Susan Hiller: The J. Street Project

November 9, 2008 - February 1, 2009

Artist Susan Hiller researched every German street that has the prefix “Juden” (Jews) in its name, and created a grid of 303 photographs arranged alphabetically by location, along with a map of Germany, a list of sites, and a video documenting the hundreds of locations she identified throughout the country. The street signs she found mark the absence of Jewish communities that lived in Germany before the Holocaust.

In 2002, Susan Hiller was invited to Berlin for an artist’s residency. Walking around the city, she was startled to encounter a street sign bearing the name Judenstrasse (Jews’ Street). She found the sign strangely ambiguous. It was meant to commemorate the Jewish community that once inhabited the area, but for Hiller it marked instead a history of discrimination and violence. She subsequently embarked on a three-year journey throughout Germany to discover, photograph, and film every street with the prefix Juden in its name. Her resulting work takes the form of a wall installation of 303 photographs, a corresponding map of Germany and list of street locations, a book, and a 67-minute video edited from hundreds of hours of footage.

“The Jews are gone,” Hiller has said, “but the street names remain as ghosts of the past, haunting the present.” These signs now function as inadequate memorials to the destroyed communities, marking locations dating back as far as the eleventh century where Jews had lived, sometimes completely segregated from public and municipal life. 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 Germany’s troubled past can be seen in Hiller’s photograph taken in Berlin’s Spandau borough. Under a Judenstrasse sign, another sign denotes the street’s Nazi era name, Kinkelstrasse, which was inspired by a nineteenth-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.

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 work’s 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, Hiller’s work has a tragic relevance to present-day world affairs.