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SAN FRANCISCO — I left Catharine Clark Gallery with many more questions than answers. The current exhibition, Here, Not Here, samples Shimon Attie’s celebrated work over the years, which has critically looked at many of the thorniest contemporary geopolitical issues, including Israel-Palestine and the ongoing refugee crisis.

The centerpiece of the exhibition debuts his newest work, a video called “Time Lapse Dance” (2021). The short three-channel video installation juxtaposes Afro-Brazilian dance with Mel Brooks’s satirical excerpt “Hitler on Ice,” from the movie History of the World, Part 1. Do we really need more art about Nazism and Hitler? It felt like low-hanging fruit to me. In fact, the entire time I watched “Time Lapse Dance,” I wondered why an artist known for his thoughtful, commemorative installations would resort to unwieldy satire to make a point.

Perhaps Attie’s most famous work on view is “The Writing on the Wall” (1992–93). The project was the artist’s first major undertaking after finishing an MFA in his hometown of San Francisco and moving to Berlin, where he projected pre-war images of street life onto the former Jewish quarter of Berlin. The beautiful pictures capture the quiet insertion of a history into the architectural tapestry of the Scheunenviertel neighborhood, making for a contemplative meditation on home, displacement, and the social fabric of the past that speaks volumes.

Shimon Attie, “The Writing on the Wall” (1992–93)

The subtlety of “The Writing on the Wall” only exaggerates the garishness of a Hitler cameo in “Time Lapse Dance.” The intention behind the seemingly bizarre combination was, according to Attie, “to give visual form to the shared American and Brazilian reality of nationalistic divisions that defines our political present.” Certainly this aim could have been achieved without clubbing the audience over the head with an obvious symbol of global fascism.

Behind the wall of heavy-handed metaphor, however, a new subtlety emerged. As Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” lilted in the air, I sat transfixed watching the intricate technical mastery of the contemporary Brazilian dancers. Attie created the film in collaboration with two of Bahia’s national dance companies, Balé Folclórico da Bahia and Balé Teatro Castro Alves. After themselves watching “Hitler on Ice,” the dancers offered movement responses in a variety of forms, including ballet, capoeira, and modern and Afro-Brazilian dance. Vibrant creative expression emanates from each dancer as they twist, kick, and leap with artistic precision and muscular exertion. (I was immediately transported back to one time several years ago when I rehearsed with the cast of Balé Folclórico da Bahia, caught in the middle of their graceful, full-arm circles and leg sweeps.) 

The breathtaking effect of the Afro-Brazilian dancers brings me back to “Time Lapse Dance” as a piece that might still hold some “poetic oxygen,” as Attie calls it. The reference to “Hitler on Ice,” besides feeling obvious, holds the audience at a distance. But across that divide, the Afro-Brazilian ensemble reminds us that, at times, it is the most understated of movements which speak the loudest.

Shimon Attie, “Time Lapse Dance,” installation view at Catharine Clark Gallery (photo by John Janca)

Shimon Attie: Here, Not Here continues at Catharine Clark Gallery (248 Utah Street, San Francisco) through October 30.

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Luke Williams

Luke Williams is an artist and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow his personal website at LukeWilliamsPhD.com.

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