The Memory Wall

Shimon Attie Reveals the Collective Unconscious of the Lower East Side

The finished piece looks deceptively simple, but Attie conceived of it two years ago and has been working on it full-time since last November. He spent months just scouting sites, researching each block in the nabe. Then there was the basic problem of getting the writing onto the walls. Creative Time brought in Norman Ballard, the tech wizard behind the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast, to design a system. As Pasternak put it, "Lasers have never done what they're doing here."

One morning at the Educational Alliance last May, members of the Yiddish class came a little early to meet with Attie. A woman named Charlotte had pictures from another world— the Houston Street of the '40s and her mother's dry goods store— long since erased by a housing development. "It's a time impressed on my mind 100 percent," she told Attie.

"Have any of you ever had a dream about this neighborhood?" he asked.

A man named Allen said he dreamt of it often, as it was in the '30s. "I'm seeing things that are no longer there, stores we don't have anymore, things that didn't happen but might have happened. I like what I see. I think, can this continue? I've transcended into the past."

"That's a jewel," said Attie. "That's what the project is about." He asked Allen to write it down and it became the "recurring dream" text above.

What's interesting about the text now lighting the walls at Ludlow and Rivington is how culturally nonspecific it is, given that Attie spent last spring collecting it from very specific cultural groups: a choir of Latino seniors, a tai chi class of Chinese seniors, the Yiddish class of Jewish seniors, along with various youth groups. He was astonished at the synchronicity he found in all this material, "one person's poem relating to another one's sleeping dream relating to another's Yiddish folk song to a Chinese person's superstition to a Puerto Rican children's song."

Interviews with 75 people have been boiled down into 28 short texts that appear to inscribe themselves on the tenement walls, then vanish as if written in so much disappearing ink. He dreams, is he alive or just a visitor in his body? Am I still living one more night? The kingdom has no end. There are easy times, there are hard times. The water keeps on running, but the flowers die. An exhibition of Shimon Attie's work runs concurrently at the Jack Shainman Gallery, 513 West 20th Street.

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