Critics’ Picks

View of “Heimrad Bäcker,” 2013–14.


Heimrad Bäcker

Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver (MCA DENVER)
1485 Delgany Street
September 27–January 5

Before his death in 2003, Heimrad Bäcker was a little-known Austrian poet and artist. He was also, for about one year at the end of World War II, when he was in his late teens, an avid member of the Nazi party. On display in this exhibition are his small, black-and-white photographs, collected objects, and sheets of sparse, restrained poetry. Bäcker denounced his Nazi ideology in the wake of the Nuremburg trials and made many return trips to the Mauthausen-Gusen camp between 1968 and 2003 to photograph what he sterilely referred to as its “technological traces.” For instance, the undated Crematorium and Cooling System in Mauthausen [unfinished], pictures the tools used to rake up and dispose of incinerated human remains. Tunnel in St. Georgen, also undated, is an image of a tunnel beneath the concentration camp that prisoners were forced to dig in order to to store, and sometimes produce, Nazi arms. Nearby is a photocopy of a site plan of stairs cut into a cliff. Prisoners were forced to carry heavy stones up these steps, and many exhaustedly collapsed and were punished and killed. This image, which depicts a system of murderous torture, could pass for an abstract drawing. On the same documentary sojourns, Bäcker collected what he referred to as found objects that were scattered around the camp. These vestiges—frayed steel cable, and small pieces of porcelain and steel—are installed in neat arrangements on the floor between the modestly sized prints on the walls.

Across media, the pathos here is in the haunting, sparse remnants. In his photography, object collection, and poetry, Bäcker uniformly forsook the whole for the disembodied part, always electing to draw in closer rather than zoom out. This strategy manages to both avoid implicative horror and look directly in its face. It is profoundly troubling and powerful.