The splashy colours and tricky lighting of Shimon Attie's photography act as an internal advertisement for their sombre memorial intent, billed as somehow different from run-of-the-mill Holocaust nostalgia. In 1991, the 38 year-old American artist moved from Northern California to Germany, where he was dismayed to find that all traces of the country's Jewish past had disappeared. In response, Attie began projecting archival photographic images of pre-World War Two German Jewry on the walls of the often still-extant buildings depicted in the original photos. In his 1994 series The Writing on the Wall, these buildings are located in the old Jewish quarter of Berlin better known, until recently, as East Berlin.
Most of the black and white projections depict shops, shopkeepers and the occasional pedestrian. But Attie's documentary photographs of his projections, which he considers the primary artistic product of his endeavours, aren't quite what one would expect from such a historically grounded project. They are large, deeply saturated colour prints, in which the artist has made conspicuous use of colourful backlighting seen most often in ads for youth-culture clothing.
Attie's tableaux are peppered by melodramatic, almost cinematic touches: in Joachimstrasse/Ecke Augustrasse, Berlin (1994), a (projected) man peers down from a group of tall windows to the deserted sidewalk below, while a (real) window to his left exudes a deep purple glow. Across the street, another building's windowpanes are transformed by the camera's lens into towering columns of white crosses, rising ominously into an inky sky. In Joachimstrasse 20, Berlin (1994), the ghostly marquee of a long-gone theatre is bathed in a blue light which floods out from a neighbouring alley, while a trashed, but carefully lit, Citroen squats meaningfully in the foreground. In other pieces, Attie has juxtaposed his Jewish actors and their establishments against modern graffiti alluding to World War Two and more recent German ethnic animosities. Wrapped tightly around their masonry supports, Attie's projections manage an effect computer super-impositions never quite achieve: the organic feel of two mediums fused into one.
His working method is a smoother version of Krzysztof Wodiczko's, who similarly projected Nazi symbols on edifices in the 80s. Of course, the stakes have changed: whereas Wodiczko's artworks were unabashedly political, Attie's are couched in the language of healing and remembrance fitting sentiments in this year of 50th anniversaries. But all of these birthday celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day, of Pearl Harbour, of Bergen-Belsen aren't really about commemorating a half-century's milestone, but rather about remembering World War Two and its attendant atrocities before they officially fade into the abstract past. Ceremonies have been organised and monuments erected in the furious hope that this time (unlike countless tributes to countless earlier conflicts) they will stave off the loss of first-hand memory. Such commemorations, including Attie's own, arise from a belief in the mythical power of visual images to heal sufferers of past wrongs, or to resurrect the disappeared in order to remind today's despots of the lessons of history. But images don't contain any enduring kernel of truth or memory; they are, instead, convenient excuses for our forgetting. This is why Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial is so uniquely successful: when people think of the Vietnam War, they aren't allowed to think of Lin's monument thereby forcing the event to live on in the minds of those it affected, and to die with them.
At first glance, Attie's uncritical trolling for meaning is not especially dangerous, but simply adds to the artistic clutter that has accreted around both the Holocaust and the falling of the Berlin Wall. But there's something frankly shameful about an American artist going to Dresden on the 50th anniversary of its incineration by the Allies and projecting the faces of deported Jews on modern-day trains and tracks. Such melodrama comes a half-century after it might have had some real meaning and sheds no light on the problems of today's Germany, which are inextricably linked yet infinitely more complex. In Trains, (1993) a performance in the Dresden Central Train Station, its documentation and a slide show, Attie painted a section of the tracks black, and poured white gravel between the ties to give the impression of prison bars. In the glossy artist's book of the project, Attie dispassionately recounts an incident in which a Dresden resident dumped water on him and his projection equipment. The mental picture of a Dresdener dousing the American is fitting, and a bit sad. Attie's anthropological take on the whole incident belies his naïveté or his gall in staging such an accusatory performance. Attie should have been run out of town and forced to take his facile demonstrations somewhere where their shallow sentiment would be better appreciated and less carefully scrutinised like an art gallery.
First published in Issue 23