letteratura mondo
ISSN 2281-1966

Melancholic History: Memory, Loss and Visualization in the Works of Shimon Attie

By Monica Turci

This article discusses the way in which the public art installations by Jewish American contemporary artist Shimon Attie have addressed the issue of the representation of history. Like many artists of his generation, also Attie has conceived his work as a reaction against traditional commemorative art and its treatment of the historical past. Whereas this celebrated the aspirations, heroism and triumphs of the nation State, Attie’s work challenges historical and political myths in order to re-surface histories that have been misrepresented, occluded, marginalized or overlooked by the dominant value system. Unlike the typical form of the monument – symbolic, elevated, larger than life, soaring upward – Attie’s works uses new media and radical formal strategies to counteract the hermetic and private character of traditional forms of commemorative art. His work does not dominate, but aims at engaging public spaces and creating a dialogue between past and present, art and communities. As the works discussed in this article show, the historical representations that emerge from these are heterogeneous, plural, controversial and complex in the way that defies simple classifications and avoids closure. This article begins with an illustration of Attie’s early and much discussed projects on the representation of histories of the Holocaust – namely The Writing of the Wall, Berlin (1991- 1993) and Trains: Dresden (1993). It then focuses attention on his later and still less discussed – but not less significant and challenging – projects. Portraits of Exile, Copenhagen (1995) sets a disturbing comparison between Danish Jewish exiles and contemporary immigrants from Eastern Europe. In Between Dreams and History (1998) and The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan – An Anatomy of a Welsh Village (2006) Attie shifts attention to collective memories and micro-histories to give voice to migrant’s fears and dreams and the way entire communities have come to terms with traumatic events.

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