddle, and boots, made with cockerel feathers along with hide and leather — documenting the expectations of chic in the premodern, modern, and contemporary cultures.

The show connects mainstream fashion to the customs and costumes from different regions, by juxtaposing a designer’s products next to pieces such as ‘Man’s Headdress’ from Paraguay (20th century) made with feathers, jaguar skin, hair and plant fibre.

The exhibition culminates at a stage where boundaries between art and industry, high and low, utility and decoration, modern and ancient, as well as regions blur.

Perfume Dispenser from Qing Dynasty.

This happens to the point where the distinction between culture and nature is questioned. As through the Fallen Tree, “a collaboration between Valerie Matraverne, founder of YMER&MALTA studio, and designer Benjamin Graindorge exploring the relationship between humans and nature”. The work suggests an ideal equilibrium between human beings and their environment, as luxury exists not only as artefacts collected through different phases of human civilisation, but to also keep that civilisation functional indefinitely. Particularly with the realisation that real luxury is not ownership of an object, rather, its expectation, experience and exposure.

Luxury in this sense is not different from fashion, which according to Georg Simmel, “never just is. It exists in a permanent state of becoming”.

Having watched 10,000 Years of Luxury, wonderfully housed at The Louvre in Abu Dhabi, one wonders what lies in store for the next 10,000 years. Maybe, our words on luxury will be showcased as being luxurious in themselves.

The exhibition is on from October 30, 2019 till February 18, 2020.

The author is an art critic based in Lahore

Abu Dhabi art exhibit accentuates notion of luxury