NEW YORK, NY.- Finding and photographing every street in Germany with the prefix Juden (Jews) in its name: this was the task that the London-based, American-born artist Susan Hiller set for herself in 2002 after a chance encounter with a street sign reading Judenstrasse (Jews Street) in Berlin. She found the sign strangely ambiguous. It was meant to commemorate the Jewish community that once inhabited the area, but for Hiller it marked a history of discrimination, segregation and violence. She subsequently discovered that there were many streets throughout Germany containing the prefix Juden. The Jews are gone, Susan Hiller has said, but the street names remain as ghosts of the past, haunting the present.
Hiller completed The J. Street Project (2002 2005) three years later to much acclaim. Now, the photographic wall installation, film, and book debuts in New York City at The Jewish Museum on Sunday, November 9, 2008 (continuing through February 1, 2009).
At the core of this pioneering artists resonant exhibition are more than 300 identically scaled and framed color photographs of roads, streets, and pathssome mute, most with street signs reading variations ranging from Judenallee (avenue), to Judengraben (grove), to Judenweg (way) and beyond. Hung in a seven-foot-tall grid on a white wall on the Museums second floor, the photographs suggest the everydayness, and something more, in these thoroughfares in cities, suburbs, towns, and, perhaps most surprisingly, rustic roads and woodland paths. The signs recorded by Hiller now function as inadequate memorials to destroyed communities, some marking locations where Jews had lived segregated from public and municipal life, as far back as the 11th century.
Nearby this dense visual panorama of photographs hangs a large-scale, starkly simplified map of Germany and a list, pinpointing the location of each street. This map tells its own story, as a viewer notices how very few streets are to be found in the north of the country and how many in the south. In an adjacent gallery, a 67-minute single-channel video projection opens with a street lamp ablaze against a large, dark postwar building, its metallic street sign placing the viewer on Jews Street. The video footage shows all 303 sites and has been edited to reveal the texture and pace of ordinary life. People converse, children play, birds fly overhead, a scooter screeches past, traffic stops at a light, and a cyclist rides across the screen, the signs completely overlooked.
The artist has said that her use of J. Street recalls, with bitter irony, the loss of Jewish communities by using the type of classification terminology that the Nazis employed to destructive ends. The works title suggests the dangers of reducing individuals and groups to an abstract bureaucratic code. By probing the tension between past and present, Hiller has said that she hopes the work will provide an opportunity for meditation not only on this incurable, traumatic absence, but also on the causes of more recent attempts to destroy minority cultures and erase their presence. In the wake of genocide and ethnic violence in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Darfur, Hillers work has relevance to present-day world affairs.
The visitor to the exhibition can contemplate where and how Jewish families lived and worked on these streets, for, although shop fronts, advertisements, and graffiti testify to habitation, few of Hillers images show people. In Judenpfad, Bad Königshofen, Bayern (#24), the silhouette of a mother and child on a round blue sign, warning of children at play, on another level can be seen as echoing the long ago presence of other children, and in Judengasse, Schutterwald, Baden-Württemberg (#244), the letters in the street name seem to disappear into the cheery decorative border of a house. Hiller has created a universe of reverberations, whether it be Am Judenkirchhof (Jews graveyard) in a cemetery or Judenhof (Jews courtyard) on a snowy hill or Judenleiten (Jews route) in the fenced backyard of an ordinary house.
In 1938, the Nazis changed the names of all streets that referred to Jews. After World War II, many were changed back to their prewar names during the Allied program of de-Nazification, a name-restoring process that is ongoing. Perhaps the clearest reference to Germanys troubled past can be seen in Hillers photograph taken in Berlins Spandau borough. Under a Judenstrasse sign, another sign denotes the streets Nazi era name, Kinkelstrasse, which was inspired by a 19th-century German writer whose nationalist beliefs the Nazis admired. The decision to restore the name to Judenstrasse in 2002 came after much heated local debate. In the photograph, a red slash mars the Kinkelstrasse sign.
An American artist who has lived and worked in London since the early 1970s, Susan Hiller has shown widely throughout Europe and the U.S. over the course of a distinguished four-decade career. Before turning to art, Hiller studied anthropology to the PhD level. Many critics find her art-making practices to hinge on a sustained critique of the discipline she rejected. Her work was included in the exhibition, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (2007-2008), which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and traveled to the National Museum of Women in the Arts; P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center; and the Vancouver Art Gallery. She is most widely known for Witness, an audio-sculpture commissioned by Artangel, London, in 2000 and exhibited at Tate Britain in 2001 before traveling to the Havana Biennale and the Biennale of Sydney. In 1998, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, devoted a solo exhibition to her work. In 1999, she participated in The Muse in the Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and returned to New York City two years later to show Psi Girls, her five-screen video installation, at the Gagosian Gallery. Susan Hiller was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998 and a DAAD Fellowship in Berlin (2002-2003). The artist has produced a number of books, including After the Freud Museum (Book Works, 1996 and reprinted 2000). She holds the Baltic Chair of Contemporary Art at the University of Newcastle, Department of Fine Art.