Thursday, May 19, 2005

Streets of shame

A few years ago, American artist Susan Hiller was wandering through Berlin when she came across a street sign: Judenstrasse, or Jews' Street. On journeying through Germany, she discovered 303 streets preserving the memories of former residents who had only recently been killed. Judenstrasse, Judendorf, Judentreppe, Judenhoflein.

Surprised and shocked, Hiller embarked on an obsessive three year journey, photographing and filming each and every street, from bustling cities and bland suburbs to snowy farmland and leafy lanes, so that the histories would forever remain visible. She then drew an annotated map, marking every Judengasse, Judenweg, Judenpfad, Judenhain, Judenbackel and others in the entirety of Germany, from Aachen to Zerbst.

Viewed in isolation, the images are quite mundane, but packed tightly together in the Timothy Taylor Gallery on Dering Street, so many questions rise up in the viewer. Were the street names ever torn down like their namesakes? Who were these Jewish communities living in isolated villages in the countryside or the busy cities such as Munich or Berlin? What were their unique and personal experiences? What do the street names mean to current residents, if anything?

More questions arise watching the accompanying film entitled The J Street Project. For 67 minutes, the video camera focusses on different "J-streets". Some are devoid of any movement but leaves rustling in the wind or the sun setting behind the horizon; others feature people blithely cycling along, having their hats blow off as a juggernaut hurtles past them, or waiting at a railroad crossing in their cars. You wonder if they are even aware of the history of the streets they are moving through; if they look up at the street sign and reflect upon its significance to German history.

"These signs commemorate something, but who remembers it?" Hiller told The Observer. "Nobody. All of my work deals with ghosts in a way that some people see and some people don't. Now the signs are seen as respectful, but what do they commemorate? A history of racism and segregation."

Overall, the senses provoked in me were disquiet, unease and absence. However, my mood considerably perked up upon leaving the gallery when David Hockney walked in and opened the door for us. We were both stunned into silence and couldn't even say thank you! Blond and wearing a light-coloured trench coat, he looked fit, agile, tanned and much younger than in his photos.

A little shell-shocked by this fleeting encounter, and grinning like loons, we could move no further than the end of Dering Street, where we tumbled down into Fiesta Havana for a hearty meal of corn chips with red chilli, coriander and lime salsa; gaucho steak with blue cheese and fire roasted corn; steak burger bound with spicy chorizo; and Corona beers, strawberry caipirinha and raspberry mojito.

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