Signs of the lasting impact of hate
At first glance, Susan Hiller's J. Street Project appears as a labyrinth of unrelated photos depicting droll suburbs or varying landscapes. However, closer inspection of her work reveals the unifying theme of a street sign in each photo, which stands in for the Jewish inhabitants that once resided in each area. Hiller's exhibit, Colby's newest addition to the Davis Gallery, was completed in Germany over the course of three years (2002-2005).
Hiller described her work as dealing with ghosts, stating, "[The J. Street Project] began as a chance encounter with a Berlin street called "Judenstrasse" (Jews' Street) in 2002...I had a powerful mixed reaction, a feeling that although the name was meant as a respectful commemoration, in fact, what is being commemorated is a complicated history involving racism, segregation and violence".
The final installation is comprised of 303 photographs, a 67-minute video, and a map and book documenting these sites.
Just past the main feature of the photograph installation is a screening room of Hiller's video footage. There is no narration in the film: it is simply an array of live action shots from her studies of the J. Street signs.
The background noise is eerily peaceful, with the trill of song birds and softly warbled conversation barely reaching the viewer's ears as they observe lush landscape's reminiscent of a New England in the summer and stark snowy planes embellished with a single specter of a dead tree.
The photos themselves are telling of the former segregation of the Jewish population and serve as wistful trinkets, which provoke thoughts of the past tragedies of a population being displaced and exterminated.
The video is able to expand upon this remembrance through recording the relevant symbolism of changing landscapes. One clip documents the slow setting of the sun behind the prominent image of a "Judengasse" sign.
The camera remains focused on this image as the sun gradually slips beneath the horizon line and the sign becomes nearly illegible, representing the end of an era and the ignorance of night that many live in with regard to the past.
Hiller's well-planned and incredibly stirring exhibit reminds us not just of the discrimination the Jewish population in Germany faced, but also of the modern discrimination and of the violence it engenders.
Hiller’s map of Germany is spattered with numbers, which signify every commemorative sign she found during her travels.
Expand this map across the entire world to include all representations of discrimination and it would not be surprising to see numbers so closely compacted that entire nations are blacked out by their own prejudice.
The J. Street Project is not just an elegy for former discrepancies; it is a reminder of current and future bigotry.