Full Interview with Artist Shimon Attie
In anticipation of Shimon Attie’s powerful program during our holiest time of the year, Heidi Sanders, Emanu-El’s Senior Manager of Engagement, sat down for a conversation with the artist. Read below for our full, unabridged interview with Shimon Attie.
Read SF/Arts coverage of Night Watch here.
Heidi: Your new installation, Night Watch, explores the urgent issues around political asylum. Past projects of yours have explored themes of identity, loss, displacement, and collective trauma. All of these experiences have parallels in the history that has helped shape and animate contemporary Jewish life and identity today as well. How have Jewish identity, culture, traditions, and history informed your career and creative practice?
Shimon: Well, a lot of that comes from how one is raised, and there are a million different ways that people can define what it means to be Jewish. In our family, being Jewish was synonymous with being progressive and fighting for social justice, and fighting for the less fortunate among us. Being Jewish was inseparable from tikkun olam. In that sense, it’s had a huge influence on my values and the issues that I care about, which drive the art projects that I make. I think there’s also the issue of Jews themselves having been marginalized and persecuted over the millennia, that shapes one’s sensibility, and no doubt shaped my parents and their way of thinking. But it wasn’t confined to just the Jewish community, it was more about shared common humanity among everyone and every community. So, that’s my own personal answer. I can’t defend it intellectually, but that would be the way in which my Jewish identity intersects with my overall artistic sensibility.
When I lived in Europe for six years, and then later a seventh year, Jewish history came to the forefront of my work in terms of the content, not all the time, but in many of my projects. Because I was living in Germany, and so, that’s where I was creating works that focused on Jewish communities–and some other groups– that had disappeared, that had been erased, which was the specific content of my work during those years, less so after I left Germany. In fact, one of the many reasons that I finally left, was because I knew that I would never be able to take my finger off the point if I stayed in Germany, and I wanted to grow as an artist in other ways. So, I left.
Heidi: Looking at the imagery that still exists from the Berlin-based project [The Writing on the Wall, 1991-92] in which you re-animated the old Jewish neighborhoods, it’s incredibly haunting, and, as you said, it directly expresses what you’ve discussed in terms of Jewish values and the imprint that was left on you as an individual.
Shimon: Right, I’ll just add one thing: the way that project came about, I moved to Berlin right after I got my MFA at San Francisco State… I didn’t know the city, this is shortly after the wall came down, and I was walking the streets of this one particular neighborhood. I knew nothing about the neighborhood, I didn’t even know what it was called, I didn’t know anything about its history. I kept being drawn back, over and over again, to this neighborhood, and there was some strange, strong feeling I had that I couldn’t label. And then I found out it was actually the neighborhood serving East Berlin’s main former Jewish neighborhood, and most of the residents were deported to death camps. These were not middle- or upper-middle class German Jews. These were Russian and Polish, poor Jewish immigrants, who didn’t have the means, let’s say, to immigrate, and so they were deported. The project grew out of this discrepancy between what I felt but what I could not see. There weren’t really visible signs of that history. If you looked really close, sometimes you’d see peeling layers on some wallpaper or something. Basically, you couldn’t see the traces, but I felt it. That project grew out of that discrepancy, trying to give visual form to what I felt but couldn’t see.
Heidi: If art is able to sort of articulate where language fails, then certainly, the artist needs to be, you know, tapping into all of these invisible cues or energies or however they want to define it.
Shimon: Yes, absolutely.
Heidi: Night Watch will run concurrently to the High Holy Days, which is traditionally a time for deep introspection. In your opinion, what is the role of art in this larger engagement of reflecting and repairing ourselves, our communities, and our world?
Shimon: It’s kind of a central question, and I think that artists, we’re not educators, per se, we’re not politicians, per se, we’re not necessarily even activists political activists, per se, but of course, many are both. My point is that art has something, a special language to reach people that’s different than transmitting information. It’s not about teaching someone something or elucidating them. It’s about–this is just my opinion–offering a way of experiencing some familiar, even old, subject matter in new ways. It’s transmitting the opportunity for a new kind of experience. And then from that more effective experiential place, things can shuffle around a bit, and there might be a fresh re-examination or reconsideration of our prior assumptions, and maybe we come to new understandings and new feelings. The point is that it’s an experiential: it’s through the senses, and the body and the eyes and of course the ears and the skin and everything. That’s the way in, as opposed to something that’s more didactic or information-based: “I’m going to teach you about”, “I’m going to make you more aware of blank.” As opposed to, if we’re successful, maybe I might give you an experience of wonderment: what are these 20-foot-wide faces that are just staring at me? They don’t tell me who they are in an obvious way. The expressions are a bit emotionally restrained. There are so many different opinions and positions on this, but for me, successful art does require a kind of poetry. And that’s what I aim for, [my work] might be inspired by certain kinds of content and subject matter that I care about, but ultimately, I’m trying to create a good work of art. Something that’s visually arresting, something that gives us a sense of wonderment. And that is a felt, lived experience.
Heidi: It’s a beautiful answer. The last question I have for you is, thinking a little more about the themes of the High Holy Days, when we are able to welcome you on September 20th, we’ll be in the midst of Sukkot, and there is a focus on welcoming those who might not reside within our specific community, as well as homelessness and transience. These are all issues that San Francisco struggles with greatly at this moment in time. What do you hope that viewers take away from the experience of seeing your work in San Francisco?
Shimon: It’s a very good question. I always struggle with questions like that because there’s always the danger of art becoming too instrumental. I don’t have a goal…some artists might approach it like that, but I think that’s kind of a trap and a little dangerous, in a certain way. I’m very mindful of, and humble about what art can and cannot do. You know, art is very powerful. We know that, otherwise there wouldn’t be all these controversies about artworks that offend some segment of the population, etc.
First of all, I would like people to have a powerful aesthetic experience of their encounters with these individuals [Attie’s video subjects]. They’re looking at us, we look at them: we often think about how we see the other, or how we see the refugee or the asylee, but they’re also looking at us. How do they see us, what is their sense of how welcoming or rejecting we are? I hope that people will be moved and be given pause, and have some wonderment. But it’s not like what pops out at the end of that is a genie that comes out and then, the Bay Area lets in 25,000 more refugees in the next 12 months. That’s not the way that things work, but obviously we are all trying to, or most of us anyway, are trying to make a better world through the different tools and avenues that we have, so clearly my hope on that level is that there’ll be a greater sense of empathy and compassion for people who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Heidi: I’m struck by this sense of wanting to carve out a moment of wonder in time for people just to take a pause. It’s so easy to automatically move through time and by creating this moment, we can stop, take a collective breath, look at these faces, as you say, and consider what our own response reaction is. That, in and of itself, is such a powerful act to do, particularly around the High Holy Days.
Shimon: And the piece of the artwork is deliberately very slow. [The subjects] slowly walk towards the camera and then they just look for about 30 seconds, before cutting to black, and onto the next person. So, there are moments of pause, reflection, and flow pacing. One last thing I’ll add, is that the reason why I film the individuals, both in Night Watch and in several of my other pieces… poker face, emotionally restrained, is because we think, as the viewer, that we know how they feel. And we don’t. And they have a right to remain opaque and a right to their own interiority. So, I deliberately don’t deliver the emotional goods. And that throws it back to the viewer to struggle with their own on projections, in a certain way. And, of course, that applies to me as well.
Interview conducted on July 23 2021. This interview is featured on page six of the September Chronicle.
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