Story, process and material unite in work by London-based Polish artist and designer Marcin Rusak, who gives consumption a creative twist.
During his studies Marcin Rusak developed an interest in consumption, which he combined with memories of his family’s former business in Warsaw. His grandfather had been the last of two generations of flower growers, and Rusak grew up among abandoned greenhouses. ‘I remember playing around in glasshouses, always experimenting.’ His childhood activities were to underpin his later focus on consumer society. ‘I think flowers are a good medium for conveying ideas about consumption,’ he says. ‘We all buy flowers, but we don’t really understand what goes on behind the scenes.’
With those thoughts in mind, Rusak embarked on a series titled Flowering Transition. For one part of it, Waste Flower Textile, he visits London’s flower markets at the crack of dawn to collect discarded blossoms for use in printing patterns on fabric. His intervention prolongs the life cycle of the flowers by several months. Like the flowers, however, Rusak’s printed impressions do not last indefinitely. Ephemerality is one of the themes in his work.
In his final year at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA), Rusak made Flowering Transition his graduation project. At the time, it consisted of Monster Flower, Perishable Vase and Fragrance. Together, they tell the story of our changing view of nature and confront us with practices related to contemporary consumption and production. He explores themes such as value, ephemerality and aesthetics and asks critical questions – of himself, of manufacturers, of clients, and of his audience. Picture a flower that satisfies all the often contradictory demands of the various branches of industry. What does is look like? What happens when genetic manipulation replaces natural evolution? Rusak asked growers, retailers, regulators and consumers to describe their ideal flower. Working together with geneticists, post-harvesting specialists, engineers and floral artists, Rusak merged the wish list into a super bloom: Monster Flower.
‘Flower engineer’ Andreas Verheijen and Rusak tried to imagine the result. What would happen if the genes of existing flowers mentioned in the respondents’ descriptions were comingled to make one new species ‘as if nature itself had done the job’? They made and printed 3D scans of the manipulations involved. ‘It was quite an elaborate process, but the reactions we got at the graduation show were positive; visitors seemed to understand what we had done.’ Monster Flower got people thinking. ‘The rose looks perfect,’ says Rusak. ‘It’s totally accessible – 24 hours a day, 12 months a year. But is it actually a representation of nature? Or is it an object we can control and manipulate to meet our own needs?’
The questions evoked are, perhaps, the most intriguing outcome of his research. Rusak sees genetic manipulation as a sign of progress. ‘We can make these amazing things – insulin, human growth hormones – and use genetic modification to get rid of diseases in potatoes, or even to switch the allergy gene in grass pollen. But to what extent are such processes within our understanding?’
Consumption is clearly addressed in the process that led to Perishable Vase. Rusak dried discarded flowers and mixed them with natural binding agents – such as wheat flour, resin (from trees), shellac (resin secreted by insects) and beeswax – to make a malleable material with which to mould the vase, which eventually disintegrates. ‘We have many objects around us that we don’t need to keep,’ he says, ‘but we keep them anyway, because of how they were made.’ On the other hand, we buy flowers, knowing fully well that they will wilt and die. The contradiction is depicted in Perishable Vase, ‘an object you might want to keep but you actually can’t, because it will perish at some point’.
Currently, Rusak is researching ageing materials and experimenting with synthetics, bacteria and natural organisms. Joint ventures remain central to his process. ‘When you immerse yourself in a collaboration and take your ego out of the project, that’s when the best things happen.’a collaboration and take your ego out of the project, that’s when the best things happen.’
Portraits Winter van den Brink