A Persisting Anachronism
Luxus: A Collabaration by Victor Sloan and Glenn Patterson - Millennium Court Arts Centre 2007
Review by Colin Graham
Luxus, Latin for luxury, is also the name of a bar in Berlin. Victor Sloan's collaboration with Glenn Patterson celebrates the recalcitrant ironies of Luxus, and its owner's refusal to blow with the prevailing winds of change in Germany. Before the fall of the Berlin wall Luxus was a subcultural refuge in the GDR. After reunification Luxus has remained the same dowdy, unreconstituted remnant of a butcher's shop, while all around it 'luxury' has sprung up in the form of new apartment living.
Sloan is, of course, well-known for his signature method of marking, scoring and altering his negatives and prints, and for his Northern Irish subject matter, which he treats with a mixture of tenderness and anger. In the Luxus exhibition it is refreshing and exciting to see him transfer and alter his modes of working into digital photography. In some of the images the markings that were once Sloan's are now subtly reflected in evidence which time leaves on materials; for example, the (enhanced) cracking in the veneer on a wall tile. The large size of the images means that their pixilation is visible and grainy, creating a surface to the photograph which is akin to effects Sloan previously achieved manually. Another characteristic of Sloan's work, a combination of light sources as focal points and an off-centring of these focal points, is similarly repeated and transformed, eerily enhanced, and in some images, such as Untitled V, placed on the uppermost edge of the frame. The effects here are not just technical - they lead the viewer towards an understanding of a nostalgia and a defiance embodied in the subject matter, an attitude which is also out of kilter and off-centre.
Given the remit of this exhibition and collaboration (the venture was commissioned under the title 'Interrogating Contested Spaces in Post-Conflict Society') it's a relief that the images refuse to fall back easily on the obvious analogy linking Germany with Northern Ireland before and during the Peace Process. Glenn Patterson's prose in the book which accompanies and expands on the exhibited photographs is, to begin with, elliptical and then direct in its comparison of post-Cold War Berlin with post-ceasefire Belfast (and Portadown), but by the end Patterson, like Sloan, politely but firmly delineates the problems with the comparison. Sloan's images, taken in the sequence in which they are exhibited and appear in the book, move even further away from any anchoring in the paralleling of the two 'Contested Spaces'. The interiors (those of the inside of the bar) play on visual reminders of the bar's history as a butcher's shop and so create a mystery that is full of a menacing violence. Luxus begins, then, with allusions to something murderous, to a society which has been deracinated and depraved, and yet the cumulative effect will be to praise the persistence of Luxus.
The second part of the exhibition is titled Luxury, and this series of images takes the same creepy deathliness outside into the areas around Luxus. It's apparent that these buildings have been gentrified, yuppified, and re-zoned, while Luxus resists such transformation. Though quite what it represents is harder to say. These outdoor images purport to show the 'regeneration' of this part of Berlin. Their cleverness is that they at once show this and (by repeating the colour pallete from the first half of the show in the midst of predominant darkness) allow the atmosphere of the bar to spill out into the street, so that the 'new' is dependent on, and repeats, the dowdiness of the old without knowing it.
Luxus, the exhibition, is unsettling, and its conception as a show is beautifully poised. It seems to celebrate the bar's eccentricity as political statement. Yet, whether intentionally or otherwise, the scrutiny of Luxus which takes place in Sloan's images cannot but question the studiedness of the careless minimalism of the bar. By the end of the exhibition, when there is a cumulative critique of bourgeoisification, this questioning unsteadies the authenticity of Luxus as a truly anarchic, anti-establishment establishment. Which is not to doubt the sincerity of the owner's ethos for the bar. Rather Luxus, the collaborative art project, hinges on convincing us that Luxus the bar is important for its endearing and radical lack of any ethos, its continuing anachronism. Patterson's pithy final comment is: 'The opposite of all that went before is not this.' Sloan and Patterson want Luxus to work as something more than an analogy. They understand it as both a nostalgic past and a forgotten future. Luxus was a place of dissent in a 'contested space'. Berlin, like Northern Ireland, has become a 'post-conflict society' and what this really means is that the processes of economic globalisation have filled both societies rapidly and with rootless vulgarity. Criticism of that new post-conflict society often looks like a guilty longing for the past shrouded in an equally guilty disdain for the more prosperous but ideologically empty present. Luxus, as a kind of event in Berlin, may well be an admirable alternative to the dreadfully meaningless present of conflictless living. And this is certainly what attracts Sloan's eye. His decision to intervene in the images more gently than has been characteristic of his work suggests that he finds that the subject matter is partly able to do this work of commentary for him. But, nevertheless, the images are doctored slightly, and the viewer is directed as to what to see and how to see it. And what we are shown is a kind of natural anarchy. The tension between wanting, even needing, Luxus to exist without interference and wanting to record in an effective way parallels the tension between compromised nostalgia and not quite knowing how to complain about the agreed present of a 'post-conflict' society. It is this that is the real analogy at work in the Luxus exhibition, and what makes its words and images so compelling.