His is the art of hidden histories, the excavation of pasts too deep for the shovel to reach. Call it metaphysical archaeology.
In his very first piece in 1991, Shimon Attie projected archival photographs of prewar Jewish life onto the same or similar Berlin walls where they were originally taken, then reshot the scenes. So once more a man stood looking into the window of a Hebrew bookstore in what used to be Berlin’s Jewish quarter. Attie’s photos were made to record not a memory but an absence.
Now, in “Between Dreams and History,” a new piece visible Wednesday through Saturday nights through November 14 at Ludlow and Rivington streets, a ghost appears to be writing on the tenement walls. The beautiful blue handwriting is actually laser light, controlled by techies on rooftops with computers, scanners, DAT tape, and mirrors. But the text— dreams, wishes, poems, and prayers— reads like a message in five languages from the collective unconscious of the Lower East Side. I have a recurring dream that I’m in the past, and see things in my neighborhood that may actually have happened. I walk from block to block as scenes from the past reveal themselves. . . .
An American artist who made his reputation in Europe, Attie hails from that most ahistoric of cities, Los Angeles. At 17, however, he moved to San Francisco to become a psychologist. That profession doesn’t figure in his work, Attie insists. At least not consciously. Even if both have a little something to do with recovering the past. Attie followed a circuitous route into the art world and the psych degree was just part of it, a compromise he made back when he decided that he was “too scared” to be an artist.
He didn’t think he could make a living that way, but art was what he’d always wanted to do. At 24, he took his first art class, unsure of himself, wondering “dare I take another?” gradually building confidence over four or five years. When he finally entered an MFA program, he supported himself with his psychology practice. Then he really took a leap into the void. He moved to Berlin in 1991 at age 34, with a few thousand dollars and no job.
“That dark morbid intensity of Berlin, plus the very palpable sense of history— both totally absent in California— really pulled me.” He had spent the previous summer in Berlin, slide-projecting medical illustrations of assorted viscera onto war-damaged buildings and photographing them. “Back in San Francisco, a couple of people challenged me. ‘Why is it that you really want to go back to Berlin?’ And I realized, why pull punches? In fact, the core of it for me did relate to the Second World War.”
Specifically, to the Holocaust, which he describes as a “very very big deal” in his family. Many of his parents’ friends were survivors, and his father began telling him stories about it when he was very young. By the time he was 10, Attie was going to the library to look for books on the Holocaust.
During the five and a half years he lived in Berlin, Attie created public art projects all over Europe related to the Shoah. Yet he doesn’t want to be thought of as a “Holocaust artist.” He explains: “I came to these cities and cultures not as an objective observer but as an artist profoundly influenced by the stories about the war. . . . I learned through these stories, particularly those told by my father, that part of being Jewish meant I was connected to a life and culture that no longer existed. This feeling of having lost something I have never had, akin to what one might have for a grandparent who passed away before one’s birth, was a powerful thread running through my childhood and has deeply influenced my work.”
When creative time invited Attie to New York to do his first public art project in America, he felt uninspired at first. He remembers telling Creative Time’s executive director, Anne Pasternak, “I hope you’re not going to hate me forever, but I’m not feeling moved to do anything.”
Then, one day, he wandered by accident into the Educational Alliance Building on East Broadway. “There were all these older Yids, 70 or 80 years old,” Attie recalls. “They were telling me to tuck my shirt in, cut my nails better, that kind of stuff. They were like my family. I felt immediately at home. So that’s where I got my first juice.” His own grandparents were Syrian Jews, who’d lived briefly on the Lower East Side before moving to Flatbush.
But Attie knew that he didn’t want to focus solely on the Jewish community here. “It’s different to do it in a context like Germany, where an entire race of people was obliterated,” he says. But it didn’t make sense when change came to the neighborhood because of upward mobility or assimilation.
“Between Dreams and History” became a study in the folklore of immigration. Attie met with Puerto Rican, Dominican, Chinese, and Jewish residents, asking for childhood songs and riddles, a nighttime prayer, superstitions and premonitions, three wishes, and memories of contact with other cultures. He hadn’t begun that way, but his first, more straightforward questions about their memories had elicited answers that were concrete, depressing, and without any poetry.
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.