Jewish HistoryFilm & VideoJewish Culture & IdeasPhotographyContemporary Art
Jun 18, 2009–Aug 18, 2009
There are 303 roads, streets, and paths in Germany, whose names refer to a Jewish presence. Artist Susan Hiller has visited all of them over a three-year period, filming and taking photographs of these historically evocative places. The J.Street Project is an exhibition of photographs, video, and an artist’s book that explores the landscape’s capacity to memorialize. Hiller’s subject matter is the tracing of an absence, explicitly named on maps and street signs as “Judenstrasse” or “Judenweg.” These banal markers invest ordinary German places, inner-city shopping streets, dreamy lanes, anonymous suburbs, and secluded country roads, with an eloquent silence. Hiller’s approach to the enormity of the Holocaust is completely fresh and succeeds in pulling in audiences who no longer feel capable of considering the subject and engages them in a new dialogue about survival and renewal.
Artist Susan Hiller’s chance encounter with a Berlin street called Judenstrasse (Jews Street) in 2002 was the unexpected experience that set into motion an arduous three year journey to find and photograph every street in Germany with the prefix Juden (Jews) in its name—a surprising 303 sites in all. Hiller was initially shocked, but mostly confused by this strangely ambiguous commemoration of people who had been exterminated not so long ago. “The Jews are gone,” she says, “but the street names remain as ghosts of the past, haunting the present.”
Susan Hiller: The J.Street Project, an evocative exhibition that includes Hiller’s photographs and a film, is the result of her long and fascinating look at this ambiguity. At the heart of the exhibition are the more than 300 color photographs of busy boulevards, quiet country alleys, and run-of-the-mill suburban streets. Pigment printed in an almost painterly fashion on watercolor paper and identically sized and framed, the images are hung in a seven-foot grid—a silent procession of thoroughfares and the signs that mark them. The exhibition also features Hiller’s 67-minute single-channel video that further interrogates the ordinariness surrounding the 303 street signs, which appear to be entirely overlooked by the current residents. Displayed alongside the video and the photographs is a large-scale map of Germany with each location listed and pinpointed.
These streets and paths, renamed in 1938 by the Nazis to eliminate references to Jews, underwent a name-restoring process after World War II as part of the Allied program of de-Nazification. In some cases, this process is ongoing today. A clear example of this appears in the exhibition. The Nazis had changed the name of Spandau’s Judenstrasse to Kinkelstrasse after a 19th Century racial theorist they admired. In 2002, the original name was restored but only after a lengthy and heated local debate. Hiller’s image shows the two names mounted one over the other with Kinkelstrasse struck through in red. Both signs are framed by Christmas lights.
While Susan Hiller: The J.Street Project confronts a specific moment from the past, Hiller does not see her work as historical, but rather as an ongoing contemplation of our collective cultural dilemmas. “A photograph can only, ever, represent things as they are in the present moment when the image is taken,” she says. “But the present is a summation of everything that precedes it and each photograph will be seen in the context of everything that happens afterwards. In that way, The J.Street Project has allowed me to reflect not only on one unique, incurable, traumatic absence, but also on more recent attempts to destroy minority cultures and erase their presence.”
The work of Susan Hiller has long been recognized for its excavation of everyday phenomena that lie within the recesses, byways, and blind spots of our cultural surround. In a distinguished career of more than 30 years, Hiller has drawn upon sources as diverse as dreams (Dream Mapping, 1974), postcards (Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, 1972-76), Punch & Judy shows (An Entertainment, 1990), archives (From the Freud Museum, 1991-7), horror movies (Wild Talents, 1997), UFO sightings (Witness, 2000), narratives of near-death experiences (Clinic, 2004) and the audio archives of extinct languages (The Last Silent Movie, 2007-8).
Susan Hiller graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1961. She went on to post-graduate study at Tulane University in New Orleans, with a National Science Foundation fellowship in anthropology. After completing fieldwork in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, she left academic anthropology, traveled extensively throughout Europe, North Africa, and Asia, and settled in 1969 in London, where she began to develop an art practice.
Solo exhibitions of Susan Hiller's work have taken place at Kunsthalle Basle, Castello di Rivoli (Turin), BAWAG/Generali Foundation (Vienna), Kunst-raum des Deutschen Bundestages (Berlin), Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (Gateshead), Moderna Museet (Stockholm), and The Jewish Museum (New York). A major retrospective will be held at Tate, London in 2011.
The J.Street Project, 2002–05, a 644-page, cloth-bound book, is part of Hiller’s installation project. Featuring each of the 303 color photographs in the series, captioned, as well as a map, an introduction by the artist, and an essay by Jörg Heiser, the publication was issued in English and German in a limited edition of 2,000 copies by the Compton Verney House Trust, Warwickshire, England, and the Berlin Artists-in-Residence Programme of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Berlin, in 2005. A limited number of copies of The J.Street Project are available in the Museum’s gift store for $65.
The J.Street Project is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum and is generously supported by a lead grant from the Koret and Taube Foundations, with additional support from Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt, Barbara and Kurt Gronowski, and the Consulate General of Germany, San Francisco.