The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin
Jewish Museum | March 17 – August 6, 2017
“(T)he world is an endless series of facts congealed in the form of things. The characteristic residue of this conception is what has been called the ‘History of Civilization,’ which makes an inventory, point by point, of humanity’s life forms and creations. The riches thus amassed in the aerarium of civilization henceforth appear as though identified for all time.”1
– Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (1939)
Straddled between 19th-century France and 21st-century America, The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin at the Jewish Museum is an enormously ambitious undertaking. An elaborate visualization of Benjamin’s monumental last work of writing, the exhibition expands upon his critique of Parisian culture and politics during the 1930s to invite comparison with today’s America. Offering a contemporary reflection on the thirty-six convolutes (chapters) from Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, works by thirty-seven artists and a poet compose an exhibition that is simultaneously too small and too large to faithfully reimagine the more-than-1000-page magnum opus as an art exhibit. But then again, it isn’t meant to.
Benjamin mapped out The Arcades Project in his essay, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” examining the detritus of a society corroding with capitalism to offer an alternative to the more popular (romanticized) notions of history. An attempt to analyze the impact of the ever-evolving media on culture, alongside a rigorous exploration of the relationship between aesthetics and politics, The Arcades Project was never realized as a complete work in his lifetime; what Benjamin began in 1927 and continued to work on until the untimely end of his life in 1940 was posthumously published as Das Passagen-Werk [The Arcades Project] in 1982.
In all its unfinished, indefatigable glory, The Arcades Project is a timeless work of cultural historicism in every meaningful sense; as Benjamin sifts through a disparate array of information2 to engage with a difficult, materialistic and unapproachable past, so he reaches out to us in the socio-economic struggles of our own time. “Newness is a quality independent of the use value of the commodity,” Benjamin wrote in the aforementioned essay. “It is the origin of the semblance that belongs inalienably to images produced by the collective unconscious… This semblance of the new is reflected, like one mirror in another, in the semblance of the ever recurrent.”
Precursors to today’s malls, Paris’s arcades, in all their labyrinthine portentousness, beg for a comparison with their contemporary counterparts. Where the seemingly sacrosanct, vaulted spaces that cut through Parisian city blocks offered worldly riches to the bourgeois as an escape from the despair and drudgery of reality, the sprawling structures of our time, with their slick sheen of glamour, were created to package and sell fantasies to the car-commuting suburbanites with purchasing power. Even as both beckoned the shrinking minority, they started gaining popularity among the aspiring, yet largely ineligible, working class, thereby slowly falling out of elite favor and into decline. Walead Beshty’s slideshow on American malls is robbed of color, both literally and figuratively, as the black-and-white photographs present image after image of multi-tiered, luminescent spaces, dotted with foliage yet devoid of any human presence. Where Benjamin’s arcades had been destroyed or dilapidated, Beshty’s malls are abandoned, indicating an imminent state of ruin.
Timm Ulrichs’s sequence of black-and-white photocopies reproduce the cover of Benjamin’s definitive text, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” (1935) again and again to debunk the essay’s central theory—that the infinite reproduction of an image robs it of its almost mystical powers—by showing how a practical image is imbued with mystery through reproduction. Reproduction and mechanics are underlying themes in many of the works in the show, from Mungo Thomson’s take on the “phantasmagoric” using mirrors to create spatial illusions, to Bill Rauhauser’s Drawing Compass, transforming a functional object into a thing of beauty. Other works revolve around figures central to Benjamin’s experience of the 20th-century social landscape, from the flâneur to the collector, philosopher to the artist, Karl Marx to Victor Hugo, Baudelaire to Daumier.
“The Arcades Project foreshadows our experience of modernity; we absorb an overwhelming mass of information and cultural activity, yet it comes to us in a fragmented form,” wrote Jens Hoffmann, curator of the show. The very phantasmagoric nature of The Arcades Project, which arises partly from its fragmentary nature and partly from its undetermined state of completeness, makes it an ideal vehicle for ideas to travel through time and space. Hoffmann employs this vehicle, not to offer a reinterpretation of Benjamin’s work, but rather to highlight the social struggle and chaos consuming our own time, using The Arcades Project as a framework. Wall texts accompany each artwork for contextualization, followed by Kenneth Goldsmith poems—composed especially for each convolute—which further complicate the relationship between image, text, and interpretation in true Benjaminian fashion. In this cacophony of fragmented voices—Benjamin’s, the artists,’ Goldsmith’s, as well as those of the writers whose passages both Goldsmith and Benjamin use in their own work—time and space are constantly in flux, aligning only during those rare moments of clarity when the despair of another time reverberates in our own, and becomes an opportunity to learn from history in order to imagine a better future.
- Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” 1939.
- The Arcades Project’s encyclopedic format shifts between commentary/reflections (by Benjamin) and citation/quotations (of works he considered important in relation to his own observations).
Rabia Ashfaque is a widely published writer, born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. She received her MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts in 2014.