Artist talk with Shimon Attie at the New York Public Library
By Helena Calmfors
In celebration of Shimon Attie’s new monograph and current exhibition Facts on the Ground at Jack Shainman Gallery, the New York Public Library hosted a talk with the artist on May 10. Norman Kleebatt, chief curator at the Jewish Museum, and Maya Benton, curator at the International Center of Photography, were also participating.
The topic of the talk was Attie’s latest work consisting of 30 site-specific installations in Israel and Palestine. The installations consisted of light boxes with illuminated phrases, formulated specifically to certain Middle Eastern sites, with the intention of having the photos of the installations as the final artwork.
Attie explained that the name of the project, Facts on the Ground, alludes to the notion that you can change political reality by creating “facts on the ground” – which the Israeli settlements are an example of in Attie’s interpretation. The artist also created his own facts on the ground, be it a lot more literal, with his stated facts spelled out by the light boxes in his installations.
The phrases he created were deliberately ambiguous to keep the images poetic. Some phrases were more obvious, like the “Finders Keepers” installed on The Temple Mount or “Land Lord” installed outside a Palestinian village annexed by the Israelis in 1967. Others were harder to decode, like “Wild and Urgent” or “Do Unto Others Before”. One of the strongest phrases in the collection is the “No Here and Now”, serving as a comment on how all is mediated from the past in this place and conflict.
On Maya Benton’s question on the theatrical parallel between the Hollywood sign and the illuminated phrases, Attie responded that he chose to use light boxes because of the way they interact with their surroundings. His photos are highly driven by what he finds visually pleasing, not just their conceptual value. This is something that proved to be a challenge during the production of the project. Attie arrived in the Middle East with 80 already formulated phrases ready to be matched up with suitable surroundings. He explained how it wasn’t hard for him to find meaningful places that matched the text, but many of the sites just didn’t photograph well and creating a photograph that was beautiful was central to the artist. On the question of how political the pieces are, Attie responded that he is only highlighting the issues at hand. To exemplify he used the photo with the phrase “A Certain Problem” and said: “ I don’t say what the problem is”.
Images © Shimon Attie
Article © Helena Calmfors