SAN FRANCISCO, CA.-
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."
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. It is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum
June 18 through October 6, 2009. A limited edition companion book is also available in the Museum's gift store.
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 mood of each image is distinct as the season, time of day and location change, but in each there is a sense of the unresolved nature of the historical status of these places. A snowy country lane lying along the railroad tracks, while charming, attests to a long and bleak legacy of discrimination and segregation when Jews were not allowed to use main roads and were restricted to paths on the outskirts of villages and towns. Some streets mark ancient Jewish settlements from as early as the 11th Century indicating the historical depth of Jewish life in Germany. A narrow city alley is a testament to how cramped and oppressive ghetto streets were.
And while most of the images are devoid of people, Hiller's camera captures many incidental and transient details - weather, buildings, cows, cars, a few children. "It's their everyday matter-of-fact-ness that makes the photographs unsettling," she says. "They convey an uncanny resonance by revealing connections between some very ordinary contemporary locations, history and remembrance, as the street signs repeatedly name what's missing from all these places."
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. Traffic stops at a light, an old man's hat blows off his head, birds flit by, people chat. But these banal moments exist in an uneasy tension with scenes that seem rife with a darker meaning - under a sign that reads Judengasse, another sign points the way to the train station. In the background, trains regularly appear and rush off. Hiller's footage, coolly shifting from emptiness to weightiness, makes no conclusion, but does make the appeal that the traces of history in our surroundings merit interpretation.
Displayed alongside the video and the photographs is a large-scale map of Germany with each location listed and pinpointed. "The multiplicity of these places over the entire country is very special," she says. "And it opens a very different picture of what happened during the Holocaust. Somehow my image had always been of people being rounded up in Berlin and taken away ... But thinking about what happened in a tiny rural village on an old street next to the church, where there had been a Jewish community for generations, evokes a very different picture."
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 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."
"We are honored to present this engaging and provocative project to Bay Area audiences," says CJM Director Connie Wolf. "Hiller's compelling and powerful photographs provide illuminating and insightful perspectives on examining history and the role of memory through a contemporary lens."
The J.Street Project has been shown around the world including: The National Art Museum, Beijing, China, Guandong Museum of Art, Guandong, China 2009, BAWAG Foundation, Vienna, Austria 2008/2009, Kunst-raum des Deutschen Bundestages, Berlin, Germany 2008/2009