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Projecting the Past Onto the Present

By superimposing prewar images on modern sites, Shimon Attie attempts to capture a haunting time.

February 13, 2000|LEAH OLLMAN | Leah Ollman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

It was Shimon Attie's father who taught him, at an early age, "the importance of not looking away from what has gone before." But how exactly can one see something that has passed, that is no longer there in a recognizable, tangible way? Reflecting on history is one thing, but actually seeing it is something else.

Attie has more than managed. For the past decade, the photographer and installation artist has devised extraordinarily potent methods of transforming evanescent memories into vivid visual experiences.

In Berlin, he projected photographic images of Jewish street life before World War II onto the scarred surfaces of the former Jewish neighborhood where those scenes transpired. In Copenhagen, he submerged nine large light-boxes with photographic transparencies several feet underwater in a canal running through the center of the city. The faces that hovered just under the undulating surface belonged to Danish Jews rescued during the war, as well as to current Eastern European refugees seeking asylum in Denmark. In New York, Attie interviewed residents of the Lower East Side about their dreams and memories, then used laser light to write out fragments of their texts, in the immigrants' own languages and handwriting, on the walls of neighborhood apartment buildings.

These and several other projects are documented and reprised in a museum setting in the show "Sites Unseen: Shimon Attie--Photographs and Public Projects, 1992-1998," opening today at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. Attie spoke about the show, his first museum survey, by telephone from his home in Brooklyn, where he's lived for the past two years. "The East Coast," he says, "is a compromise between California and Europe. It's American, but the sense of history is European."

He also keeps a home in San Francisco, where he settled more than 20 years ago. Belonging to at least two places is characteristic of Attie, 42; fluidity is the operative condition of his life and work. Superimposing images from the past onto the surfaces of the present, he complicates the visual, psychological, political and social texture of everyday life wherever he stages his "interventions."

"What I'm responding to is places, and sites. There is some kind of confluence between witnessing, on the part of personal experience, and excavating, bringing to the surface stories that are embedded in the architecture or cityscape."

Born in Los Angeles--"which for my family was almost ahistorical," he says--Attie headed to Northern California to study psychology at UC Berkeley. Two years after he graduated, he earned a master's degree in clinical psychology from Antioch University. For the next seven or eight years, he maintained a psychotherapy practice in San Francisco while he attended art school, spending a few days of every week at the office, and the rest at his studio.

"It was the same sort of sensibility or predisposition that led me to both [psychology and art]," he says. But it isn't a case of one discipline being driven by the other: "Both areas are influenced by who I am."

In the summer of 1990, before his last year in the master's program in fine arts at San Francisco State University, Attie traveled to Berlin to do a project he called "Surface Anatomy." Working with the idea of Berlin as a city that had been divided and was starting to come together, he projected medical illustrations of surgery and suturing onto buildings in eastern and western Berlin that had been damaged in the war and never repaired. "I borrowed a medical metaphor to describe a political process," he says of the project.

After receiving his degree, he returned to Berlin, drawn back to the city by "the palpable sense of history that's felt on every block," and energized by the contrast between comfortable San Francisco and edgy Berlin. He expected to stay four months and ended up living there for six years.

"Being Jewish was the engine for the whole thing. It was almost like a counter-phobic fascination. What's ground zero for the Third Reich? I went right into the lion's den."

Though his immediate family did not suffer in the Holocaust--his maternal grandfather emigrated from Germany before the war, his paternal grandparents came from Syria--many family friends were survivors. Attie's father felt a connection to the collective loss and passed that sensibility, as well as an attitude of vigilance against bigotry of all kinds, onto his son. Absence became a palpable force in Attie's understanding of his culture and the world. With the framework provided by his father, Attie started, at age 10 or 12, he says, to fill in the details on his own, checking out books about the Holocaust from the library and reading himself to sleep.

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