In September of 1940, the 48-year-old German-Jewish scholar Walter Benjamin committed suicide in the Catalonian border town of Portbou. Benjamin had left Germany for France in the 1930s and fled Paris in June of that year, narrowly escaping arrest. Despite having safely managed to cross the border into Spain, he wrongly believed that he was going to be turned back by the Spanish government and chose to take a fatal overdose of morphine rather than risk being handed over to the Nazis.
On his death, Benjamin left behind a lifetime’s worth of essays—many unpublished— that have since garnered him posthumous renown. His Marxist analyses of history, art, and the rise of fascism left an enduring mark on 20th-century thought. He also left behind a less-studied and unfinished opus devoted to 19th-century Paris known as the Arcades Project. The work gets its name from the architectural features that inspired Benjamin, and which for him embodied early capitalism—the glass-and-steel arcades that sprung up around Paris in the later 19th century. Parisians, rich and poor, flocked to the shops and cafes of these covered passageways. They became emblematic urban spaces of the period, ripe with social, cultural, and artistic significance. To study them, Benjamin abandoned a linear, academic approach. Instead, he turned to what he called the “refuse” and “detritus” of history, amassing hundreds of quotations he deemed relevant to the cultural and social significance of the arcades. These he arranged according to 36 different thematic subheadings called “convolutes,” creating a multivalent, allusive, and at times, incomprehensible, sketch of 19th-century life.
This idiosyncratic encyclopedia is the inspiration for a show of contemporary art opening in March at the Jewish Museum in New York City (“The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin,” March 17 – August 6, 2017). For curator Jens Hoffmann, the genesis of the project was at least partially personal. As a young man, Hoffmann admired Benjamin’s work. Yet despite Benjamin’s influence in academic circles, he has remained fairly unknown in the United States. A recent revival of interest in Benjamin (reflected in such books as Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Capital: New York, Capital of the 20th Century,” David Kishik’s “The Manhattan Project,” and Michael Taussig’s “Walter Benjamin’s Grave”) spurred Hoffmann to conceive of a project that might introduce Benjamin to a wider audience by way of various works of contemporary art. With this goal in mind, the exhibition gathers historical information about Benjamin and the arcades of Paris together with the works of such wide-ranging artists as Lee Friedlander, Walker Evans, Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky, Andrea Bowers, James Welling, Mike Kelley, Chris Burden, Ry Rocklen, Walead Beshty, Taryn Simon, Pierre Huyghe, and the poet Kenneth Goldsmith. Each artist has been attentively matched to one of Benjamin’s original “convolutes,” with Nicholas Buffon, Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer, Sanya Kantarovsky and Adam Pendleton even producing new works conceived specifically for the show. The Arcades Project forms the conceptual backbone that brings these artists into dialogue with each other, with Benjamin, and with Paris of the 19th century.
Despite Hoffmann’s personal interest in Benjamin, the focus of this ambitious exhibition is neither primarily biographical nor strictly historical. For Hoffmann, the significance of the Arcades Project lies less in its analysis of 19th-century France than in its astute—and eerily relevant—insights about modern life more generally. The Paris of the arcades was, for Benjamin, the moment when consumption became a pastime, inaugurating a capitalist consumer culture that, as Hoffmann notes, “still resonates with how we view the world, particularly in New York.” The pairings of convolutes and works of art at the Jewish Museum showcase this resonance. Benjamin’s opening convolute, for instance, is devoted to the arcades that give the manuscript its name. These first meccas of consumerism, where Parisians went to stroll, covet, purchase, and above all, observe each other, have an obvious analogue in the American shopping mall. In the show, the comparison between the two spaces of centralized consumption is accomplished by way of Walead Beshty’s American Passages (2001-11), bleak, beautiful and strange images of abandoned shopping centers from around the country.
Other convolutes in the exhibition similarly underscore the continuity between 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century urban life while updating Benjamin’s original categories. A portrait by Cindy Sherman stands in for the bourgeois obsession with collecting in the 19th century. Claire Fontaine’s Les Barricades de Mai Brickbat (Barricades of May Brickbat) (2007) sets up the barricade fighting of the 19th century as the precedent for the unrest of May 1968. And the social movements of the 19th century are astutely reimagined for our times in Adam Pendleton’s mural about Black Lives Matter, commissioned for the show.
