Best of 2013 – LUXUS Magazine at Wrocław Contemporary Museum

As we continue our look back over the year, today’s Best of 2013 selection comes from Ashley Stull, who writes, “I’ve never been to Poland. I’ve thus far remained shielded from the weight of Communist regimes; and my best protest to date has been limiting my mother on my portion of cauliflower. Succeeding where I have failed, Michal Wisniowski visited the Wrocław Contemporary Museum and left with a review of a political-ephemera lover’s dream. Luxus has leveraged a rich, tumultuous history. Among their achievements is amassing an archive that seems the ideological best of art born of resistance. Particularly for those minded toward the connection between aesthetics and politics, Luxus was generous with moments of both chaos and virtue. Collective activity against perceived state and institutional failures has long been captivating. I can’t yet say my projects have occasioned the use of an air-raid bunker—though I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the future. For now, Wisniowski’s introducing us to cheeky Luxus mantra “tu wolno kochać się” (making love allowed here) will serve as lingering image of romantic interventionist tactics.” This article was written by Michal Wisniowski and originally published on August 6, 2013.

The art scene in Wrocław, Poland, seems especially taken with collectives at the moment. While the Awangarda Gallery recently brought in work by Russian group Chto Delat, this city has its own rich history of collectives tied heavily to tumultuous sociopolitical events of the past. The groups Orange Alternative and LUXUS developed concurrently out of the revolutionary 1980s—spurred on by student protests and the Solidarity resistance movement—with a mutual understanding that developed into a loose affiliation.

LUXUS. Tu Wolno Kochać Się, 2013; mixed media, LUXUS Magazine; Photo: Michal Wisniowski.

LUXUS. Tu Wolno Kochać Się, 2013; mixed media, LUXUS Magazine; Photo: Michal Wisniowski

Encoding actual protest actions, the Orange Alternative sought to turn resistance into a symbolic narrative and thereby circumvent the communist regime’s policing and military countermeasures. It confronted the political situation head on, and in this way, it differentiates itself from LUXUS. The latter continues to virtualize a kind of reactionary reality against the failures of the state and of ideology and against the avant-garde. It operated in opposition to existing art movements such as Conceptualism and Abstract Expressionism—somewhat belated arrivals to the Eastern Bloc perhaps—but also became an early vehicle of capitalist critique in a place where capitalist activity was still limited.

LUXUS. Hydro-electric Installation, 2013; mixed media, LUXUS Magazine; Photo: Michal Wisniowski.

Jerzy Kosałka. Instalacja wodno-elektryczna (Hydro-electric Installation), 1993; Photo: Michal Wisniowski

Under the weight of its historical context, the LUXUS collective is currently involved in a multipart exhibition inside a massive air-raid bunker. The towering concrete cylinder is now home, albeit temporarily, to the Wrocław Contemporary Museum and is the site of a collection of LUXUS artifacts. The LUXUS Magazine exhibition serves as an archive housed inside the safety of the museum and is poised for some potential, not-so-theoretical future crisis.

LUXUS artists have risen out of a Western fantasy of wealth to use whatever is available. With a significant focus on the temporary and provisional, they create crudely printed posters, street art, found object sculptures, and installations. They appropriate commercial productions and generate performances. The reality of having operated under the state’s watchful eye imparts a need for the ephemeral and a readiness to be unmade, broken down, and withdrawn. These aesthetics are particularly evident in the low-brow posters that line the curved bunker walls, an installation of crude cardboard buildings, and the spacial intervention that reads “tu wolno kochać się” (making love allowed here). Even souvenirs in the form of printed matchboxes are available for the taking, a reference to the Solidarity’s strategy of disseminating information in similarly altered matchboxes.

LUXUS. untitled matchboxes, n.d.; mixed media, LUXUS Magazine; Photo: Michal Wisniowski.

Bożena Grzyb-Jarodzka. Cancer, Szablon, (Edycja na Zapałkach) (Stencil, Matchbox Edition), 2013; mixed media; Photo: Michal Wisniowski

Meanwhile, LUXUS artists Bożena Grzyb-Jarodzka and Ewa Ciepielewska’s highly saturated and vivid paintings blend pop-culture idols and spiritual icons into a kind of inebriated haze. The use of color in these works serves as evidence of an indulgence in various substances,  a LUXUS tradition and an open secret, but it also speaks to the delirium of capitalist production. Such chromatic echoes continue in A Cat with a Stupid Facial Expression—a key visual element in the group’s identity. Based on a mass-produced cat toy, the image is repeated ad nauseum in various iterations. Its repetition reiterates a societal inundation with kitsch and conflates the Polish fascination with icons of both capitalist and religious origin.

LUXUS. 2013; installation view, LUXUS Magazine; Photo: Michal Wisniowski.

LUXUS. 2013; installation view, LUXUS Magazine; Photo: Michal Wisniowski

The whole experience of walking through this museum bunker and the LUXUS Magazine exhibition gave me a sentiment of futility. Bamboo frameworks and manufactured detritus encroach upon the stairways and passages, making for a claustrophobic environment. Simultaneously, artist Patrycja Mastej’s installation on the second floor covers the walls in a panorama of the surrounding neighborhood and is littered with cutouts of presumed luxury goods. Titled Szczepin in the Icing of Luxus (2013), Mastej’s piece—made interactive by allowing participants to reconfigure the cutouts—reinforced the sense of futility I felt in light of these masses of kitsch.

Patrycja Mastej, Szczepin in the Icing of Luxus, 2013 (detail); mixed media. Photo: Michal Wisniowski

Patrycja Mastej, Szczepin in the Icing of Luxus, 2013 (detail); mixed media. Photo: Michal Wisniowski

An unspecified member of LUXUS is quoted in the museum’s guide saying, “We create independently a world for ourselves, a world where we would like to live; our own magazines, our own music and films.” Insofar as such creation maintains a level of critical self-awareness, it exists as social practice. But what happens if the line between practice and reinforcement becomes blurry? Such modes of production may have been more radical in the past, but are these modes of artistic production still distinguishable from present commercial production? LUXUS takes mass-produced goods and their conventions into a realm that is nauseatingly effective. Kitsch is transformed and regurgitated into hyper-kitsch.

Patrycja Mastej, Szczepin in the Icing of Luxus, 2013 (detail); mixed media. Photo: Michal Wisniowski

Jerzy Kosałka. Dama bez łasiczki (Lady Without an Ermine), 2004; mixed media. Photo: Michal Wisniowski

One room houses a dimly lit banquet table littered with fantastical concoctions from end to end. The everyday is contorted into the grotesque, and an opulent, synthetic feast is born. Everything is glazed, sticky, and toxic. At the end of the room hangs a simulation of Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Lady with an Ermine (1489–90), but the creature has escaped the confines of its canvas. Perched upon the painting’s frame, it sits in a moment of terminal irony, a specimen of bad taxidermy.