Artist Shimon Attie is probably best known for “Sites Unseen,” his 1990s series of temporary installations in Europe, in which he projected photographic images of a lost Jewish past onto actual sites. For “Writing on the Wall,” (1991–1993), Attie, living in Berlin at the time, was haunted by the lack of any past signs of Jews, so he projected images of former Jewish citizens onto the actual buildings, forcing local people to reflect on the disappearance of their former neighbors. In “Trains” (1993) he projected photographs of Dresden’s former Jewish citizens onto the city’s central railway station. In these installations, he was responding to a personal feeling that these places were haunted by dead Jews of whom there was an absence of any external sign.
Attie uses art to externalize his private visions — his postmemory, as Marianne Hirsch, a Columbia University professor of English and comparative literature who has written extensively on this topic, would call it — and make them part of the collective memory of the viewer. The experience of postmemory is to be haunted by the traumatic memories of past generations to such an extent that those memories seem one’s own. Attie’s in situ installations create a powerful visual palimpsest, a visible layering of the past onto the present, projecting images onto sites where the inhabitants would rather just forget history.
Currently, Attie’s 1995 installation, “The Neighbor Next Door,” has been re-envisioned by Attie and by co-curators Dave Tolchinsky and Debra Tolchinsky, at Northwestern University’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, where it will be exhibited until December 9. In the original 1995 in situ installation, Attie mounted 16-mm film projectors inside the windows of three different apartments along the same street in Amsterdam on which Anne Frank and other Jews had hidden during World War II; then, at night, he projected short film loops including actual footage that Jews in hiding during the Holocaust filmed from nearby windows. (One of the three films is actually from Nazi propaganda, an image of soldiers marching in formation.) These images differed from those of his other installations in projecting images of Nazis rather than Jews. Dutch passersby walked through the projected images; some stopped and turned, others kept walking. As art critic James E. Young wrote, the images forced the Dutch passersby to confront the national myth of how the Dutch sheltered Jews, and to immerse themselves in the hidden Jews’ memory and see the outside world from their perspective.