The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin

Issue no1
Feb - March 2020

“The New York that has no date. Atemporal, unreal, spectral and luminous. (…) The might-have-been city of [Walter] Benjamin‘s might-have-been life. His spirit hovers in its precincts precisely because he never made it. The perduration of ghosts that have never been alive here”[1].

The capital of the twentieth century and the most popular city in the United States, New York City, with its “imaginary Place de l’Etoile, Paris’s Grand Army Plaza” in Brooklyn, seems to constitute the perfect backdrop for deliberations on Benjamin’s unfinished, over a thousand pages long, magnus opus on the ethos of 19th century Paris.[2]

“The Arcades Project was a legend before it became a book”. Conceived in 1927, it was still in progress when Benjamin committed suicide, while fleeing occupied Europe in 1940. It is a monumental ruin, scrupulously composed of – as the German Jewish philosopher and cultural theorist called it - “all my struggles and all my ideas.” The focal point of his investigation were the arcades: Paris’ iron and glass-roofed shopping passages, which were perceived by Benjamin as early centers of consumerism and by means of which he attempted to criticize the bourgeois experience of nineteenth-century history. In doing so, he created a kaleidoscopic array of pages filled with overwhelming chunks of quotations from different published sources, arranged in thirty-six descriptive categories.

Since its conception, “The Passagenwerk” has been cited on numerous occasions, inspiring many artists, philosophers and theoreticians. There were even attempts to reimagine Benjamin’s disrupted work - setting it up in contemporary New York (Davd Kishik’s Manhattan Project or Kenneth Goldsmith’s Capital - paeans on modern New York City that follow the model of the never completed Parisian masterpiece). It seems like almost everything about the arcades book has already been told and analyzed from every possible angle. However, as the current exhibition at the Jewish Museum shows, there are still many more ways to approach this complex project.

The writings of the influential eclectic German thinker are the foundation for the exhibition The Arcades: Contemporary art and Walter Benjamin at the Jewish Museum in New York City. The show, curated by Jens Hoffmann, is an attempt to examine selected themes of Benjamin’s masterpiece through the lens of contemporary art.

Not unlike Benjamin’s masterwork, the amount of display material in the show can at the first sight look overwhelming and complex. The rooms of the exhibition space are organized into themes inspired directly by chapters of the book, such as Panorama (Nicholas Buffon), Baudelaire (Mary Reid Kelley), Photography (Tim Lee), Boredom (Guido van der Werve), Automaton (Markus Schinwald), Decline of Paris (Jesper Just), or Dada (Adam Pendleton). Each motif, accompanied by a text explaining its origins in Benjamin’s work, is paired with a corresponding contemporary art work, which is additionally bracketed together with special annotations made by American poet Kenneth Goldsmith, extending the German theorist’s reflections on nineteenth century Paris into twentieth century New York. Also on view are facsimiles of archival materials from the Walter Benjamin archive in Berlin that include pages of the original manuscript, architectural models and photographs.

In Benjamin’s work “fragments of text taken from the past and placed in the charged field of the historical present are capable of behaving much as the elements of a Surrealist image do, interacting spontaneously to give off political energy.”[3] The same cannot be argued for The Arcades: Contemporary art and Walter Benjamin though. The literal translation of the source material, accompanied by relevant visual representations of contemporary works of art, gives the impression of a lexicon-like display that doesn’t leave much space for interpretation or reflection, oversimplifies the historical and socio-political energy at work.

The exhibition reduces the chosen artworks to quite literal contemporary illustrations of - and reflections on - Benjamin’s concepts. Under the category of “Collector”, for instance, is a portrait of a stately woman, wearing lip liner, standing in front of an impressive drawing collection – Cindy Sherman’s impersonation of how she imagines an art collector to look like (Untitled #474, 2008). “Stock market” is paired with one of the Andreas Gursky’s well-known photographs of stock markets: New York Stock Exchange (1991). The theme “Modes of lighting” is combined with Cerith Wyn Evans’ Astro-photography by Siegfried Marx (1987). Hanging in the middle of the room, the large-scale chandelier (hand-made in Venice by Barovier and Toso) transmits the irregular pulses of light generated by a hidden Morse code unit, transmitting a message in a language, which we no longer understand.

The exhibition design of The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin reminds me of window-shopping: watching beautiful things placed behind the glass, pretty dresses we cannot touch. In the exhibition, ideas appear to us only as glimpses and impressions, as long as Goldsmith’s tortuous glossary (design by award-winning studio Project Projects) doesn’t act like a symbiotic commentary, but lives its own life, as an autonomous art work. The texts on the labels (referring to the Goldsmith’s book the “Capital”) reinterprets Benjamin’s masterpiece in a conceptual way, which I found somehow missing in some of the other works on view.

I was searching for some more depth and metaphors to be found within the Jewish Museum’s exhibition, but maybe this is not what it is all about. The kaleidoscopic show appears to be a tribute to Benjamin’s “The Arcades Project”, an homage that doesn’t attempt to analyze, or make it something different by imposing their own contemporary ideology or implementing different concepts. In doing so, the exhibition fails and captivates at the same time. My disappointment slowly turns into appreciation, when I regard the straightforwardness of its apparent complexity. However, as J.M. Coetzee wrote in his essay “The story is by now so well known that it barely needs to be retold”[4].

[1] A. Aciman, New York, Luminous [in:] Alibis. Essays o Elsewhere, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011

[2] A. Aciman, New York, Luminous [in:] Alibis. Essays o Elsewhere, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011



The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin - Jewish Museum New York City - 17.03.2017 - 06.08.2017. 

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 1 — 2020