“What, then, is the aura? A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be. To follow with the eye – while resting on a summer afternoon – a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch. In light of this description, we can readily grasp the social basis of the aura’s present decay.”
So reads one of the more famous non-definitional definitions of twentieth-century European thought: “aura,” as composed by Walter Benjamin. The passage is emblematic of his style: evocative, poetic, and at times, hallucinatory. Yet these lines are as ubiquitous as they are opaque: their source, “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducability,” first published in 1935, is a staple of undergraduate humanities syllabi. Many of Benjamin’s other works are also standards across various fields: “Theses on the Philosophy of History;” “Critique of Violence;” and The Origin of German Tragic Drama, an essential text for the theoretical formulations of postmodernism in the 1970s and ‘80s. For his supporters, Benjamin is that enigmatic, under-appreciated genius who avoids categorization and prompts perpetual rereading. For his detractors, Benjamin is an incomprehensible mystic whose canonicity has garnered (to quote Claire Bishop) a cultish “critical untouchability.”
And so when New York’s Jewish Museum announced The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin, the artworld took notice – both enthusiastic and weary. The show draws together contemporary art with The Arcades Project, Benjamin’s monumental, unfinished set of notes on nineteenth-century Paris, which consists mostly of quotes from other sources. As the show’s curator, Jens Hoffmann, writes in his introductory text, the exhibition “is a collage-like construct through which visitors may stroll and browse like Parisian flâneurs, or saunterers, experiencing it in fragments. The works on view demonstrate how artists today grapple with the world’s disorder, having accepted the disappearance of a master narrative as our perennial condition.” Hoffmann’s contention is that artists such as Chris Burden, Claire Fontaine, and Mike Kelley can sync with the scattered, drifting structure of The Arcades Project, in turn probing something like a contemporary cultural symptom. The exhibition translates art and Benjamin through one another, but ultimately drafts an anemic visual text that fails to teach us anything we couldn’t glean from a book club or seminar on his writing. The show, regrettably, operates neither as a rich portrait of Benjamin and his work nor as a compelling selection of contemporary art. It strikes as something more muddled, and too tentative in its reach.
For all the importance placed on Benjamin’s text, it is, ultimately, an unfinished book. “Arcades” began in 1927 as an essay of fifty pages, but Benjamin would work on the project for thirteen more years; it remained incomplete by 1940, the year of the writer’s suicide, while fleeing from the Nazis. The Arcades Project was first published in 1982, when the collected material amounted to more than 1,000 pages. To organize his opus, Benjamin designed a chronological series of 36 “convolutes” (from the German Konvolut, meaning a file or bundle of papers), each titled with a key word or phrase (e.g. “Marx,” “Modes of Lighting,” “Prostitution, Gambling”).
To structure the exhibition, Hoffmann has matched contemporary artists with Benjamin’s convolutes in a non-linear layout: convolute Q nominally opens the show, and M concludes it. If the museum visitor accepts the exhibition’s premises, the gallery evokes the peripatetic sensorium of the flâneur, the Baudelairean anonyme who drifts among the sights and sensations of the modern city; the museum visitor similarly ambles through and around the work. The poet Kenneth Goldsmith further complements the deracination by contributing poems to each section in his trademark “uncreative writing” style; his accompaniments cobble together preexisting texts from sources like Stephen King, Guy Debord, Andy Warhol, and Wikipedia.
The show’s most interesting material resides in the opening corridor: Benjamin memorabilia, like his CV and library card for Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale; and models of four Paris arcades, like the Passage du Grand-Cerf and the Galerie Vivienne. These urban features were the foundational leitmotifs for The Arcades Project – and, by extension, the exhibition. As Benjamin wrote, “These passages, a new discovery of industrial luxury, are glass-covered, marble-walled walkways through entire blocks of buildings, the owners of which have joined together to engage in such a venture. Lining both sides of these walkways which receive their light from above are the most elegant of commodity shops, so that such an arcade is a city, a world in miniature.” Benjamin’s near-ecclesiastical description speaks to what philosopher Max Pensky sees as the chief innovation of The Arcades Project: the drive to understand industrial capitalism not as the negation of premodern concepts like myth, magic, and the fantastical, but rather their continuation – even intensification. In Benjamin’s thinking, the affective texture of a thing or idea always outruns our immediate understanding of it.
