On several consecutive nights in 1992, American artist Shimon Attie projected portions of pre-World War II photographs of Jewish street life in Berlin onto the places where they had been taken, 60 years earlier.
His goal was to recreate, however momentarily, fragments of the city’s long-destroyed Jewish communal life.
Among the projections in “The Writing on the Wall” was the 1930 image of a Hebrew bookstore on the street level of a residential building in Scheunenviertel, which had been one of Berlin’s Jewish quarters at the time.
“One night that I did this, a person living in the building came out in a menacing way and, in German, implied that I was trying to repossess his house,” Mr. Attie said. “He tried to convince me that his father had bought the building from a Mr. Jacob in 1938. Here I am, working as an artist in the imaginary, and he was taking it on a literal level.”
On another night, an elderly woman opened her second-floor window and shouted “No, no, no!” in German at Mr. Attie, who was standing across the street with his generator and slide projector.
The artist at first assumed that she was objecting to what he was doing. But that wasn’t it. “She explained that the bookstore was actually one meter to the right of where I was projecting the image,” he said. “‘I remember,’ she told me.”
Mr. Attie will show images from the project and talk about “The Writing on the Wall” and some of his other evocative works at this year’s annual art lecture at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck on the evening of May 15.
“Sites Unseen: Igniting and Challenging Memory,” the 12th annual free public lecture supported by the Alfred and Rose Buchman Endowment for the Fine Arts, will be Mr. Attie’s first presentation in northern New Jersey. Since earning his master of fine arts degree at San Francisco State University in 1991, Mr. Attie, who lives in Manhattan, has done about 30 major projects in 10 countries. He has exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and at more than 40 other museums and galleries worldwide.
He has described his approach to works such as “The Writing on the Wall” as “a kind of peeling back of the wallpaper of today to reveal the histories buried underneath.”
The other projects he’ll present on screen at Beth Sholom include his “Portraits of Exile,” underwater light boxes in Copenhagen that show the faces of rescued Jewish citizens and modern Bosnian refugees; “The Neighbor Next Door,” video projections onto Anne Frank’s Amsterdam street of wartime footage taken by Jews in hiding there; “Between Dreams and History,” laser projections on tenement buildings in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that illuminate the immigrant experience; and an art video he made in 2016 showing frozen tableaux of Syrian refugees in Europe on the backdrop of a moving stage.
“The context for the underwater portraits in Copenhagen was the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Denmark, and therefore the exhibition dealt with human-rights challenges and stories: the heroic Danish rescue of their Jewish community on fishing boats to Sweden in 1943, and the more ambiguous Danish response today to present-day refugees,” Mr. Attie explained.
“As the shared thread between these two stories of rescue is water, I therefore created an underwater installation to embody these issues.” The light boxes were submerged in Copenhagen’s Borsgraven canal for six weeks.
The Amsterdam project, in 1995, was inspired by his discovery of wartime footage secretly shot by people in hiding on Prinsengracht Street, often with the aim of documenting the activities of Dutch collaborators. Mr. Attie installed huge film projectors in those hiding places and projected the furtively taken footage on the street below.
He also will talk about “Brick by Brick,” a project he did at the Cologne Fairgrounds during Art Cologne in 1995. “That fair building, during World War II, was among other things a warehouse where household items confiscated from Jewish families and other dissidents were warehoused and auctioned to the public,” he said. For the project, Mr. Attie displayed household items typical of that era outside the building.
Mr. Attie said the decision of which projects to present in Teaneck resulted from discussions with the annual art lecture’s chairs, Reuben and Joan Baron.
“Most of them have to do with Jewish history and identity, or the immigrant and refugee experience,” he said. “Those were the two organizing canvases.
“I have done many, many projects, of which about a third deal with content that is Jewish in nature,” the artist continued. “All of my works, though, regardless of specifics of identity, deal with issues related to displacement, communal loss, and trauma, as well as the potential for regeneration, at least in the realm of imagination. And because I work in the language of an artist, there’s a place for wonderment, beauty, and aesthetics even if the content is communal displacement.”
Ms. Baron said that she and her husband became acquainted with Mr. Attie’s work at a show he did at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and later saw his work in Boca Raton and in the Jack Shainman Gallery in Manhattan.
“He brings together past and present in an interesting way, enabling people to appreciate the past and evaluate the present at the same time, and perhaps to change behavior in the present and create a new future,” she said.
Mr. Baron said they felt Mr. Attie’s body of work “is very important because he’s made people re-examine the notion of memory through a wide variety of visual techniques. However, he’s never concerned just with art for art’s sake; there is always some kind of greater relevance.”
Mr. Attie said he does not have any particular takeaway message in mind for his audiences.
“I’m an artist, not an educator or a politician,” he said. “I am trying to create and communicate experiences, which is different from a message. This is an open-ended meditation on history, an opportunity for each viewer to reflect on the different ways in which past, present, and future operate within the same moment.
What: “Sites Unseen: Igniting and Challenging Memory,” a free public art lecture
Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck
When: May 15, 7:30 p.m.
For information: Congregation Beth Sholom at (201) 833-2620 or email@example.com.
Shimon Attie’s website: http://shimonattie.net