The Libertine Sofa and Tyson/Bombardier (Tate P20267) belong to a series of eleven photographs taken in Dakar, Senegal collectively titled Phantom. The series was commissioned by Tate Liverpool for display in the gallery’s Project Space in spring 2003. The maritime centre of West Africa, Dakar is a modern metropolis combining French colonial architecture with more recent hybridised African styles. Dakar and Liverpool have historic links through colonialism and the slave trade, but Dakar is now considered a fashion and culture capital and so relates to contemporary Liverpool in more positive ways. The artist has described the series as ‘a personal interpretation of the paradoxical situations brought about through the concrete reality of modernity’s urban vision’ (quoted in Rut Blees Luxemburg: Phantom, [p.4]).
Blees Luxemburg photographs unnoticed or neglected areas of cities at night, using only the available ambient light and long exposure times. Streetlights, neon signs and other incidental light sources produce synthetic lime greens, fluorescent yellows and sulphuric orange which glow out of the surrounding darkness. These colours have become characteristic of her work. Blees Luxemburg moved to London from Germany in 1990 to study photography at the London College of Printing (1990-3) and the University of Westminster (1994-6). Her early series feature deserted streets in the City of London and London’s East End. Photographs taken in the mid 1990s transform such modernist structures as tower blocks, 1960s council estates, car parks, empty sports grounds, urban motorways and building sites into magically illuminated sites of mystery. In her Liebeslied series (1999-2000), in images such as Viewing the Open 1999 (Tate P78570), she focuses on small details within a larger scene, revealing the power and beauty of nature in abject urban sites.
In Dakar, Blees Luxemburg continued her project in the small hours of urban darkness. Her pictures present an eerily deserted city whose mysterious inhabitants and their unknown stories are hidden in the intense darkness of night. Empty modernist blocks contrast with areas of waste ground and lush jungle. The Libertine Sofa is a photograph of an ornate, stiff-backed reproduction sofa standing in an empty lot. Incongruously, the sofa’s upholstery is wrapped in clear plastic, indicating that it is brand new. Graffiti on the wall behind it includes a repeated image – a tiny face set in a large white hood. The artist has explained:
The sofa is for sale, hence the glistening wrapping. Behind the sofa, the white faces ... are wall paintings of the local Marabouts, the spiritual and religious (Islamic) leaders of Senegal. Their representation can be seen all over the city, painted on walls, stickers on cars and buses etc. So they could be the other ‘Phantoms’ of the title of the series, just like the two wrestlers, Tyson and Bombardier, whose images were also ubiquitous in the city, forming part of the city's iconography and everyday visual culture.
(Quoted from a conversation with the author, 16th August 2004.)
The photograph was taken on the Dakar Corniche, a coastal road on the outskirts of the city. Master craftsmen sell hand-made furniture in this area. Ornamental carved wood edges the sofa’s upright back and its base; the swirling pattern on its upholstery echoes the leaf and vine style of the wooden carving. For Blees Luxemburg the curly woodwork and golden swirls of the sofa are reminiscent of the libertine period of the early eighteenth century, and the long-standing exchange of art and design between France and Senegal. The image title is a reference to an essay, ‘Tempolabor – A Libertine Laboratory’ (Metronome, no.3, Kunsthalle Basel 1998), by the curator and writer Dr. Clementine Deliss, who invited Blees Luxemburg to Senegal and facilitated connections with artists in Dakar.
The Libertine Sofa was printed in an edition of five plus two artist’s proofs. Tate’s copy is the second in the edition.
Michael Bracewell, London – A Modern Project: Rut Blees Luxemburg, London 1997
Liebeslied: Rut Blees Luxemburg/ My Suicides: Alexander García Düttmann, London 2000
Rut Blees Luxemburg: Phantom, exhibition pamphlet, Tate Liverpool 2003