Saturday, 15 May 2010

Die Nacht Verschleiert den Geist des Ortes [1] The Photography of Rut Blees Luxemburg


The Pattern of the Plans, 2004


We need a sign,

Nothing more, something plain and simple,

To remind us of sun and moon, so inseparable,

Which go away — day and night also —


And warm each other in heaven...[2]


In The Fragment – Jumièges, Rut Blees Luxemburg frames a section of a ruined building - Jumièges Abbey - a Benedictine monastery in Normandy, France. The background of the image is black, reducing the subject’s context to a vacant hole. The stone ruin is lit with clouded blues, whites and greys; like the cold hand of an aged woman, its colour paled, its former strength relinquished; a fading symbol of experience - life given over to death.


The Fragment, Jumieges, 2008

The Idol – Portal to the Abattoir presents the entrance to an abattoir as a totemic symbol, an iconographic capturing of morbid, barbed-wire space that evokes both a sense of mild macabre and a strange aura of spirituality. This image makes clear the intense stature and materiality of concrete, whilst simultaneously using luminous colourings to ‘disclose’ the transcendental, one might say. Luxemburg embellishes her images’ colours and forms, creating a beautifully romantic vision of a decrepit nighttime world in burnt saffron, ambers, greys and blues…


The Idol, Portal to the Abbatoir, 2008

There is a grainy, other-worldly quality present in these images that surpasses the material subject of the photograph and instead meditates upon something altogether stranger. As Ludwig Tieck set out in his 1798 novel Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen (The Wanderings of Franz Sternbald) the artist must depict the appearance of God in nature; the ‘geheime ziffer’ (‘secret cypher’) concealed in every object. This so-called ‘secret cypher’, prevalent in idealist artistic and literary work from the period of Romanticism, is the artists attempt to fathom what is beyond the human world; what is beyond the possibility of empirical and material knowledge.

Like Tieck’s impression of the romantic artist, Luxemburg’s works beautifully allude to more than what they merely show; they perfectly combine the unexplainable beauty of the transcendental with the fervent romance of obscurity and decay; a kind of ‘verfallenden geheimnis’ (‘decaying secret’) – a subversive nod towards the spirit of the almighty that secretly reveals his inevitable decay (the growth of Atheism in the West).

The term ‘Transzendentalpoesie’ (transcendental poetry) was used to describe the work of, as exampled by the hymn introducing this text, such romantic German writers as Friedrich Hölderlin. Briefly, the term can be described as being a form of poetry that seeks to both ‘create poetry’, as well as reflecting on what poetry is, fundamentally speaking; it is both poetry and a ‘poetry of poetry’ (a never-ending reproductive cycle of poeticism where one can poeticise a poetry that poeticises a poetry and so on…) This of course begs the question: What is poetic? For the Romantics, specifically Schlegel, it was regarded as “A self-creation, an aesthetic invention that transforms everything it touches”. This implies a reflexivity on behalf of the writer; a way of analysing the very form of one’s written production whilst simultaneously writing it (a kind of inbuilt critique to an artist’s own practice perhaps; a way of acknowledging and justifying one’s own movements towards the act of creating).

This idea of self-reflexivity is important in Rut Blees Luxemburg’s work, and represents a self-consciousness that she displays that isn’t apparent in all contemporary art photography. Again referring back to the hymn that introduces this text: good photography should arguably have at its surface, at its first impression, the ability to give a simple ‘sign’ to something; an immediate beauty which is so striking that it could only beg questions about the underlying content of a work from a point of interest (“This is beautiful, does this image represent an idea or experience the artist had?”), not a question about form or composition from a point of criticism (“What is the relationship there between the red and the orange? They seem to fight each other somewhat, and certainly don’t do that section of the composition any favours”). It is essentially the artist’s ability to self-reflexively cover his or her back when it comes to the process or ‘craft’ of art-making; the ‘fine art’ of reasonable aesthetic judgements, if you like: the Romantic notion that an artist should posses the ability to create something undeniably and consensually beautiful based on considered and experienced decision making (whilst in the case of German Romanticism it was an attempt to relinquish the notion of mere human experience and instead give over your body and let the spiritual take hold in the act of creating: “Schließe dein leibliches Auge, damit du mit dem geistigen Auge zuerst siehst dein Bild!” (“Close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye!”))[3]


Orificity 1, 2006

This is of course an obviously conservative opinion in many regards, one that reduces aesthetic judgements to, in the case of the Romantics, the existence of god or, in the absence of any god nowadays, to the level of correct or incorrect. It is, however, an idea I believe current art-photography could do with returning to, especially within its academies, which have a tendency to complicate notions of beauty and perception in art by bombarding their students with an unnecessary onslaught of theory in accompaniment to them. The result is that there is a lot of anaesthetic work prevalent that’s existence is justified by pseudo-theory, or a weak, default position of logic that states “If I oppose a norm I’ll create something new and original, and if it ends up looking shit I’ll just quote Deleuze and hope for the best”.

Caspar David Friedrich and Phillip Otto Runge produced works that, in Richard Littlejohn’s terms, “manifest tensions between empirical reality and spiritual vision”. Art of the Romantic period was not concerned with notions of what did or did not constitute ‘good taste’; instead it was made to put forward insights into the transcendental. It was, in other words, concerned with a project beyond human fathomability, and instead sought to communicate the almighty through his painterly representation (“We will never understand the power of the lord, but we may begin to visually represent it” etc etc). As a result of this representation, this period of art production developed a recognisable aesthetic. It is not this aesthetic that lies in Luxemburg’s work exactly, but more an interesting appropriation of it. Her work can be summed up perfectly by appropriating what Littlejohn states with regard to Wackenroder and Tieck’s 1797 comparison of great art to hieroglyphic scripts. From a truly romantic perspective, which is one I will generally condone, great art (including the photography in question here) contains: “A medium of communication which employs recognisable characters whilst remaining only partially comprehensible and thus offering tantalising but incomplete glimpses into ancient and arcane wisdom.”

There is something beautiful in art of the romantic period that allows for something sickly and overbearingly aesthetic to come to the fore; where as one can’t imagine that occurring nowadays other than in a stupidly ironic ‘Jeff Koons’ kind of way. I appreciate this in Rut Blees Luxemburg’s photographs, albeit in a much more nuanced form. She unashamedly takes beautiful pictures: she is willing to open her shutter and let all of that glorious, saturated, sodium quality light pour in and not have any reservations about whether it might be too aesthetic or ‘obviously beautiful’. There are of course subtleties to her photographing that extend beyond the simple representative ‘snapshotting’ of a Benedictine monastery for example, and as a friend of mine pointed out after hearing her talk at the a recent conference on ‘photography as alternative urbanism’, “in comparison to the pretentious waffling of the other panellists she was perfectly lucid and intelligent”. This work is historically relevant, intellectually engaged, and clearly signposts a beauty that is confident and unafraid.


Faith in Infrastructure, 2008



[1] ‘The Night Hides the Place’s Spirit’

[2] Two excerpts from Friedrich Hölderlin’s hymn Der Ister (The Ister), translated from German by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover.

[3] Caspar David Friedrich