The Abyss Beneath Us: Anton Kusters’ The Blue Skies Project
by Ulrich Baer
“Whoever walks on his head has the sky as an abyss beneath him.” This perplexing sentence is found in the Jewish poet Paul Celan’s poetic manifesto, “The Meridian,” delivered in 1961 in Germany as an impassioned and desperate defense of poetry’s capacity to bear witness to trauma and survival. For the Romanian-born Celan, who had lived through the Holocaust but whose parents did not survive, poetry had to turn on its head the tendency for aestheticizing and generating meaning out of absence to bear witness to trauma and survival. By walking on one’s head, Celan proposed, we have the precarious chance to recognize the sky as the abyss it actually is, rather than have this natural sight serve as the anchor for a metaphoric, transcendent shelter of existence. There is no such overarching order or greater meaning called “Heaven,” Celan proposed, playing also on the fact that the German language, which he chose to testify to the Holocaust in his poetry, knows no semantic distinction between heaven and sky. We must disabuse ourselves of the comforting notion of heaven as anchoring a greater truth and transcendent meaning also promised by “art,” Celan said, in order to recognize our humanity after the Holocaust’s devastation. The idea of an overarching meaning for humanity embodied by the sheltering sky above, Celan said, was one of the delusional fantasies that had led to the disaster.
What does it mean to bear witness to unimaginable suffering without integrating this loss into an overarching idea of life itself? What would it mean to regard the blue sky above us as an indifferent “abyss” that radically exposes rather than protect us, and not as the canopy that sublimates pain and loss into something meaningful from which we can learn?
For the past several years, Belgian photographer Anton Kusters has traveled the continent of Europe to photograph the sky above the sites of former Nazi concentration camps. Instead of photographing the few marked and officially tended memorials at the well-documented camps, including Auschwitz, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Terezín, or the frequently unmarked, often desolate, razed or overgrown sites where several million innocent people were incarcerated, starved, tortured, subjected to disease, and systematically murdered in basement cells, pseudo-medical facilities, gas chambers and countless unmarked places, Kusters turned his camera upwards, to the sky. The resulting images, I propose, show the sky not as the comforting cerulean canvas lined with hope but as abyssal. By taking only polaroids, themselves fragile paper images in need of constant care and curation lest they fall victim to forgetting and neglect, Kusters draws our eyes into a recessive blue that seems to emerge from a halo of darkness. This basic technical effect of image-making with a Polaroid camera also tells us a truth: our blue skies and the earth’s atmosphere fall (or rise, since there is no direction in the universe) at the speed of about 1.7 kilometers/hour through a cold, dark, meaningless void. There is only abyssal darkness without meaning, direction, or purpose in which we perceive and invest with tremendous meaning, a patch of blue.
At first glance, Kusters’ grid of so many subtly varied blue and a few clouded patches of sky above the 1,078 camps operated by the Germans between March 10, 1933, five days after a coalition including the Nazi party was elected, and May 9, 1945, when Nazi Germany was defeated by the Allied Forces in Europe, seems to have little in common with Paul Celan’s surrealist image of a poet walking on his head. But Kusters re-orients his and ultimately our point of view, turning the usual perspective literally on its head, in order to account for the magnitude of the crimes committed by the Nazis, during a moment when the last generation of survivors is dying. The first step toward such a perspective is to turn our heads and eyes away from the temptation of revisiting sites and scenes of horrific suffering in search of finally understanding what happened there. What happened there, also, is the fact that despite the enormous and painstaking efforts to research, record and remember, no historical, artistic or other work will ever reconstitute all that was destroyed and lost. Many of those persecuted by the Nazis were murdered and their remains cremated in industrial ovens. They, in Paul Celan’s haunting and deliberately disturbing line from his 1944 poem, “Death Fugue,” found “a grave in the sky where it’s not too cramped to lie.”
I took several trips to the sites of former camps in the 1990s and also a few months ago. After visiting these places, some meticulously documented and now massive visitors’ destinations and others completely forgotten, unmarked, and overgrown, I understood less than at the moment of departure. I had spent years listening to and transcribing hundreds of survivor testimonies at the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Survivor Testimonies at Yale University, read countless books, conducted archival research, and published several articles and books on the representation and commemoration of the Holocaust. But I had gone in search of understanding, not fully realizing that understanding is too close to explaining, too close to embedding the Holocaust into a larger, overarching order of human existence we variously call history, morality, or the truth. What I had to unlearn was the desire for closure, for understanding and through understanding for history be laid to rest. But I also had to unlearn, after recognizing its existence, the temptation to succumb to a cynical or supercilious attitude of post-modern relativism and moral defeat. I had to recognize that the suffering, loss and silence of the Holocaust but also the stories of survival and life will not become part of a unified historical narrative like so many places under the blue sky but will continue to haunt us. I had to learn that prevalent morality and dominant historiography does not explain what happened, but that giving up on morality or history would hand victory to the perpetrators. In fact, I had to unlearn the very gesture and purpose of learning, which all too often means to understand and master things in order to keep them from transforming us. I had to experience each of these sites on its own terms, as if each location were topped by a completely different sky, even though all of the sites were constructed by the same murderous regime and ended up, overwhelmingly, with suffering and only sporadic and hard-won instances of survival.
