This is how the numbers are embossed into the polaroids – using an old mechanical Olympia SM2 typewriter.
A few months ago, not only was the YAKUZA exhibit hosted in 3 locations across the city of Liège (what a tremendous honour that was), but I also got the chance to show an intimate preview of HEAVENS at Monos Art Gallery.
I'm currently showing the first 48 original polaroids from the skies above the 48 camps of Auschwitz during the Second World War.
As you might have read here before, HEAVENS is a large conceptual photography project in which I set out to photograph the skies above all 1,072 concentration camps from the Second World War... every time exhibiting and selling the previous polaroid to be able to make the next polaroid... and at the very end bringing everything together in a huge, heavy, book.
More on that soon.
Here is the exhibit text on the wall in Liège:
The heavens above us: pure, beautiful and everlasting, they literally connect all people on earth. We're all born under these blue skies and we all die underneath them, ever since the dawn of time. Heaven above is the ultimate context for us all.
These are the forty-eight heavens exactly above the forty-eight Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz during the Second World War. Three main camps and forty-five sub-camps, all located within a radius of approx. 100km in Poland and the Czech Republic.
This is a work in progress. In the end, this work will contain no less than one thousand and seventy-two heavens, every sky photographed above every Nazi concentration camp that ever existed.
Unfortunately, we will never be able to know exactly how many died beneath each heaven. Not even exactly how many camps there were. Like an ultimate irony, sometimes, even in death, a human being does not count.
Yet we are connected to what happened. It seems as if the sadness contained within all these heavens together is larger than what one person can experience, more than what one person can bear.
But can sadness ever transcend what a single human being can feel?
Can one add up all the heavens above, and arrive at something larger, something more encompassing?
What is the weight of history?
Fingers crossed it brings good things to everyone involved, so I can continue and finish the project in the upcoming months and years. (more on how you can support soon!)
all the best, a
Happy New Year.
Here are some things:
This is some snow. This is "a little glow in the dark" at the presses. These are the first dummy tests for the "dislocate" books. This is a good whiskey (after having a few). This is some more work done on the "yakuza" solo exhibit in april. And these are flowers for my mother.
....and there's much more to come.
2013 is going to be a good year, I'm sure of it. For all of us... it has to be. My best wishes to each and every one of you... and see you soon.
Hey. As promised, and as a follow-up of my grandfather's story, here goes the original concept of Heavens. In a next post, I'll talk about the realities that set in during and after my first journey to Oświęcim, Poland, to the Auschwitz concentration camps, and how it changed me.
The original concept
Heavens was conceived as a book+installation project, in which I personally try to make sense of the Holocaust during the second World War. I attempt to understand and show my feelings about and vision on the massive suffering that has happened... and hopefully, in what I create, I can in a tiny way help to never forget.
I intend to visit every known Nazi camp and sub camp (following the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) and make an image of the blue sky exactly above each location. A blue sky, as in 'that heaven above', and nothing else. A clear view on each heaven, sober and blue, yet burdened with holding the memory of the ones who suffered below.
Standing on the very same places as the victims, and looking up at the very same sky that they must have seen, it is my belief that their souls went to that heaven in that place. And for that reason, I feel those pieces of heaven should belong to them. With this work, I wish to touch the concept of heaven and how it can exist, knowing that something clamant as the Holocaust has happened.
At the same time, as a viewer, you can never really know if I actually went to these locations, because there's nothing physical in the images to prove that they were made in those places. Only via a reference number connected to each image, and a separate list, you can find the location of that image. This in reference to the difficulty - still now - of historians reconstructing the lists of people who died, and where.
The truth of these images lies in part in the faith the viewer must have in who I am, that he/she knows I actually have done this. Just, and only because I say I did. That truth is my word that this happened, yet at the same time is no direct physical proof... again a parallel with history, as so many camps were destroyed to cover up their existence.
Because what am I, if I don't have my word?
The list contains 1.075 camps, located all over Europe (look here for an example of a map to sense the magnitude), the overwhelming majority of which have been destroyed and don't exist anymore. I will attempt to document each heaven and publish a book with 1.075 pages and 1.075 blue images. An edition of 1.075 copies. 1.075 heavens.
This book, containing only blue skies and a reference list, will appear too senseless, too abstract and too large and too heavy and too much to hold and comprehend... But that's exactly my point: The Holocaust is too much to hold, istoo much to comprehend.
It is too much.
I want to make this book because I've always wished there existed already such a book, because I've always wanted to buy such a book and give it a place between all the other books in my room, as a reminder, to carry it along with me in my life, as a weight that we maybe, maybe, all should be carrying on our shoulders.
Time to think
I know the research will be immense to locate every location exactly (it already was when I tested going to all 48 camps linked to Auschwitz), and setting myself the maybe too narrow sliver that the sky has to be blue is not making my life any easier either.... And the installation that will surround the book, well... that is even another story.
And the part of how on earth to fund this project, which will be massively expensive, and can I justify this cost in the name of an art installation? Would that money not be better spent elsewhere?
What are your thoughts? I realize that I am blowing a conceptual bubble that is very very thin... reducing an incredibly massive and the "heaviest" of topics to its barest minimum and hopefully its essence... but I'm doing it purposely, as it is my vision on this.... and at the same time I can't help but thinking: isn't reducing to the maximum actually the only possible way? And isn't the only goal that I have - being that I contribute in some way to the continuing awareness and prevention of the Holocaust from being forgotten by looking at it in a way that (I hope) is different - justification enough to go for it?
