Ghosts of the Past: Susan Hiller's "J. Street Project"
Three years and 303 photographs later, artist Susan Hiller completed her journey through Germany with the sole purpose of recording all street signs that used the prefix Juden (Jew) in their names. From a desolate snow-covered road to graffiti-tagged city storefront, Hiller documents the past presence of a people and a culture through geographical markers. All in existence prior to WWII, these street names mark neighborhoods where Jews lived either by force or choice. Some were changed during the Nazi cleanse initiative and were later restored in a denazification process.
Of this ambiguous commemoration of an exterminated people, Susan says, "The Jews are gone but the street names remain as ghosts of the past, haunting the present." "The J. Street Project" instigates a unique conversation about Germany’s traumatic Jewish history, providing a new way of looking at pre- and post-Holocaust Germany, intentionally leaving out steadfast conclusions.
In the exhibit, numbered photographs are accompanied by a map of Germany identifying the location of each of the street signs. Also on view is Hiller’s 60+ minute single-channel video of these same signs and a German-English glossary viewers can use to decipher the meaning of each sign.
We caught up with Susan for a few minutes before a group dicussion of the work at the museum to talk anthropology, ghosts and contemporary art.
You have a Ph.D in anthropology but a career in art. Would you say your work is always informed by your roots in anthropology?
I wouldn't say it is. As a second generation conceptual artist, I focus on ideas and subject matter rather than plain aesthetics. I'm drawn to paradoxes, things that I'm simultaneously attracted to and distanced from. The trivial, the strange, the invisible and not worth looking at—I pick these up and delve deeper as a way to spur dialogue.
This exhibit marks the presence of an absence that you call "ghosts of the past." Do you believe in ghosts?
Some people see ghosts, most people don't see ghosts but they have a presence even though they're not there. I'm very interested in the "supernatural" as a cultural fact and these "ghosts" make for very good subject matter.
Your projects have a very serious tone and are deeply layered. Do you ever inject humor into your work?
I think Freud said that emotions of fear and humor are very close together and we use humor to cover up our fear. I don't think I set out to make humorous work … I don't deal too much with jokes, but some of my pieces do have a humorous side.
Do you ever grow tired of talking about your work?
Always. I mean, I'm sort of dreading this group discussion right now.
"The J. Street Project" is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through August 18.