For two decades, Shimon Attie (American, b. 1957) has created immersive multimedia art—from photography and video installations in museums and galleries to site-specific works in public places—that reflect on the relationship between place, memory, and identity.
Shimon Attie: The Neighbor Next Door at the Block Museum this fall is the artist’s re-envisioning of a work he first presented in Amsterdam in 1995. Attie projected films— taken secretly by people forced into seclusion by the Nazi occupation of the city—onto the street every night for two weeks.
Lisa Corrin, the Block Museum’s Ellen Philips Katz Director, spoke with the artist about his work.
The Neighbor Next Door is part of your larger 1990s project called Sites Unseen. You’ve described some of your artwork as “a kind of peeling back of the wallpaper of today to reveal the histories buried underneath.” How do some of the Sites Unseen projects “peel back the wallpaper”?
I am someone who doesn’t often take things at face value, whether for reasons of temperament, aesthetics, or predisposition. In my work I tend to look below the surface of things. I try to have an understanding that things are not always as they first appear. In other words, just because something is invisible does not necessarily mean that it doesn’t exist. So the surface of things doesn’t always tell us the full story.
In addition, I tend to believe the past is always with us. I don’t really make a clear separation between past, present, and future. For example, in my Berlin project, The Writing on the Wall—part of the larger Sites Unseen—my way of “peeling back the wallpaper” was basically by projecting historical images that were photographed at those same sites 60 or 70 years ago, to let the past burn through the façade of today to reveal a deeper social, historical, and political substrate of a building’s façade to which we don’t normally have access. In a much simpler way, I would say that’s my version of “if buildings could speak.”
In terms of The Neighbor Next Door, it was basically “if cobblestones could speak.” If the stones on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam could reveal what had occurred during the Nazi occupation of the city, then the film projections onto the streets would make history that is latent more visually manifest, would bring it forward and bring it to the surface. On one hand, The Neighbor Next Door helps to give visual form to the history that was latent in the cobblestones of the street, and at the same time my intention was also to animate or reveal the former hiding places above the Prinsengracht and the people who were actually in there secretly filming events down below. So, it functions in different ways.
The Neighbor Next Door was a site-specific installation, or public intervention, that had resonance and special meaning for the site itself. How is the Block Museum installation different from the original conception? Does it serve as artwork or documentation, or both?
I believe that an idea or a concept can exist in more than one medium or context, as long as it does so effectively in each. Circling back to The Writing on the Wall in Berlin, if you walk on the street and if you see projections on the building—and the same applies to Amsterdam with the film projections on the cobblestones—if you see it in situ, you say, “This is public art, this is site-specific installation.” It has its own kind of resonance and its own evocative power if it’s successful, and it is happening like an event in real time. Or if you see the photograph of the installation in a museum or a gallery, assuming of course that they are successful as photographs, then you say, “This is photography.” The afterlife or afterimages, whether it is photography or an installation created in a museum, function differently. The artist has greater control over framing the photographs, the exposure, what’s inside the frame, what’s outside the frame, etc. There’s a degree of control that you don’t necessarily have on-site.
It is a bit complicated. It is kind of like addressing the question “how does photography function differently than installation art?” That’s a very, very complex topic. There is a clear difference between straight forward documentation versus a kind of visual recording—we could say “artful documentation,” but even that doesn’t quite do it justice—a way that other media, photography, etc., can capture the power of an on-site work. It’s not possible in every project to do both. I’ve had many projects where they did not lend themselves to having an afterlife. So, for example, for my Hamburg train station project, my Dresden train station project, and my project in Krakow, the documentation for those is pretty straightforward, because the situations did not have enough of an aesthetic dimension. It was purely and simply about the “events” on-site.
With Amsterdam—The Neighbor Next Door—when I first did that project, like some of my other works, I made art photographs of it. Then when I had the show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, I faced the same challenge: How can one give the museum installation visitor an evocative experience, an experience that’s visceral? It’s not easy. It’s a challenge. I’m not giving you a one-sentence answer because it really is a very complex subject. I can only tell you that my aim is, in fact, for the visitor to have an experience that’s visceral, where they feel it inside their own body, and each visitor walks away with an individual experience of it.
What do you hope people will take away from the installation?
I don’t have a specific message. I don’t have a specific aim that I want the visitor or viewer of a piece to feel. At that point, to me it would become too didactic and wouldn’t be art anymore. It would be a pedantic or pedagogic thing. Rather, I am trying to create evocative opportunities for reflection and meditations on history, the layeredness of place, and a sense that the past is always with us. I want there to be enough room in the installation so that it resists easy interpretation and each visitor walks away with their own individual experience of it.
Your work often incorporates contemporary and historical photography, film, and projections. How do these media help you explore such themes as identity and social history?
Social history and identity are embedded in the materials I use in my projects because the footage or stills are records of specific historical events. And, clearly the way that I research, select, and edit these materials is reflective of the kinds of subject matter that I am interested in at a given moment in time. I often use ethereal media—meaning slide projections, film projections, video or laser projections, or in the case of my Copenhagen project, underwater light boxes—because for me the ethereal nature of projected imagery mirrors many aspects of how human memory functions. More specifically, memory has a double-edged character. When we remember, the memory itself feels substantial, but, in fact, it has absolutely no materiality whatsoever. The same is true of projected media. They seem to have a material presence, but it’s a mirage, and essentially what you’re left with is photons. So, the delicate and ethereal nature of those media, to me, is very much connected to how memory works. Another aspect is that memories shift over time. They are rarely complete; they’re almost always partial. We remember certain aspects of an event but not everything about it. Memories also change over time, and they are often fleeting. They have a “now it’s here, now it’s gone” quality, and this is also something that affects the decision that I make about which media to work with.
Shimon Attie will speak about his work during a public lecture at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 11, at the Block Museum. A reception precedes the lecture at 5:30 p.m.
There are also two special opportunities for Northwestern students to meet and talk with Shimon Attie, both on Friday, October 12. A gallery walk-through of The Neighbor Next Door is at 10:30 am. A lunch will also be held at 12 pm, during which the artist will discuss his recent work exploring Israeli/Palestinian relations. Both events are free, but registration is required. Visit tinyurl.com/gallery-attie to register for the gallery talk; tinyurl.com/lunch-attie for the lunch talk. Reservations also accepted at firstname.lastname@example.org.