The Abyss Beneath Us: Anton Kusters’ The Blue Skies Project
“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.
The Eternal Present and the Contested Past
Recently, outdoors in a Parisian park surrounded by tables of used books for sale, I began discussing a volume of black-and-white photographs of children living in the 1950s with a man in his sixties, a bookseller. He could hardly wait to tell me a story provoked, it seemed, by these pictures. When his son was small, the man recounted, he asked his father an extraordinary question. He wanted to know if, when his father was a child, the world itself was in black and white. The bookseller’s eyes were shining while he looked at me to confirm his own pleasure in such an imaginative leap – his now distant childhood as having been conceived of in shades of gray!
Anton Kusters’ 1078 Polaroid photographs emphasize color, particularly the color blue. To make them, he “traveled 177,828 km, 95% alone, to every corner of the former Third Reich” over five-and-a-half years. He researched the existence of the 1078 former official Nazi Germany SS concentration camps, including 110 early camps first established by local authorities as well as the six mass extermination camps that were built later, based upon information gathered in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum seven-part Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945. He employed a geo-positioning device to locate the sites and weather apps to find out when the skies over them would be blue. In an age of billions upon billions of uploaded images, he limited himself to making only three peel-apart Polaroid images of each largely cloudless sky, the camera always set at the same exposure to uniformly record the reflected light.
Blue Skies: A Conservation View
Jane E. Klinger and Joan M. Walker
Photographs are ubiquitous in our daily lives, from food shots to selfies to kittens. In this digital age, hundreds of images can be easily produced and then casually deleted. Cameras are carried daily as a matter of course and have an alternative function as communication devices that would more aptly be called cell cameras rather than cell phones. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, however, photography was fully ensconced in the analog world, reliant upon a system that produced a negative from which the physical positive was printed. Both components required careful chemical processing in a darkroom in order to produce a usable negative and a high-quality print. Within this context, “instant” film products, made by Polaroid and other manufacturers, were a revelation. Suddenly, an image could be captured and magically appear in one’s hand within minutes.
Anton Kusters: The Blue Skies Project
Over the last five years, Belgian photographer Anton Kusters has dedicated much time, travel and sensitive thought to a project relating to the Holocaust.  It is probably the most documented event in history, and one of the most complex and difficult subjects that any artist can choose. Towards the completion of his project he concludes that it is a failure. Recognition of failure is not usually an artist’s preferred resolution. Yet this realisation does not seem to fill him with disappointment or regret, only a humbled sense of acceptance. The apparent failure in Kusters’ project is not through misrepresentation of his subject, or through any lack of commitment or productiveness. Rather, it is an inability, encountered by many who engage at a conceptual and expressive level with the atrocity, to truly comprehend it. This kind of ‘failure’ is in fact a profound resolution of sorts and should not be judged solely and restrictively within conventional cultural terms. For the subject of horror and trauma with which Kusters has carefully grappled has always tested the very limits of representation.