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Installations move viewers

By Mara Sassoon
On March 12, 2012

Internationally renowned artist Shimon Attie visited campus on Tuesday and spoke to the Brandeis community about his multimedia and installation work as part of his talk "Art and Memory: Moving Images." The Fine Arts department presented the talk, which was held at The Edie and Lew Wasserman Cinematheque, with the support of both the Film, Television, and Interactive Media program and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies.

Attie, who was born in California, described himself as having "a very strong Jewish cultural identity." He lived in Israel while in his teens, an experience he describes as a "very formative" time in his life. This connection to his Jewish cultural roots has influenced some of his art, although it is certainly not the only thematic interest present. Attie said that he is naturally very interested in memory as well as the concept of in-between spaces, a category he believes memory falls into. In college, Attie studied photography and installation art, or site-specific three-dimensional works, and has often combined the two disciplines in the pieces he has created over the years.

The work that Attie showed that evening strongly highlighted the convergence of art and modern technology. The ways Attie addressed the subjects of his installations are as varied as the cities in which he made them—Copenhagen, Rome, Oslo and New York, in addition to others. "I am an installation artist," Attie explained to the audience. "What I mean is that I'm very physical—that drives a lot of my work."

Attie first showed photographs of a site-specific installation he did in Berlin around 1992. For this work, titled "The Writing on the Wall," he projected pre-Holocaust images of buildings in Berlin's former Jewish quarter onto their original locations.

Attie gave each slide projection a detached, clinical-sounding name, such as "Slide Projection of Former Jewish Café with Patrons," underscoring the sense of melancholy the picture evokes.

He said that he pored through archives and old city maps to try to pinpoint where these photographs were taken, adding that otherwise it was "a very low-level production," and that it was "fast, nimble guerilla art."

Along with showing the photographs, he told stories of the reactions of the people who lived in the buildings. He recalled an especially poignant moment when an elderly woman poked her head out of a window of the building he was projecting upon and told him in German that he needed to move the image more to the right, uttering the words "I remember." There were others, however, who responded more defensively to his actions. One man who felt Attie was placing blame on the residents told him, "My father bought this building fair and square."

The prolific Attie showed a great range of works at the talk. One of the most moving pieces he presented that evening was 2006's "The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan—An Anatomy of a Welsh Village." Attie traveled to the small mining village of Aberfan in Wales, where in 1966 tragedy struck when a man-made mound of coal avalanched and buried the village's school. Many lost their lives in the disaster.

Representatives from the BBC had asked him to create a piece for the 40th anniversary of the catastrophe, and Attie was admittedly hesitant to accept this request, wondering why he was chosen and not a Welsh artist. Yet he soon realized that he was selected precisely because he wasn't Welsh, saying that his "healthy distance" from the incident was actually a necessary factor in creating the work.

"The Attraction of Onlookers," as he has been doing in many of his recent pieces, "focus[es] more on the moving image." Attie, though, promised the villagers that he would not use any archival footage of that day in the five-channel video installation he ended up creating. He showed the audience portions of the work, which involved actual residents of the village in frozen poses, rotating and filmed from various angles, all against a stark black background. He had various reasons for creating this format—at once, he wanted to show how part of the trauma of this incident involves the village being "forever fixed in the world's gaze," as well as the effect this trauma has on each citizen.

The piece shows the responses of people, "freezing in reaction but never completely freezing." Attie ran with the idea that the village has its iconic members, filming the villagers acting out their respective roles but stressing that "these are not actors, these are villagers." Examples of some of the "characters" Attie included in the work were the mayor, the immigrant shopkeeper, the hardcore singer, the boxer and the dancer.

Attie emphasized that these "Welsh tropes are not contaminated by the disaster." The piece ended with an entire family frozen in their positions, an emphasis put on the young daughter when the camera she's holding suddenly flashes, creating a play on the idea of who is looking at whom.

Attie told the audience at the conclusion of the talk that, as for the sentiment that has often influenced his art, "The chasm between what I felt and what I could not see was what [has] inspired it."


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