Shimon Attie Projects Past Into Present

Visual Artist Brings World War II Into Modern Reality

Projecting History: Artist Shimon Attie projects images from the past onto present day environments.
Courtesy Shimon Attie and Jack Shaiman Gallery
Projecting History: Artist Shimon Attie projects images from the past onto present day environments.

By Laura Hodes

Published November 14, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
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In this exhibit at Northwestern, these same three film loops are shown within the pure “white space” of the Alsdorf Gallery. Unlike the 1995 Dutch passersby who were surprised by and confronted with these images as they walked along the street, we are not physically walking through these projected images. As gallery visitors, we know to expect the images, although it takes effort to find them. Our experience of the original filmed image is mediated, like postmemory itself.

When you enter the gallery, you feel cocooned within its white space and within the loud, ambient noises of street sound, as if in a dream-space. The filmed images are not easily found or consumed on projected screens; instead, you enter the gallery and see only white walls, a crooked winding hallway evoking an attic as if you are the hiding Jew. It is only upon second look that you see three tiny holes notched in the wall, and you must bend and peer into the holes to see the films from the 1995 installation. Our viewing is active; as we look we cannot see the entire filmed image. When you peer into the holes, you feel you are peering into actual memories, the memories of the hidden Jew filming the image and the memories of the Nazis and collaborators, marching in spectral procession. Enhancing the feeling that we are entering the space of memory is the sense of fragmentation and repetition: The films are only several minutes long and repeat in endless flashes; the soundtrack of street noise continually repeats, just as our own memories continually return to us.

These projected images seem more blurred than they do in published reproductions of the 1995 installation. Unlike in the original images, here one cannot make out facial features or any details. The images have lost their sharpness and focus, much like memories do with time. The marching Nazis in “Prinsengracht 572: Passing Funeral” and “Prinsengracht 468: Passing Military Band” pass like shadows along the 1995 cobblestone pavement, spectral images of young men playing instruments in a band, of horses nodding their heads from the dead. The typical layering effect of Attie’s work is heightened in this reinstallation. Historical boundaries — between 1940s Amsterdam, 1995 Amsterdam and 2012 Evanston — are blurred. Witness perspectives are superimposed so that hiding Jews, wartime Nazis and collaborators, Dutch onlookers of 1995 and 2012 gallery viewers share the same vantage. While looking at the images we are suspended between layers of time as if in the space of dreams or memory. The effect is to transform this small gallery, so far across the seas of time and space from 1945 Amsterdam, into a sacred space, a collectively experienced memorial to the dead, a place for the reanimation of lost, forgotten and repressed memories.

At the same time, the installation is a reflection on the power of the medium of film itself. While we stand in the gallery, it is as if we are standing within the walls of a camera obscura, the ceiling lights beaming through the small holes and casting blurred images onto the Amsterdam streets. I was reminded later of the line from Jonathan Littell’s novel “The Kindly Ones,” in which the narrator, an SS officer, says, “I was always observing myself: It was as if a film camera were fixed just above me, and I was at once this camera, the man it was filming, and the man who was then studying the film.”

Attie has transformed two individual visions — his own postmemory and the hidden Jew’s film footage — into a collective one. Far from passive viewers of these films, we become simultaneously the hidden Jew, the marching Nazi, the Dutch passersby, the voyeur and even the medium itself.

Laura Hodes is a writer and lawyer living in Chicago.


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