Sound collage, shimmering light portray Kristallnacht

The clinking of dangling glass mixes with eerie sounds recorded through barbed wire at Dachau in the sobering artistic piece, "Kristallnacht: An Installation," unveiled this week at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley.

The American premiere of "Kristallnacht" comes on the 59th anniversary of the November 1938 night when Nazi mobs shattered windows and ransacked Jewish shops and synagogues throughout Germany and Austria. That ghastly event became known as "the night of broken glass."

The anniversary is a "fitting time" to show the piece, said Richard Lerman, a San Francisco-born artist who created "Kristallnacht" along with his artist wife, Mona Higuchi. The couple, who live in Phoenix, Ariz., were in town last week to set up their striking composition.

Housed in a gallery room at the museum, "Kristallnacht" features 2,000 pieces of shimmering glass that Higuchi strung from the ceiling by fishing line. A fan gently blows the glass while a red laser beam pierces through the display. The piece also includes amplified sounds of voices, footsteps, traffic and even wind that were recorded by Lerman at the Dachau concentration camp memorial.

The work was first shown in Holland in 1991 and then traveled to Germany two years later. Its appearance in the German town of Mainz came at a time of heightened neo-Nazi activity in the area, although there were no attacks on the work or the art gallery where it was shown.

"I think the gallery owner had a lot of integrity to want to show the piece," said Lerman, who is Jewish. "I think he stuck his head out not only artistically…but also politically."

When the piece was shown in Holland, one woman commented that she found it "too beautiful," recounted Lerman.

Neither Lerman nor Higuchi surrounding the memorial. The instrument picked up sounds as subtle as wind blowing through the wire and the movement of plants.

"The barbed wire and plants were witness to what happened," said Lerman. "This is a way to record literally the sense and sound of a place."

Higuchi, who originally is from Hawaii, first got the idea for the work after seeing a black-and-white film years ago about Kristallnacht. The movie showed silhouettes standing in water that reflected "incredible light."

"That image has stayed with me for many years," she said.

Lerman and Higuchi often use artistic expression to portray human rights violations against people from around the world. Past collaborations have included multimedia works on "The Disappeared" in Chile and on Japanese-Americans interred during World War II.

Higuchi hopes that "Kristallnacht" will not only remind people of that tragic event, but will commemorate those who struggled and continue to fight against human atrocities.

"I don't feel this is something way long ago and it's over and done with," said Higuchi. "The ramifications of that particular event continue to reverberate through to this day."