How do you represent an absence? When something has disappeared, how do you portray its non-existence? When people have ceased to be, how do you remind yourself of their former presence?
The U.S-born, British-based artist Susan Hiller found herself in Berlin in 2002. Walking around the city she came across a street named Judenstrasse: Jews’ Street. This led her on into a three-year project - a kind of pilgrimage - to photograph and film all the street signs in Germany that incorporate the word Jude. She found 303 signs in streets, lanes, alleys and avenues scattered throughout the country. These were the reminders, still present, of an absence.
Her 67 minute film, The J.Street Project, is showing at Tate Britain until May 15. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see this extraordinary work, I urge you to visit the Tate and have a look for yourself. In this week when the Jewish world has marked Yom HaShoah – the memorial day that commemorates the deaths associated with the Holocaust – I would suggest that this piece by Hiller is one of the profoundest meditations on the Shoah that has yet been produced.
What makes her documentary record - 303 scenes long - so extraordinary? As the film unfolds we see a series of static camera shots, each of which contains somewhere on screen one street sign containing the word Jude: Judendorf, Judenhof, Judenweg, Judengass, Judenberg, Judennam...
Each shot records - for a few seconds or for a minute and more - life going on. Everyday life. ‘Ordinary’ life. Sleepy villages, noisy urban centres, rural locations. Children play, church bells ring – the sounds are mesmerisingly enmeshed with the visual images - lorries thunder past and an old man loses his hat, and his balance (so, there’s almost an ‘accident’, someone almost dies, you can see it about to happen) - birds sing, the sun sets over empty fields, a road-drilling punctures silence, rain drips from closed shutters, businessmen hurry, shoppers wander, tourists point, the wind picks up, a graveyard is in the background, lovers embrace, trees rustle: and slowly you see the artfulness with which Susah Hiller has composed this threnody for a disappeared people. The ‘Jew’ is always present - in the street sign. And the signs signal an absence. This is Germany, and life is going on, everyday life, and the past haunts the present.
The film does not offer any ‘meaning’ to the events of the Holocaust – no ‘meaning’ can ever be generated, only a reflection on the limitations of ascribing ‘meaning’ to events – but the cumulative effect of watching these images unfold in real time is to create a disturbing, poignant sense of loss: it is like watching a story unfold, a story without words - except the reiterated Jude – a story that seems random and discontinuous but that one senses is built up in phases, in sections and selections of images and sounds, like a visual poem that flows into stanzas, that echoes and re-echoes. The piece is like a meditation, it is slow and reflective, and you think nothing is ‘happening’. But there is an underlying plan, a purpose, a shaping, controlling hand at work – hidden, but in open view.
In the blurb outside the room where this film is shown, the Tate suggests that ‘For this factual, indexical project Hiller employed a neutral seriality in her approach’. But there is nothing ‘neutral’ about this collage of 303 clips of film: each one is loaded, each one triggers thoughts, feelings, associations in the viewer. Each one is a meditation on death, and life, and how closely they are woven together, and how life always goes on and how wondrous and how desolate that experience can be.