Geographer-essayist Rebecca Solnit once observed that “the world seems to be made more and more of stuff we’re not supposed to look at… These spaces tend to be grey, the grey of unpainted cement, asphalt, steel and accumulated grime; and they tend to be either abandoned or frequented by people who are also discards, a kind of subterranean realm hauled to the surface.” Her immediate subject was Los Angeles, but her comments apply equally well to the city spaces that provide the content for the photographs of Rut Blees Luxemburg. Urban areas, that is, in which chain-link fences and stairwells, gutters, tower blocks, underpasses and tail-lights form typical iconographical components.
Commonsensual surveys more than 10 years of her work, often eschewing a strict chronological ordering in favour of sequences and alignments suggesting new continuities and points of contact between disparate projects. Vertiginous Exhilaration – a startlingly disorienting view earthwards from the 14th floor of a tower block from 1995, for example, is succeeded by an unmistakably street-level cracked paving slab and puddle from 2007. A chapter entitled Memory Wall Paper assembles a group of wall surfaces – painted, graffiti’d, cracked, peeling – in diverse locations photographed over an eight-year period.
The remarkable consistency of Luxemburg’s interests facilitates – invites even – a retrospective remixing of her output. The cityscapes are always photographed under the same conditions: at night using available light and correspondingly long exposures (of up to 20 minutes). Under these circumstances individuals, traffic and human nightlife are usually absent. A further degree of unity is conferred by the pale amber washes that cover many of her subjects: throughout the collection the high contrasts and unearthly pallor of sodium street lighting illuminate the unpeopled compositions of concrete, tarmac, water and brick. The street lights are on, but nobody’s home.
There is coherence too in the places and spaces to which she returns. She is drawn to the city’s nondescript transitional crannies: anonymous corners where commerce, retail and the “sights” wither, to be supplanted by empty playgrounds and deserted multi-storeys. Luxemburg’s preferred means of reconnaissance is the random night-time walk: “I wander, but I go to places that are attractive to me.” But her meanderings are a markedly different way of experiencing the city from those of, say, the Baudelairian flâneur. She has no use for sites of public display, gratification and consumption, and would perhaps agree with another 19th century urban wanderer, Victor Hugo, when he wrote, “To wander in a kind of reverie, to take a stroll as they call it, is a good way for a philosopher to spend his time; particularly in that kind of bastard countryside, somewhat ugly but bizarre, made up of two different natures, which surrounds certain great cities.”
A more recent precursor to her project, again in search of the city’s “different natures”, is the dérive – the unguided journeying through what Guy Debord described as the “eclectic melange of… decayed elements which cover the most industrially advanced zones.” Luxemburg too seeks out the unexpected juxtapositioning of the incongruous: in The Retreat a “wild” rocky outcrop acts as a foil to the sleek modernist architecture beyond; in Faust 2, the classical robes and coiled serpent of a statue contrast with high-rise flats; and in Corporate Leisure, a caged and floodlit rooftop tennis court is bordered by its nemesis – in the form of office blocks – the workplace.
“I want to suggest possibility,” Luxemburg has said, “to allow desire to enter the overlooked spaces of the city. Participation is possible in these areas… they are not controlled places, they could be so much more; sites for other things to happen. I walk the city at night, looking for the places where these contradictions are clear.” Commonsensual is the fullest survey of Luxemburg’s photography and, as such, her most complete and compelling account of those contradictions.