New York

Shimon Attie

Over a decade ago, Shimon Attie made a splash with several series of color photographs depicting buildings in Berlin (and, later, other German and European cities) onto which he projected archival black-and-white photographs of those same neighborhoods in an earlier era, restoring, in ghostly form, their once-active Jewish populations. Those works, made in cities then undergoing massive social change, seemed aimed at asserting the importance of remembering extinguished populations, while also demonstrating how cities and buildings—and by extension cultures—forget or ignore their pasts. As such, they not only illustrated some of the central concerns of Holocaust studies and trauma studies, academic sub-disciplines then on the rise and now more or less firmly established, but also raised significant questions about the fundamental relationship between photography and memory.

For his most recent exhibition, “The History of Another,” Attie used the same technique—but this time his locus was Rome. Once again he dug up early twentieth-century archival images of local Jews (and other unidentified minorities—including, perhaps, Gypsies) and appended them to contemporary scenes of the former Jewish quarters of the Italian capital—usually involving some sort of classical structure. Under Castle of St. Angelo (all works 2003) pictures a chestnut peddler projected under a brick archway next to an ancient wall. In On Via della Tribuna di Compitelli, two dark-haired girls (now, of course, long dead) gaze coyly and a little fearfully at us from a nineteenth-century doorway, while an unidentifiable classical building “in the present” (signified by saturated color) is completely covered with scaffolding. Other works feature Roman columns, towers, fragments, and ruins, but also—as if to live up to the guidebook epithet “city of contrasts”—modern apartment blocks and construction cordons, with images of Jews floating in their midst.

As documents of architecture, Attie’s high-resolution photographs can be quite exquisite. Usually taken just after the magic hour, the images of buildings against cobalt blue skies at once set off the structures’ classical grace and denaturalize them from their surroundings. But the claim that the artist “addresses . . . the history and memory of Jewish and other marginalized communities,” however well intentioned, is misdirected. For one, Attie neglects the specificities of Roman and Italian history. After all, Jews have been in Rome since the age of the Roman Empire and have been a more or less continuous (if sometimes ghettoized) presence in the city; there was no massive deportation of Jews from Italy during or after the Second World War (some 85 percent of Italian Jews survived the Holocaust); and no less an authority than Primo Levi claimed, in the 1980s, that there is no persistent anti-Semitism in Italy. Whereas the earlier work’s archival photographs were initially taken in a period of heavy migrations of Eastern European Jews into Berlin (one which coincided with the development of the photographic medium), and their projection thus reflects their ethereal disappearance during the late 1930s and early ’40s, the new works’ projections seem comparatively arbitrary. Moreover, Attie’s idea of incorporating “other marginalized communities” in his act of prosthetic recuperation seems inattentive to the particular “histories of another” that continue to affect Italian political life.

During the 1990s, Rome underwent a massive influx of immigrants from southeastern Europe and Africa, and the Berlusconi government whipped up xenophobia among the majority population. If, as his title suggests, Attie wants to connect his pictures to this deplorable situation, he ought to do more to acknowledge nuances in the structure of racial and ethnic difference: To put it simply, anti-Semitism does not necessarily equal racism, no more than asserting the longtime presence of Jews necessarily relates new immigrants’ plight to theirs. Both as critique of racism and assertion of pride, Attie’s liberal humanist notion of “otherness” seems too capacious.

Notwithstanding their evident craft and eerie beauty, the images in “The History of Another” lack a punctum, something that pierces the viewer, dislodging his or her sense of complacency or sentimentalized empathy. Memory—and forgetting—are more complicated, more “other,” than this.

Nico Israel