That evening, I set out to drive 1.100 kilometres to photograph forty-eight blue skies. I was to be a first grand field test for Heavens.
I've been told that a good visual story is one that leaves sufficient "blanks" so the viewer can fill in and latch on... Not leave too little to the imagination, but also not leave too much; try to make it just right.
In this case, wanting to photograph 1,634 abstract blue skies seemed to be a little over the top: the idea is actually so abstract that it simply leaves everything to the imagination. Even photography itself. I'd be demanding a lot from the viewer. The work becomes a very, very delicate bubble in support of the story, even if it was quite deliberately done that way...
But might it be just too thin? Will it hold? The heaviest of stories paired with the simplest of photographs?
It seems like I might be venturing off into installation territory for this one. Not a bad thing per sé, not bad at all... but quite a break from my previous work, I must confess.
Reducing to the essence... Man, I don't think I've ever reduced anything to this extent.
That's the thought process I'm struggling with now: shaping Heavens into something possible. Because Heavens is me adding my little tiny drop, however small, to never forgetting the Holocaust. Because I believe we should not forget. And I'm scared that we might be. And if an installation turns out to be the best vehicle to bring this message across, well, then...
Hmmm... I just realize that the above might sound overly cryptic to everyone - maybe even to me. I guess I should describe the concept behind Heavens pretty soon. And show a photograph too.
First on my to do list. Promise.
But now, sun's setting, spring's started, evening's beautiful. Today's given, tomorrow's never promised. Enjoy the now.
On January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated the Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
Today is also the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.
Below the poem Todesfuge (Death Fugue) by Paul Celan. A photographer and good friend of mine, Koen, told me about this poem while we were discussing Heavens... I had never heard of it... and I thought it fitting for this day today.
Paul Celan - Todesfuge
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts wir trinken und trinken wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends wir trinken und trinken Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends wir trinken und trinken ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete dein aschenes Haar Sulamith
Paul Celan - Death Fugue
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night we drink and we drink it we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave he commands us strike up for the dance
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown we drink and we drink you A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete your ashen hair Shulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined.
He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the dance
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown we drink you and we drink you a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany
your golden hair Margarete your ashen hair Shulamith
(translation by Michael Hamburger)
Meet my late grandfather, Antoine Libens. Alfons Libens & Jeanne Degros were his parents. But everyone called him Gaston. Gaston is the reason that I 'm starting my next long term project: Heavens.
Heavens will become a personal journey, me trying to make sense of something unimaginable. Something unspeakable. Something that took place in Europe 60 years ago, before I was born.
I feel the need to personally understand and place the huge and unimaginable injustice done to so many millions during the years of the Holocaust. A darkest page in human history, yet a page never to be forgotten.
It all started with my grandfather during WWII, when he was a geography student at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.
One night, when Gaston was home asleep, Nazi soldiers raided the house. In the middle of the night they banged the door and forced their way in. His mother woke up from the noise and pushed him out of bed and out the bedroom window onto the flat roof. The soldiers were on a mission to round up and deport all university students who were member of a certain fraternity, with members active in the resistance.
It didn't take long before the soldiers entered Gaston's bedroom. Though it appeared as if the bed was unslept in, one of the soldiers felt the warm mattress and deducted that he must be hiding somewhere in the immediate surroundings. Outside in the meantime, Gaston had been unable to find a hiding place on the flat roof, the only thing in the nearby being a glass dome shaped window in the roof, behind which he desperately tried to tuck himself away as much as he could. One of the young German soldiers, about the same age as him, opened the bedroom window and climbed out onto the roof.
It was impossible not to spot my grandfather.
And indeed he did. My grandfather peering through the glass, acutely aware that he could as well just be standing up and in plain sight, and the German soldier looking straight back at him. Then It happens. They lock eyes for an instant. Both men in their late teens. Both men black hair. Both men look at each other for an eternity, in which they seem to realize something more, something bigger than that wretched war.
The soldier steps back inside saying "Nein, er ist hier nicht."... the cue for my grandfather to make a run for it. Over different roofs, several houses down the road where he jumps off into a courtyard.
Unfortunately Gaston jumps straight into a dog pen, waking up the dog who starts to bark loudly. It's about 2am now. Gaston frantically tries to keep the dog quiet, eventually succeeds, and stays in the pen literally for several hours, waiting. Hours later, he climbs out of the pen. As he walks back to his house, at the end of the street around the corner, he suddenly gets pulled into a house by one of his neighbors... a woman suspected to be collaborating with Nazi Germany. She pulls him into her house, whispering "Antoine! Hide here, wait, they're still staking out your house waiting for you to return...".
My grandfather's life got saved twice that night. And by two of the most unlikely people to do so.
A tiny story of hope in what were the darkest of days for millions.
(From that moment onwards, everywhere my grandfather went, he was always shown a secret escape route or hiding place... everyone in town and at the university knew they were after him, and all worked together to keep him safe. In the end, he survived the war not being deported.)
I'll be going into detail as to what I intend to do and how I intend to do it, and seek your wisest advice... I'm full on in the research phase now... the photography, the concept, the reason for the title, what I hope to achieve, my fears and aspirations, my sadness, my journey, hopefully my determination to be able to finish this project as i envision it, as that is what I fear the most: emotionally, this might just actually weigh too much upon my shoulders...
I have no answers. But maybe, just maybe, I could provoke good thought.
Lest we never forget.