Projections explore lost communities

After Shimon Attie graduated from art school, he left the Bay Area — his home for 14 years — and moved to Berlin.

He thought he would spend six months or so — he stayed six years.

And during that time, Attie created the first of many installations for which he would later become internationally known: “The Writing on the Wall,” in the city’s former Jewish quarter.

What Attie did in Berlin was allow the ghosts in the streets to be visible again.

“There’s this presence of these missing people and this lost community that I felt but could not see, and that was a very strange dissonance for me,” he said during a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn.

He will be the artist-in-residence at San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav during the last weekend of January.

Attie was initially drawn to Berlin because it was such a sharp contrast to San Francisco. Calling it the “Ground Zero of the Second World War,” he said, “It was deeply angular and edgy, with a dark, morbid history that is palpable in the streets.”

While doing research in the city archives, he found photographs of events that took place around Berlin’s Jewish quarter during the years leading up to the Nazi era. For example, he found an image of the police raiding Jewish homes. He projected the images onto walls nearby or on the actual locations where they took place. Then, he photographed them.

Attie explained it this way: “I use contemporary media to reanimate sites and places with images of their own lost histories.”

His Berlin work grew to be part of a larger project called “Sites Unseen,” in which he used the same method to illuminate sites throughout Europe.

Attie, 47, who is the twin brother of Bay Area cantorial soloist Marsha Attie, grew up in a secular, progressive family in Los Angeles. His parents had many Holocaust survivors and refugees as friends. “It was very much a part of the conversation,” he said.

Nonetheless, he says his work is not “Holocaust art.”

“My intention is to create opportunities for reflections and meditations on history.”

The Berlin project is not his only foray into art with a Jewish focus. After moving to New York, he embarked on a similar project on the Lower East Side, interviewing elderly Jewish immigrants about their lives there.

His most recent project is set in Oslo. It will be unveiled later this year in Frogner Park, a popular tourist attraction most famous for its Gustav Vigeland statuary. When the city of Oslo invited him to work there, Attie, who accepts only 10 percent of the invitations he receives, flew to Norway, having no preconceptions about what he might create.

“I have to have a personal connection to a place and subject matter,” he said.

When he got there, he looked at the park and then fell asleep in his hotel room. Though incredibly jetlagged, he awoke with the entire idea in his head.

“It was one of those rare moments when you’re struck by a bolt of lightening,” he said.

Since Attie had lived in Israel, Oslo’s role in Middle East history quickly became apparent.

What he did is create a Nordic fairy tale, about the failed Oslo peace process of 1993. Text and images of mythical beings will be projected onto a curtain of falling water.

But the story is “told as this tale that nearly changed the world, except for human failings,” Attie explained. “It’s very ambiguous because you can experience it as an enchanted fairly tale or realize the real-world reference it’s based on.” References to specific leaders do not appear, however; it’s more about “two brothers that share the same land.”

Shimon Attie will discuss his work following a light lunch at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, 290 Dolores St., S.F. $18 includes lunch and admission to a workshop at 10 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 30, also at Sha’ar Zahav. Information: (415) 861-6932 ext. 305 or [email protected].

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."