Often, the choice of artworks for convolutes creates a complex narrative of cultural and artistic influence. For Benjamin’s convolute on Daumier, a famous caricaturist and painter known for his astute social commentary, the show offers a pair of Walker Evans photographs of subway passengers. These photographs nod to Daumier’s most famous image, The Third-Class Carriage (1862-64), and even manage to capture Daumier’s particular aesthetic of the urban grotesque, all the while bringing both into the 20th century. The convolute on the flâneur effects the same kind of substitution across time. The flâneur, a (male) pedestrian who spent his days in perambulation of the streets of Paris, casually consuming its visual delights, was perhaps one of the most important figures of the 19th-century French cultural imagination. Lee Friedlander’s photographs of shop windows in New York city perfectly capture the spirit of the flâneur, who, much like today’s window-shopper, was not so much searching for something to buy as he was looking for himself—or at least, as much of himself as he could glimpse in the gleaming reflection of a window display. Even now in the 21st century, the flâneur embodies consumption as a mode of being, and a means of constructing self-identity.
These pairings of convolutes with works of art are direct without being overly literal, teasing out historical connections while showcasing Benjamin’s role in identifying particular objects or ideas as essential to modern life under capitalism. The show, however, also looks to forge other bonds between the Arcades Project and contemporary life. One of the defining qualities of the Arcades Project is its aesthetics of the fragment, a product equally of the fact that it was never finished and of Benjamin’s deliberate choice to construct his work out of appropriated citations arranged by theme. For Hoffmann, the formal experimentation in the Arcades Project is just as important to Benjamin’s vision of modern life as its content. Its arcane and elliptical structure foreshadows the epistemological consequences of a world dominated by Google searches and a flood of decontextualized information. Benjamin was, in Hoffmann’s words, “his own search engine,” engaged in a non-linear and deconstructed search for knowledge long before deconstruction and post-modernism brought those modes of understanding to the fore. As the show mimics the organizational structure of the convolute, and replicates the experience of reading Benjamin’s text with annotations by Kenneth Goldsmith, it reinforces the significance of the fragment as a mode of knowledge and of aesthetic experience.
Yet despite the many similarities that the show establishes between the past (or more precisely, Benjamin’s vision of the past) and the present, the intervening century has also been one of radical change. And some of the most interesting convolutes are those whose choice of artwork is predicated on the dissonance of difference within these similarities. One such case is Milena Bonilla’s Stone Deaf (2009), a rubbing of Marx’s gravestone that represents Benjamin’s convolute on Marx. Marx, of course, was very much alive in the 19th century; in some sense, he was also still “alive” as the embodiment of specific political ideals even for Benjamin, a staunch Marxist. In Bonilla’s work, however, Marx is literally and figuratively dead, the flame of his utopian promise snuffed out by the geopolitical developments of the 20th century. The same atmosphere of foreclosed possibility lingers over many of the show’s convolutes, but notably on Beshty’s shopping malls, deserted but for animals and the homeless who have taken shelter there. These decrepit structures testify not merely to the persistence of capitalism, but also to its pitfalls. To be sure, the same pitfalls lurked just under the brilliant surface of Paris’s arcades over a century ago, but their unmasking in Beshty’s photographs is another reminder that the years separating the two left all manner of human turmoil, and an ever-narrowing set of possible solutions, in their wake.
There are, in other words, no panaceas offered by the show’s pairing of art with Benjamin’s historical vision, no solace to be found in the progress of humanity. Neither the differences nor the similarities that these works of art illuminate between the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries offer any comfort. Rather, they insist that any enjoyment of the works of art in the exhibition rests on the recognition of the painful truths revealed by the logic of their display. This melancholy aesthetic meta-pleasure is perhaps best embodied by the convolute on mechanical reproduction, which substitutes the photocopy for the lithographic printing process by way of Timm Ulrichs endless photocopies of Benjamin’s own noted tome, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” With each subsequent photocopy, Benjamin’s text fades, until the letters are barely visible. The piece is perfectly self-referential: the fading photocopies are made of the very text in which Benjamin famously argued that the process of mechanical reproduction destroys the unique “aura” of the individual work of art. Taken alone, one might say that Ulrichs mechanically reproduced image redeems the work of art against mechanical reproduction. Reinserted into the context of the Arcades Project show, however, the disappearing text is not just an example of art’s fading aura, but of all that stands to be lost in the passage of time, even when we do manage to make art out of this loss.
While sobering, the show’s evident awareness of the conflict between the aesthetic and intellectual experience that it creates is perhaps precisely the point. It offers another kind of opportunity for reflection, not merely on the problems of a fragmented and suffering world, or on the comfort that art provides within it, but on the museum’s role in navigating the relationship between the two. For Hoffmann, this is what a museum, a “public space of discourse, an instigator of discussion,” exists to do. In order to instigate that discussion, it constructs a particular world. And in so doing it also reminds us that, as Hoffmann argues, “the world we live in is a construction. Everyone can be the constructor of his or her own world.” However dark the reality it confronts, the museum is a space of radical optimism. We have to keep going forward, keep working at the ways we construct our world and our knowledge. Hope lies in confronting these issues through the transformative experience of looking at art. Taking a few hours to do this by way of the Arcades Project wouldn’t be a bad place to start.