Kusters’ project, I think, chronicles a similar journey, from the desire to understand to the failure of understanding that is shattering but nonetheless different from defeat. In the vast canon of Holocaust photographs and post-Holocaust art, Kusters’ project is also a work of humility and respect. The Holocaust, in spite of the Nazis’ obsessive efforts to conceal their crimes, was widely documented by photography and film. The vast majority of these images, with some crucial exceptions in the form of clandestine Jewish archives and resistance photos, were taken by the perpetrators. But reprinting those archival images can inadvertently repeat the original gesture of humiliating the victims and survivors, unless the picture are meticulously re-framed, properly re-captioned, and wrested from the ideological and aesthetic Nazi point of the view. Even the famous images of liberated camps by Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller, Mikael Levin and other professional photographers who arrived at Dachau and Buchenwald with the American Armed Forces in 1945 can become icons of destruction rather than testaments to survival and life. Then there are the post-war images of empty landscapes and voided and destroyed sites, by photographers such as Mikael Levin, Dirk Reinartz, Judy Glickman, Jegor Zaika, and others. Though powerful, these photographs of emptiness also risk producing a kind of political indifference in viewers by satisfying the inchoate obligation to confront past atrocity without having to do the work of researching its vast dimensions and its implications for the present, including listening to survivors.
Kusters turns his camera away from the sites of Nazi crimes, many of which are unmarked and entirely forgotten today outside of historians’ circles and the personal memories of those who were imprisoned and tortured there, or did the imprisoning and torturing. From the meticulously indexed camp locations stamped on his images that are also, in many instances, burial grounds with countless unmarked graves, he turns his camera directly up, to the blue skies above. But this turn is not a turn away from atrocity. In many of the 1,078 locations Kusters has visited, there would be little to see. Even in the publicly maintained memorial for camps such as Dachau, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sachsenhausen or others, he would have to resort to pictorial conventions to achieve whatever point he aimed to make, for instance of landscape photography, documentary image-making, or using filters and varying exposure times. Instead of relying on the formal and technical repertoire of image-making, Kusters turns his camera at the emptiness in which we find ourselves, always. He photographs the empty blue above in order to break with the nightmarish repetition of spectacular suffering, and to counter the disastrous seduction of perfectly composed shots that resemble, on the formal and aesthetic level, the totalized systems where everything makes sense and the final solutions without a remainder that led to genocide in the first place. There are successful projects of depicting former Holocaust sites, but what does “success” mean in this context? By refusing to produce effective pictures of a genocide that had been frighteningly “effective,” Kusters produces an archive of the unseen. Looking into the sky, once we look at Kusters’ project through the spectral lens provided by Paul Celan and other survivors who broke with conventional art in order to bear witness, means to glimpse the human not as the site of complete self-understanding but of self-difference and self-loss. It means to see the project of knowledge production and its formal expression in image-making as leading not to closure but to countless disparate and not randomly interchangeable encounters with the abyss. By producing 1,078 polaroid shots of the blue sky, each stamped with the geospatial data that allows even those camps to be indexed which official history has forgotten, Kusters’ typological project shows that even emptiness, even loss, is never the same.
Are these skies mocking us with their cerulean beauty, since underneath their cruel indifference human beings inflicted abominable acts upon innocent people? Or are they meant to comfort us in the wake of inestimable loss? I locate Kusters’ work in a place slightly adjacent to but not entirely removed from these moral concerns. His 1,078 blue polaroids challenge our all too human need for closure and consolation. They provide a space for contemplating, quietly and gently, a crime of such horrific dimensions that its scope often threatens to snuff out the intimate and deeply human stories contained therein.
