Interview: A shot in the dark

Susanne Kippenberger
Tuesday 09 December 1997 00:02

Rut Blees Luxemburg finds beauty in the most mundane corners of the urban landscape - car parks, council blocks, roadsides - and takes pictures of them. Susanne Kippenberger meets a German in love with London.

What a drag. You miss your train, get stuck on the next one, have to change lines, go up and down crowded escalators and through tunnels that never seem to end. People are rushing and pushing - you are half an hour late. Then you arrive at Liverpool Station and start walking through an area that looks either too slick or too run down, along a road for what seems like miles and miles. It's dark and dirty and loud. You miss the entrance and find yourself in front of a barred house, go back to a metal door with a big slit in it that looks more like a prison door - no names on the bells, but plenty of locks on the doors. You are now an hour late and definitely sick of the city - and there you are standing in the middle of a spacey renovated loft, being offered a nice cup of tea and having your eyes opened to the strange beauty of the city.

Dressed in "good girl's" navy blue - with her straight black hair and dark eyes looking more Mediterranean than German - Rut Blees Luxemburg is calmness herself. It doesn't seem to bother her that it's only two days until the opening of her show and the launch of her book, and that the day after she has to move out of this loft where she works and lives and sleeps (if she ever sleeps, working at nights only) because, even if it doesn't look like it, the neighbourhood is up and coming and rent has trippled.

Yes, she too gets annoyed by the noise and the dirt and the traffic of the city. But, no, she has not fallen out of love with it. After growing up in the countryside along the river Mosel (where she was made Queen of wine at 17) she still has romantic feelings about the city. Having moved to London in 1990 to study photography, she remembers all too well the limitations of country life. "Your future is mapped out for you from the very beginning." The city, by contrast, is "full of endless possibilities".

The countryside, with its free view of the horizon, has also influenced her perspective. "In the city your view is usually blocked by the next building." Thus, she likes to go up to the top of buildings with her camera. "It's nothing suicidal," she hastens to add - not even with a picture appropriately called "Vertiginous Exhilaration", which was first shown at Plummet's, an exhibition space she ran with some friends for a while, in one of those high rise buildings that offers such views.

Across from a pile of wine boxes - all empty, the 29-year-old explains with a smile of regret, but hopefully her brother will soon deliver new supplies from their parents' vineyard - giant pictures are leaning against the brick wall, pictures of the city at night. Night is as much a space to her as a time; a world of its own, with rules of its own, with a mood of its own. "People don't rush around, being preoccupied with their work." Everything slows down, calms down and the city is lit up by artificial light which she likes so much.

Rut Blees Luxemburg finds beauty in the most unlikely places: in the front of a car wash, in an empty parking garage with depressingly low ceilings, on a highway, in a block of council housing, in a tennis court on the top of a building, surrounded by wire, looking like a prison lot. "Only prisoners don't get to play tennis." The court is on top of diamond dealers' company.

It's an eerie beauty that her pictures convey, such as the sculptural beauty of the shiningly golden razor wire that's so extremely vicious or the children's slide that is turned into an elegantly dangerous "Silverblade". It's this kind of ambivalence that makes the images so attractive to the viewer, being scary and seductive at the same time, full of excitement and fear. It's the ambivalence of the "Modern Project" - as the series is called - alluding to the wonderful structural quality in the work of the architects of the modernist age, to their idealistic visions - and what these have turned into. "Somehow, somewhere Utopia has gone wrong." As Michael Bracewell writes in Luxemburg's new book London - A Modern Project: "Her London is both brutal in its indifference to humanity and opaque in its architectural form"

Coming from a region where people are considered to be rather laid back, Luxemburg takes the city at her own pace: slowly. When she worked on her series "Chance Encounters" (currently on show in Berlin) she described herself as a flaneuse, a stroller in the city.

There are no quick snapshots, no clicking away. For one thing, she doesn't want to add to a general flood of pictures - she does around 20 photographs a year. It took her weeks to do a single picture for the Modern Project, walking around the streets and estates, looking for a good image, a good time to shoot, the right light, a good spot to set up her large format camera with its big plates. Most of the time she takes a friend along - not as much for security (nothing has ever happened to her) as for company. After all, this is an adventure she is going on.

Once she found the perfect spot, she waits and waits. Ten to twenty minutes exposure time give her images the heightened quality, the intensity and the emotional colours. When she takes a picture of an apartment tower, all lit up at night, she is not interested in being a voyeur peeping into other people's bedrooms. In fact you don't see any people in her city; with the long exposure, they vanish, just like the cars, transformed into light. The flashing blue line over there - that's a passing police car, Luxemburg points out. Hers is a city full of mystery and magic, of potential romance and danger.

No wonder she loves Fassbinder as much as she does, the most emotional and intense of German directors, who always gave a lot of attention to place, and whose use of colour - slightly over the top - was as close to opera as hers is. His films were full of drama and violence - as her pictures are full of potential drama. Her empty streets and parking garages look like stages without actors, waiting for the audience to project its own dreams (or nightmares).

An avid reader, her work is dramatic as much as it is epic and poetic. You have to take your time to look at the pictures, there are so many details to discover. You don't see the surveillance cameras in the front of the council towers at first glance, or the empty space along the highway - it is like reading photography. Having always worked in series rather than individual pictures, her work is almost like an ongoing narrative.

When Rut Blees Luxemburg took up photography, with a women's group, she was a political science major at Duisburg University. This was the late 80s, feminism was still around, but in a more relaxed manner than a decade before. Her first major series, "Women at Night", mounted in advertisement cases at bus stations in London, played with women's roles, portraying them as powerful figures in men's poses, with weapons in their hand. She still likes to exhibit in public spaces - her "Caliban Towers" will be shown on a giant billboard underneath a railway bridge. And her work is still political, but in a more subtle way. She wants people to see the city and take possession of it, to go out, even at night, to take risks, to meet, to talk. To make the city more humane. "Oh, God," she moans, smiling, "I hope in five years time I won"t say: how naive!"

"A Modern Project" can be seen at Laurent Delaye Gallery until 10 January. The book `London - A Modern Project' (pounds 13.95), with an essay by Michael Bracewell will be published by Black Dog Publishing this week.

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