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"Sightings: The Ecology of an Art Museum"
video installation

01.02. - 24.03.13

A multiple-channel video installation exploring the heightened moment of mutual encounter between art viewer and art object, between works of art and museum visitors and employees. The artist selected 40 objects from the collection of San Francisco’s de Young Museum and asked individuals to participate in a “dialogue” with a work of art, each taking an expressive gesture and gaze that embodied their emotional response to the art object. The tableaux were filmed with production values that are reminiscent of old-master paintings. Slow-motion photography, frozen gestures, and an unseen moving stage comment on the active/passive quality of the interactions.
For Sightings: The Ecology of an Art Museum also reveals the relationship between the diverse inhabitants of San Francisco, who have come to the city from all over the world, and the “world collection” of art objects in the museum’s collection. The work was originally created at the invitation of San Francisco’s de Young Museum.


Forelesning (Norwegian):


I forbindelse med utstillingen Sightings: The Ecology of an Art Museum av Shimon Attie inviterer vi til foredrag med Per Olav Folgerø. 

Per Olav Folgerø er og cand.scient med hovedfag i nevrobiologi, og er førsteamanuensis ved Institutt for lingvistiske, litterære og estetiske studier ved Universitetet i Bergen. Han kommer til Stiftelsen 3,14 for å gi en innføring i begrepet nevroestetikk. Hvordan reagerer hjernen i møte med det estetiske, for eksempel visuell kunst og musikk?


Nevroestetikk er et relativt nytt felt hvor man studerer hjernens reaksjoner på estetisk stimuli. Begrepet kan plasseres i skjæringspunktet mellom kognitiv psykologi, nevrobiologi og kunst. ‘Nevroestetikk’ som begrep ble kodet så sent som i 1999 av hjerneforskeren Semir Zeki (Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience, University College, London).

PODCAST (Norwegian):

Kunstreisen lørdag 23.02. NRK P2
Podcast - Lydfil: 

Shimon Attie: Sightings, The Ecology of an Art Museum

Essay by Daniell Cornell

Deputy Director for Art and Senior Curator, Palm Springs Art Museum, Collection Connections Curator.

Shimon Attie’s multichannel video works continue his interest in communities and how notions of memory, place, and identity shape the affiliations that define them. In earlier works he deployed the power of photography to recover the memories of places that had been lost through time. Throughout the 1990s, in Berlin, Rome, and Manhattan, he projected historical, vintage photographs onto the exteriors of public buildings in order to recover the historical record of those places, especially their social uses and the conditions of the people whose lives there were no longer evident.



Attie’s use of complex layering elements generates tableaux that are multivalent and open to the play of diverse voices. His earlier works were created during the height of an era defined by identity politics, which is characterized by self-expression based on affiliations and group consciousness rather than the pre-established definitions of identity and difference imposed by governing ideologies.  Although often described as humanist because of his concern with the social and political situations of individuals, such a characterization is misleading and reductive. Attie’s works extend beyond the collective histories revealed by issues of race, gender, and class, emphasizing the shared psychological experiences that shape behavior. 


There has always been an uncanny sensibility in Shimon Attie’s photo-based and video artworks. The word “uncanny” derives from the German unheimlich, which refers to the unknown that is strangely familiar, and therefore known in some way after all. In Freudian theory, this paradox—of something one understands without an awareness of its origin or how one apprehends it—lies at the heart of memory, the bringing of something to mind through recall. According to Freud, a sense of the uncanny results when that which is being recalled is unavailable due to repression.


Attie’s research and recovery of the visual record of a place offers an analogue to the return of the repressed—the psychoanalytic notion that conscious thought processes are repeatedly interrupted by earlier desires that have been restrained through training and social conditioning. He reproduces this mechanism of the unconscious in the public arena through his collage of historical images. This layering of time and space through constructed tableaux reveals how one’s experience can be inflected by something familiar that lies outside of consciousness. Through his visual interventions, Attie brings to light that which has become hidden or rendered secret and loads the present with uncanny resonances.



Attie’s video projects extend the resonances of his layered imagery through the dramatic presentation of living subjects. His extensive investigations into the Welsh village of Aberfan, New York’s Bridgehampton auto racetrack, and now the de Young Museum share a similar rhetorical strategy in spite of their widely differing subjects. In them Attie translates the elements of his earlier photographic projections into the language of cinematic narrative and spectacle.


The competing claims of narrative and spectacle can be explained by contrasting Attie’s work with the photographs of Thomas Struth, who also explores the relationship between people and museums. Struth focuses on the space of exhibition by presenting groups of tourists in front of pictures, often with their backs to the camera. The viewers in his photographs are shown participating in the social terrain of museum display, which emphasizes the presentation of iconic art objects as masterworks. The depicted spectators are rendered as ciphers, with little room for any response except an implied reverence. These photographs enact the visual rhetoric of spectacle, which reduces the role of the viewers in the image to that of spectators, who are passive, rather than agents, who are active. The possibility of engagement is foreclosed because there is no way when looking at it to imagine how one might participate in creating new narrative possibilities for the scene. Like his depicted viewers, spectators in front of Struth’s photographs are thus reduced to the role of passive observers.


By contrast, Attie focuses on the exchange between viewers and art objects, isolating them in a decontextualized, black void (which Emily K. Doman Jennings explains in her accompanying essay). At first blush the theatrical elements of his darkened room, three video screens, and oscillating stage might seem to replicate the conditions of spectacle, closing off the video spectator’s agency and leaving little imaginative access into the filmed tableaux of viewer and object. However, Attie’s staging of this encounter calls into question the very roles of subject and object that usually define museum display. He reverses the rhetorical strategies of spectacle, which often function to numb the spectator, turning viewers simply into passive observers of an event or performance.



Attie’s decision to film viewers interacting with artworks from the de Young’s global survey collection recognizes the range of objects on display in the museum. However, in place of the customary organization by region and period that a visitor would encounter in the galleries, Attie has evoked the special affinities that individuals develop with specific objects. Through a revolving point of view, he draws attention equally to the viewers, the objects, and the space of exchange they share as it expands and collapses on the screen.


Additionally, by distributing his images around a darkened room on three separate channels, he incorporates the video’s spectator into the narrative of his filmed tableaux, adding a fourth layer to the three screened images. The result is a complex set of oscillating structures, both literal and figurative, which creates shifting layers of association. These associations change with different spectators of the video as their own experiences with the art objects are felt in context with the reactions of the multiple actors on the screen.


As spaces of display, museums decontextualize objects, creating surprising juxtapositions as visitors move from one gallery to the next. Attie’s project heightens that experience as his various tableaux overlap single objects, such as in the transitions from an Asmat warrior shield to a Victorian afternoon dress, from a Teotihuacan ballplayer figure to a post–World War II Bay Area figure painting. The cultures represented by these objects oscillate even as their impressions linger through Attie’s careful sequences and layering.


Moreover, the “sightings” referred to in the work’s title include those uncanny perceptions that hover just out of view. The literal oscillations of Attie’s video installation rhyme the sense of something puzzling or even mysterious and yet familiar that viewers experience when they are drawn to particular art objects. His project unhinges its spectators from their comfortable experiences in museums where they can rely on organized displays and explanatory texts. Instead, he creates a continuous cycle of exchanges, a series of ineffable experiences punctuated by moments of insight. Attie’s video provides glimpses of the knowledge that artworks can elucidate when they lead spectators into those unexpected associations from the unconscious that the uncanny makes available.  

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