But there is a second, technical and historical rather than philosophical and psychological dimension to Kusters’ project. From the inception of photography in Paris in 1839 by the pioneering work of Nicéphore Nièpce, it has proven difficult to photograph both the sky and the landscape underneath without over- or underexposing one part of the picture. For the first few decades of photography, the daguerrotypes but also later images are topped by a milky white where we imagine the sky to be. In 1858, the French photographer Charles Marville won a prize at the World Exposition for being first in successfully capturing a sky dotted with ethereal clouds on the same print as the Parisian rooftops below. Until that time, photographers had glued together two images, of the sky above and the earthly scene below, to show our world as spanned by a recognizable natural sky above rather than being suspended in a void. This practice of stitching together an image with other shots of the sky taken at different exposures persists to this day. But our ability to interpret especially black-and-white photographs as filled not with emptiness but simply with the presumed absence of the recessive blue that normally draws our eyes into space is learned rather than natural. We have learned to mentally fill in the skies in black-and-white photographs because we assume that the sky, unless it was overcast and obscured by clouds, is blue. With pictures dating to the period of the Holocaust, this is different. There the absence of a sky looks like a reflection of the circumstances rather than a merely technical effect. Kusters now tells us, in over 1,000 images, that the skies were sometimes of a deep azure, a midnight navy, or a breezy cerulean above Neuengamme and Auschwitz-Birkenau, above Ballenstedt and Plawy. It’s a blue the people imprisoned there also saw, perhaps as the final vista they ever glimpsed. Even the few images we have from inside the camps and those taken by Soviet army photographers and American professionals such as Bourke-White and Miller show everything above the barracks, the skeletal survivors, the evasive, tight-faced remaining guards, and the mountains of corpses to be a place emptied of visual content. By painstakingly supplying the blue above the many sites for which no photographs exist, Kusters movingly restores something that had been missing.
This can be said differently: the sky has no history. By arranging his polaroids of varied shades of blue in a grid Kusters shows that the sites indicated on his pictures in the form of GPS data must become part of history through our actions, rather than by virtue of the natural passage of time. They must be actively remembered and inscribed into memory rather than just be registered among all of the things that happened. The sky captured in his polaroids is timeless, in the sense of not belonging to a human notion of history. This allows Kusters to open with each image our present moment onto the past, rather than commemorating the past as a sequence of events that leads in a straight line to our presence but is irretrievably lost.
He photographs the enormously fine gradations of blue above each former camp site because we have been taught, either through archival images or the contemporary practice of photographing the camps today, to assume that the sky above Auschwitz and the 1,037 other camps was a washed out, bleak and colorless empty field. It was not bleak but continued in its indifferent blue. But he also shows, once we have realized that these skies were blue, that each camp was topped by different hues, and that our longing for an over-arching explanation that envelops everything and for a historical narrative that contains all past events, is an illusion.
In a subtle and deeply sensitive practice steeped in painstaking research, Kusters restores the blue skies that photography has failed to record for the camps. What official, Nazi-sanctioned photography overwhelmingly failed to record was the tremendous strength, courage and hope that persisted, in spite of everything. Contemporary artists and filmmakers such as Dariusz Jablonski have pried Nazi-authored images out of the visual regime of oppression to counter the perspective of subjugation with an empowering point of view. But the washed out emptiness in the majority of archival photographs has unwittingly become a visual symbol of memory’s defeat in the face of irrecuperable loss. It has become the implicit symbol of the camps as places of no return, which is horrifically true for so many millions. But this implicit symbol risks effacing the memory of those who were murdered without a trace and of the survivors whose stories were not publicly acknowledged. Of course nothing lost and destroyed in the camps can ever be fully restored. The destruction of the means to commemorate the Holocaust, in fact, was part of the Nazis’ deluded master plan. They executed their crimes specifically to prevent commemoration. By side-stepping the usual impulse to photograph sites of atrocities in order to learn, Kusters’ pilgrimage across the European continent bears witness to this loss rather than trying to fill it in, or letting that loss be forgotten.
In his “Meridian” speech which remains indispensable for understanding the challenges of creating poetry after the Holocaust, the poet Paul Celan, who died of suicide in 1970, had sounded an unexpected note of optimism.
Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of your breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way – a way of art – for the sake of just such a turn? And since […] the abyss […] seem[s] to lie in the same direction – it is perhaps this breath turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? […] Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?
Anton Kusters’ 1,078 images, made over the span of seven years by turning his camera upwards, like a poet turning his breath, sets something “free” in this paradoxical sense meant by Celan. These images of various blue skies set us free to “sort out the strange from the strange.” They allow us to recognize what is strange and even abyssal, without allowing this strangeness to become a site of fascination or exclusion, which is a frequent response to trauma. They allow us to make distinctions between what is strange but could become familiar through experience or knowledge, and what is strange in every human but must never be assimilated or made to conform. They let us see 1,078 patches of blue sky as singularly empty and thus radically “strange” in this second sense evoked by Celan, rather than as fragments of a transcendent whole into which everything can be integrated. These images let us reflect on the Holocaust without our being disabled by trauma but also without integrating its events into a unified historical story. They register irredeemable loss without continuing the logic of relentless documentation aiming for mastery and complete knowledge also employed by the Nazis. They confront us with emptiness without giving up on partial understanding and the hope it brings.
— © Ulrich Baer, New York 2020
Ulrich Baer is Professor at New York University and writes regularly on literature, photography and culture. His books include: Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (MIT, 2002), Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief, and Transformation (2018), and What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth, and Equality on Campus (Oxford University Press, 2019).
A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in the catalogue of the 2020 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, published by The Photographers’ Gallery in London, UK.