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3 / History and Memory

Mulackstrasse 37, Berlin from The Writing on the Wall, Projections in Berlin’s Jewish Quarter
Mulackstrasse 37, Berlin from The Writing on the Wall, Projections in Berlin’s Jewish Quarter
Artist / Origin Shimon Attie (American, b. 1957)
Region: North America
Date 1993
Material Photograph (of slide projection)
Credit Photo courtesy of the artist

expert perspective

Shimon AttieArtist

Mulackstrasse 37, Berlin from The Writing on the Wall, Projections in Berlin’s Jewish Quarter

» Shimon Attie (American, b. 1957)

expert perspective

I am very interested in memory, whether it’s my own personal memory, memories of a community, collective memories, larger memories—I’m not somebody who makes a very clean separation between past, present, and future. One pattern that goes through a lot of my work is the relationship between memory and loss. So a lot of my projects deal with how can I use the medium of contemporary art to give visual form and representation to things that now only exist in the form of human memory and the human imagination? What I’m trying to do is capture the double-sided coin of human memory in that, on one hand, memory is very ethereal and fleeting and immaterial, yet on the other hand, when we experience it, it feels very real and very present. So oftentimes, I am working with light as a medium, projected imagery, photons. So, to me, this feels very much in keeping with how memory works—there, not there; present, not present; material, immaterial.

I was walking in the streets of one of Berlin’s former Jewish neighborhoods and I kept feeling the presence of these individuals and businesses and schools that I could not see. And I felt this huge discrepancy between what I felt and what I did not see. And that’s what inspired my Berlin project, The Writing on the Wall. I wanted to give visual form to my experience. I wanted to give form to this memory in a way that was both substantial and insubstantial at the same time, that had materiality, but also was completely a mirage. And on location slide projection seemed to be exactly the right media. And for the piece, what I did is I went to many Berlin archives for two or three months and just gathered photographs of Jewish street life from that neighborhood from before the war—let’s say between about 1920 to about 1932. And I did research to find out where those photographs were taken, exactly which lot numbers. It was no easy task, because after the Second World War, the East German government renamed and renumbered all the streets as a way of just sort of obliterating history. So I had to go to the state archives and get the old city maps from 1920 or 1925 which had the old street numbers and addresses.

So I had these photographs in one hand and these old city maps in the other, and then I would match the lot numbers where the photographs were taken. If the original building was still there, in 1991–92, I would project a portion of the historical image right back onto the façade of the building. And if the building was no longer there, let’s say it had been bombed during the war and never rebuilt, then, I would use a neighboring building of similar architectural structure.

If you were walking on the streets of Berlin while I was doing that project, you would walk by these buildings and see these projections, these phantom-like projections of former residents, former schools, former shops, directly onto the facades, and if you looked the other way, you’d see me across the street with my portable generator, my slide projectors, my camera equipment. So it’s not done with Photoshop, it’s not photomontage. It was very important for me to actually touch the actual places and spaces, to project the images directly onto the architecture.

In the case of The Writing on the Wall, as with my other pieces—my other art projects—part of what I’m intending is to make histories and memories of marginalized communities that have disappeared, but to make them visible in the landscape of the present. So just because I don’t see it right now, doesn’t, in fact, mean that it has ceased to exist.” 

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