Trace / Object / Quarry

fragments after viewing Heimrad Bäcker’s Landscape M [1]


Everything I read says that he made hundreds of trips. The abandoned site of the largest German concentration camp in Austria, Mauthausen, and its sub-camp, Gusen, wasn’t far from Bäcker’s home in Linz. And he went, beginning in 1968, with his camera slung around his neck—the camera that got him noticed as a Hitler Youth and that got him a job as a photojournalist for the organization. He had natural talent and he put it to use making propaganda. Those early images capture the “German spirit” of their time and place: a sea of towheaded boys looks uniformly toward the future; a strong, stocky woman bends over her laundry on the banks of a river. By 1968 such figures were erased, as Bäcker turned his lens on the landscape and the small scars of the all-too-human past etched there: holes drilled in the rock of a quarry, the crumbling foundation of the Great Hall, iron remnants twisting from the earth like saplings, ancient and archeological. How easily history disappears. How vigilant the labor of memory. Over the years and the hundreds of trips that memory piled up. After his death in 2003, the photographs and objects he collected at Mauthausen filled his son’s basement. Bäcker called it sicherstellen, securing.


Found Objects, n.d.; rope.

Found Objects, n.d.; steel and porcelain.

Found Objects, n.d.; five wooden trestles.


A woman stops her little boy just as he reaches out to touch the heap of junk in the middle of the gallery floor: Don’t touch that wood. She revises herself: We don’t touch art.

What is it? the boy asks. He knows he is looking at the ruins of a machine: I mean, what was it for?


SEASCAPE, 1985/2013; letterpress on paper; 5 3/4 x 7 1/2 each.


In his lifetime Bäcker was probably best known as the editor of the journal and press neue texte, which cast him as a leading figure in the literary avant-garde. He is remembered first and foremost for his role in the development of a conceptual art that balanced itself on the line between the visual and the literary. His most famous work, transcript, published in 1986, carved concrete-documentary poetry out of the bureaucratic remnants of the Nazi regime. This too a way of securing, a reminder of the facts of a history many actively forgot, and a reminder that the acts of the Nazis were obsessively and self-consciously articulated.

In his literary work landscape was Bäcker’s first focus and the way into his meditation on language. In 1985, a year before transcript, he published the small volume SEASCAPE. This earlier photographic poem is, in many ways, a draft or a sketch toward the later, textual project of transcript. In it, the deadly monotony of being at sea hammers flat even the most natural variations. Weather reports and wind gauges become the pattern of recording records. The sole interruption, which our narrative impulse welcomes, is an act of human cruelty: the German U-boat comes across a small band of Norwegian sailors who had been adrift for weeks in a lifeboat of a torpedoed tanker. The captain “turned down their request to be taken aboard, provisioned the boat with food and water and gave them the course and distance to the Icelandic coast,” noting in his log that their rescue is unlikely. The captain cites, as probable cause, the weather.

Bäcker exposes the double-edge of documentary. On the one hand, its language of objective precision dehumanizes in its own turn. On the other hand, it leaves us adrift with only our own responses to its facts. We must make of them what we will. 


High Altitude Descent Experiments from 15 Kilometers, Dachau Concentration Camps, n.d.; Photograph, 15 7/8 x 12


When the numerous documentaries about the Shoah started airing on German and Austrian television Bäcker took photographs of the screen. He made images of the images of the images of the images. He made a document of his watching.


Crematorium and Cooling Plant in Mauthausen, n.d.;
photograph with paper backing, 8 ¼ x 11 ⅝.


On the left, a photograph of an iron fragment hanging from one of four small iron hooks set into a wall. A key? Whatever it is, it feels primitive: the wall rough and each hook a small horn or tooth. All except the subject, the fragment that appears too perfect, too uniform to be handmade. I shouldn’t call it a key, though I keep thinking key. As in, might open or might close. As in, might turn some mechanism.

The subject of the photograph on the right is an encrusted drain. Or at least that’s what I’ve named it, but the film is over-exposed. The object could just as easily be in a ceiling as in a floor. There are no cues to tell me if I am looking up or down.

The two images are united by black space—a third (not) image of equal size—(not) empty and (not) a pause. It behaves like a film cut, though more like a blink. It reminds just how much I cannot see. Will not see.

In his catalogue essay, Patrick Greaney calls Bäcker’s serial works “paratactic,” suggesting that they share the qualities of a sentence. Arranged horizontally, the narrative suggestion of the series is undeniable, and the longer I look the more the images begin to behave like language. Bäcker’s claustrophobic frame and the emphatic focus on the object in isolation deny me the sort of visual grammar I expect from a “landscape:” I can’t be sure of scale because he’s deconstructed the space. At the same time, he translates the static artifacts of his title—the buildings—back into a process. It’s finally the black rectangle and its remembrance of the absence of the figure that resonates. Both the human action that sets these objects to use and the human scale against which I might understand them in relation to my body must be re-imagined.

Bäcker shuts me out of the crematorium and cooling plant with the same gesture that forces me to look at its most minute details. He tells me a story—the room was locked and then…—but he also reminds me of stories’ limits. The crematorium is the place where all of our meaning-making breaks down.


Detail (“Stairs of Death”) from the December 31, 1943 Site Plan for the Wiener Graben Quarry, n.d.; photocopy; 11 ¾ x 8 ¾.


Again and again he returned to the quarry, that gap in the landscape, that site hollowed out by the machine of war, that grave where so many—. At some point, I imagine, he stopped taking pictures. He photocopied a diagram from the quarry’s plan, articulating how the land itself became a weapon, how the natural forms became part of the conscious design of one of history’s most perverse engineering projects.

I don’t know if Bäcker knew the English word for this thing he photographed: a verb meaning to dig in order to harvest; a noun meaning an open excavation, a rich source—usually of building stone. But quarry has an obsolete meaning, too: a heap of game killed in a hunt, one that is sought or pursued.

When they speak of Bäcker’s work, critics and scholars inevitably must grapple with the chasms he opens up—between the image and its meaning, between the image and its history—and with the labor he demands we carry out in that space. If Mauthausen’s quarry became Bäcker’s emblem of modernity’s ultimate self-destruction, the gaps his artworks expose in our systems of meaning come to stand for our most humane gestures: the necessary work of reckoning and the unending work of understanding.


Crematorium and Cooling Plant in Mauthausen, n.d.; photograph with paper backing, 8 ¼ x 11 ⅝.


Bäcker, Heimrad. SEASCAPE. Trans. Patrick Greaney. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013.

Greaney, Patrick. “Heimrad Bäcker, Landscape M.” In Heimrad Bäcker Landscape M, edited by Patrick Greaney. Denver, Colorado: Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 2013.


[1] Landscape M was the title of Bäcker’s 2013 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.


Beth Marzoni is the co-author with Monica Berlin of the poetry collection No Shape Bends the River So Long, winner of the 2013 New Measure Poetry Prize and forthcoming from Parlor Press. She co-edits Pilot Light, a journal of 21st century poetics and criticism, and teaches writing and literature at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin.