Reuben Wu’s new photobook Lux Noctis is a sci-fi twist on sublime landscape photography.
If you were ever a fan of Ladytron, you were likely entranced by their dark, sci-fi driven synth pop. At times hypnotic – even escapist– it’s no surprise that co-founder Reuben Wu began making photographs with a similar vibe. His upcoming book Lux Noctis, published by Kris Graves Projects, which launches at the New York Art Book Fair on September 21st, feels like a photographic extension of the music. His photographs riff on classic traditions of American landscape photography and fascinations with the sublime, imbuing them with otherworldly magic. Uncanny spheres hover over cliffs and mountaintops, signaling unseen elements above or something completely unfathomable. I connected with Reuben over email to learn more.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Reuben Wu
Jon Feinstein: Where were these photographs taken and how much does that matter?
Reuben Wu: Most of these were made in the USA simply because I live there now, but it doesn’t really matter where they were taken other than just somewhere on Earth. I think about this work as beyond geographical borders in as much as it is free from time itself; a documentation of planetary history.
Feinstein: What’s the significance of the title “Lux Noctis"?”
Wu: I have a list of words I try to avoid whenever possible when naming photographic art. One of those is “light” and another is “night”, but I liked how they sounded in Latin. At the time, I didn’t put much thought into the project name, so it just stuck. Exploring a place at night and in solitude enriches the experience of discovery for me.
Feinstein: Speaking of solitude, in a few of the images there's a tiny human figure, often shadowed, sometimes blurry, dwarfed by the magic of the landscape. There's a trope in Instagram so-called "influencer" photography of "tiny figures in big landscapes" that this almost hits on, but with a different eye. For me, there's more metaphor in what you're doing and refreshingly zero cliché.
Wu: The person in the landscape is (amongst others) a reference to 19th-century Romantic landscape painting and in particular the Romantic notion of the sublime. Caspar David Friedrich is the obvious point of reference, where a familiar element in an otherwise unearthly looking scene gives the viewer a sense of presence and a degree of immersion. One of the reasons I create these images at night is because daytime photos can be visually so busy, and with this project, I can show elements completely isolated and shrouded in darkness. Sometimes they are so abstract I need a point of reference, so occasionally there is a human.
I did ponder the overused Instagram trope but this is sort of the reverse, where instead of the beam of light emanating from the person's headlamp, the beam is coming down from a source overhead.
Feinstein: Congrats on your upcoming book launch. How did you start working with Kris Graves?
Wu: We first met at Photolucida 2017 in Portland, Oregon. We didn’t have an actual portfolio review together but he did look at my project and asked me some (very direct!) questions about the work which got me thinking. After a few months had passed, we started discussing a book collaboration.
Feinstein: It's interesting for me to think about this work having a different life in book form. I'm so used to seeing it on Instagram, on screen, purely in a digital context. Do you imagine if having a different life on the printed page?
Wu: Absolutely. In fact, these images don’t work too well for Instagram, (especially when I first shared them and my audience had no context). The images are too vast, too detailed and maybe too profound to work on mobile-based social media, much like a lot of fine art photography. I’ve been printing the images at 30”, 40” and 60” wide and they completely take on a new level of meaning as physical pieces. As a book, I see them doing something similar as a sequence of images. There is something epic and there is something tactile about the images, and those qualities need to be reflected in the finished monograph.
Feinstein: Do you see a relationship between your photographic work and your music, specifically your work with Ladytron?
Wu: I think they have similar moods and aesthetics. There is a film quality to them both, in that the music and image could be part of the same movie. From a production perspective, workflow has always been a hybrid of old and new processes. Both mediums are simply expressions of the same thing. I wasn’t able to advance my photo career until after I took a break with the band so it is definitely my version of a solo project.
Feinstein: You’ve referred to your work as "a zero trace version of land art" - can you expand on this?
Wu: Yes. I wanted to create large scale work involving landscape but without physically touching/changing it. This resulted from the nagging feeling that I was simply pointing a camera at something and taking artistic credit for the image. The gigantic earthworks of Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer et al has really stuck with me over the years but I was looking for a more modern way of interaction and creation within nature, by using light.
Feinstein: There's also a recurring circle that appears above mountains and other landforms in many of your images. What’s this all about for you?
Wu: The circle is no more significant than a line or square, but I am interested in those very simple and clean lines cut by robots, juxtaposed with nature’s chaos.
Geoff Manaugh, who writes the essay in my book, describes them succinctly as, “giving the landscapes a holy feel - mineral giants, angels frozen in stone - as if beatified by light.”
Feinstein: Where does the Instagram handle/ project Imaginary Magnitude fit into all of this?
Imaginary Magnitude is my mood board, with curatorial takeovers from other artists. It’s a platform for artists first and foremost, but also gives me a break from looking at my own work and encourages me to enjoy art and connect with others.
Feinstein: Do you see this work as escapist? Where are you personally in all of it?
Wu: It does have an escapist point of view, but deeper down it is also about presenting a familiar sight in a new and unusual way, so there is an element of renewal in that as well. The idea of exploration is very personal to me. It is more about the metaphorical than the literal sense, to learn through the action of experience, and applying the notion of discovery.