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March 18, 2011

Fully Immersed into Babel and Ghost towns: Susan Hiller’s WITNESS & J STREET

by quaesitor

Most of the exhibition is bathed in unobtrusive but artful lighting. But then one is led down a dark passage into a pitch-black space, with minimal, if any, lighting. In fact there are a number of rooms like this in the exhibition. But two in particular blew us away. We were at the Tate Britain over the weekend – primarily to see the fabulous Watercolour exhibition (HIGHLY recommended if you get the chance). But we then popped upstairs to the Susan Hiller retrospective. Definitely a mixed bag – but the highlights made the entire Tate visit worthwhile.

Susan Hiller is an American artist who has been working in the UK for years. Her output is immensely diverse – from installations to collections to experiments with colour, video and sound. The two installations which stood out though were the rooms entitled WITNESS and THE J. STREET PROJECT.

WITNESS

It is a sudden, arresting experience: one is surrounded by darkness, a forest of dangling, vibrating audio speakers, and the hubbub of what sounds like a 1000 indistinguishable voices. There are just a few spotlights (in deep blue and orange). It is all rather ethereal – perhaps a bit like a techie interpretation of Tolkein’s Lothlorien. Then bring one of the speakers to your ear, and you hear a voice talking – most likely in a language you can’t understand – in fact the exhibition blurb tells you that there are 400 different people in a wide variety of languages.

It is multi-sensory and disorienting. And hard to know what it all means, especially because I didn’t even recognise some of the languages I was hearing, let alone understand them.

It turns out that each is an eye-witness description of something from beyond. UFO & Alien encounters, as it happens. I was rather disappointed by that, to be honest. But I suppose it made some sense of the whole desired effect. She is presumably insisting that with such a diversity of voices describing similar experiences, we must assume that there really is something ‘out there’. Which may well be… who knows!?

But whether it was part of her plan or not, what struck me most forcibly was the profound sense of bewilderment that this cacophony of unintelligible voices causes. It did feel like stepping into a microcosm of post-Babel chaos. The sight is starkly beautiful, but not being able to understand what is being said is unsettling. Rather like being in a public place (like a train station) foreign country whose language you don’t speak. You’re surrounded but isolated.

Which made the darkness which envelopes this installation particularly fitting. [For another take on these themes, check out the wonderful Babel Tree.] But this is installation art at its most visceral and compelling. Then down another corridor is another blackened room. This time, though, the effect is less immediate – but its slow burning power is unmistakable.

THE J. STREET PROJECT

Hiller visited Germany several times between 2002 and 2005. She had noticed how many towns and villages around the country had streets that still bore the marks of a time when Jewish people played a full part in German society. So many are called Jewish Street or Jewish House etc…

So she simply photographed or filmed them and then knitted them together in a 67 minute video installation shown on a large screen in another pitch-black room. Nothing much happens. At times you see people riding past on their bikes on a bright summer day, or walking home carrying bags of groceries. But that’s precisely the point. This is the banality of life carrying on as if nothing has happened; as if oblivious to the millions who died in gas chambers, as the result of the efficiencies of the banality of evil that was the Holocaust (to quote Hannah Arendt).

There is no comment. Just juxtaposition. And absence. The only sounds are those of singing birds and the gentle bustle of life. And the effect is haunting (even for the few minutes that we stayed in there). So these really are images of absence. Just as this reviewer picks up, the most chilling were the number of places called “Judengasse” (see bottom left). It just means Jewish Alley – but no one can miss the word’s awful Holocaust resonances. So while the people who lived in these places have long been obliterated, it’s extraordinary to find that the street names have not.

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