October 1, 2022

Shimon Attie resuscitates ‘Hitler on Ice’ with Afro-Brazilian dance

SAN FRANCISCO – I left the Catharine Clark Gallery with many more questions than answers. The current exhibition, Here, not heresamples Shimon attieThe famous work of over the years, which has critically examined many of the thorniest contemporary geopolitical issues, including Israel-Palestine and the current refugee crisis.

The centerpiece of the exhibition presents his latest work, a video titled “Accelerated dance” (2021). The short three-channel video installation juxtaposes Afro-Brazilian dance with Mel Brooks’ satirical excerpt “Hitler on Ice” from the film History of the world, part 1. Do we really need more art on Nazism and Hitler? It was like a handy fruit for me. In fact, the whole time I watched “Time Lapse Dance,” I wondered why an artist known for his thoughtful memorial installations would resort to heavy satire to make a point.

Perhaps Attie’s most famous work on the bill is “The Writing on the Wall” (1992-93). The project was the artist’s first major undertaking after completing an MFA in his hometown of San Francisco and moved to Berlin, where he projected pre-war images of street life on Berlin’s former Jewish Quarter. The beautiful images capture the quiet insertion of a story into the architectural tapestry of the Scheunenviertel district, which says a lot about the house, displacement and social fabric of the past.

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

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

Behind the wall of muscular metaphor, however, a new subtlety has emerged. As Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” sang in the air, I sat down, mesmerized, watching the complex technical mastery of contemporary Brazilian dancers. Attie created the film in collaboration with two of Bahia’s national dance companies, Balé Folclórico de Bahia and Balé Teatro Castro Alves. After watching “Hitler on Ice”, the dancers offered movement responses in various forms, including ballet, capoeira, and modern and Afro-Brazilian dance. A vibrant creative expression emanates from each dancer as they spin, kick and jump with artistic precision and muscular effort. (I was immediately transported to the past several years ago when I rehearsed with the cast of Balé Folclórico da Bahia, caught in the middle of their graceful circles of arms and legs.)

The breathtaking effect of the Afro-Brazilian dancers brings me back to “Time Lapse Dance” as a piece that could still contain a “poetic oxygen”, as Attie calls it. The reference to “Hitler on Ice”, in addition to being obvious, keeps the public at bay. But through this cleavage, the Afro-Brazilian ensemble reminds us that, sometimes, it is the most sober movement that speaks the loudest.

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

Shimon Attie: Here, not here continues at the Catharine Clark Gallery (248 Utah Street, San Francisco) until October 30.

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