Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: Mulackstrasse 37, Berlin from The Writing on the Wall, Projections in Berlin’s Jewish Quarter
Artist Shimon Attie uses photography, video, and installation to restore the memory of people and events forgotten by history.
In one of his best-known projects, The Writing on the Wall, Attie took his work to a once vital Jewish neighborhood in former East Berlin, where, he has said, he felt the latent presence of the long gone Jewish residents.
The neighborhood that Attie chose for his project was a seedy, desperately poor section of Berlin known as the Scheunenviertel, whose residents were among the first groups sent to Nazi concentration camps. While many German Jews before World War II were fully assimilated into the mainstream culture, the majority of Jews in Scheunenviertel were recent immigrants from Russia and Poland. In old black and white photos that Attie found through archival research, community members are seen wearing traditional clothes and posing near shop signs written in Hebrew and Yiddish. With the self-described goal of disrupting “the collective processes of denial and forgetting,” Attie took these photographs and projected them onto the same buildings that might have served as their backdrops sixty years earlier. Each projection stayed up for a few days, becoming a part of the present landscape as well as the past.
The installation project in Berlin lasted a year, but Attie gave it permanence through a series of photographs. These both documented the projections and, through the artist’s manipulation of composition and color, added layers of meaning to them. In this image, two young boys in tattered clothes are projected onto the wall at Mulackstrasse 37 (the photograph’s title is borrowed from this address). The ghostly appearance of the children, portrayed in black and white, is heightened by the saturated colors of modern Berlin in Attie’s photograph. Graffiti on the wall of number 37 reads: “What the war spared [did not survive socialism].” In the distance is the Fernsehturm, the tower for former East German state television, and on the left side of the building, ubiquitous scaffolding signifies the rebuilding of Berlin after the reunification. Attie’s image is, thus, a reminder not only of the active Jewish community that existed here before the Holocaust, but also of the difficulties in Berlin’s more recent past.
Shimon Attie, Artist
“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.”
Apel, Dora. Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Bernstein, M.A., and Erwin Leiser. The Writing on the Wall: Projections in Berlin’s Jewish Quarter / Shimon Attie, photographs and installations.Edition Braus, 1994.
Hornstein, Shelley, and Florence Jacobowitz. Image and Remembrance: Representation and the Holocaust. Indianapolis: Indiana University, 2002.
Saltzman, Lisa. Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006.
“Shimon Attie.” Jack Shainman Gallery Web site. http://www.jackshainman.com.
Young, James E. At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press,