It’s regrettable, then, that a dominant strategy of Hoffmann’s is to isomorphically connect sections of the exhibition and artworks. “G: Exhibitions, Advertising, Grandville,” corresponds too neatly to Raymond Hains’s Martini (1968), a Plexiglas relief that deforms the drink’s signature logo into a melting series of layers. Martin Ramirez’s Untitled (Trains and Tunnels), A, B (1960-63) intrigues as a graphic composition, but Hoffmann pairs it predictably with “U: Saint-Simon, Railroads.” This didacticism approaches parody when “H: The Collector,” accompanies Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #474, a (self-)portrait of, well, a collector. These straightforward mappings do a disservice to Benjamin’s life and writing (which warrant their own exhibition), and to the depth of the artwork on display.
A few smarter selections investigate the structures in The Arcades Project, rather than merely duplicate its contents. Guido van der Werve’s 2011 video Nummer dertien, effugio C: you’re always only half a day away shows the artist running around the perimeter of his house for twelve hours on the longest day of the year. The absurdity of ludic conceptualism, the physical humor of slapstick, and the stylized pretensions of single-shot video swirl together, as in Benjamin’s heady, even at times giddy, method. In her The Triumph of Labor (2016), Andrea Bowers copies in marker an 1891 woodcut commemorating May Day, but monumentalizes its dimensions by combining cardboard segments to create a huge mural. As a series of opposites (drab materials versus stunning presentation, artistic effort versus industrial labor), Bowers’s work strands together disparate historical paradigms. Past contestations enter the present by subversive means; heroic agitprop sneaks in the backdoor with the stuff of everyday protest.
Bowers’s shrewd methods figure another Benjaminian trope. For him, “high” and “low” cultures worked as inseparable social registers; history drew from both. As the cultural historian Susan Buck-Morss eloquently observes, “Corsets, feather dusters, red and green colored combs, old photographs, souvenir replicas of the Venus di Milo, collar buttons to shirts long since discarded – these battered historical survivors from the dawn of industrial culture … were the philosophical ideas.” Accordingly, some of the best work in the exhibition find a spiritual, nearly cosmic weight in the quotidian and the banal. In Taryn Simon’s photographic Folder series, from 2012, she collates material from the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection in categories such as “Abandoned Buildings and Towns,” “Swimming Pools,” “Costume-Veils.” The last instance is particularly illuminating: in tracking the “veil” as a signifier from the glamorous portraits of Edward Steichen to the contested image of the hijab, Simon charts entire worlds around the sign. Similarly, in his Blue Eyed Worshipper, Southern Mesopotamia, 2600-2500 B.C. Ry Rocklen reconstructs an ancient Sumerian Eshnunna figurine, but from junky material like a thrift-store bathrobe and a button from one of his own sweaters. The method is more obvious than Simon’s, but the sham treatment of cultural property resonates in an era of repatriation conflicts.
Such works are outliers in their expansive reading of culture. Hoffmann’s curatorial concerns center to a fault on how contemporary art addresses The Arcades Project when Benjamin’s methodology itself was so much more expansive. The Jewish Museum is especially well-positioned to integrate a broader domain of visual culture into its programming, given its emphasis on Jewish cultural history writ large. It’s ironic that an exhibition on Benjamin would limit rather than expand the range of objects on display.
Perhaps the very effort to structure an exhibition around a book as nebulous as The Arcades Project was, from the outset, a fool’s errand. It required either a concentrated historical exposé on the subject or a far subtler analytic touch than Hoffman could provide. Down the hall from Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin, the installation Charlemagne Palestine’s Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland (curated by Norman Kleeblatt), offers an alternative fantasia on Benjaminian theory. A gilded chamber of the palatial museum is turned into a kitsch-kabbalah extravaganza: plush, polychromatic teddy bears populate every surface of the room. Patterned lights flicker across the ceiling while Palestine’s sound art, akin to liturgical music, pipes in. Invented by Brooklyn Jews in 1903, the teddy bear became popularized when a Washington Post comic illustrated the moment Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot an incapacitated bear on a hunting trip. Palestine finds within this political iconography a Jewish mysticism, like that which motivated Benjamin’s early career. The social distancing of aura, that slippery concept, away from the domain of the reified, is Palestine’s achievement. However, to understand how the spiritual, the political, and the phantasmagoric thrive in a degraded mass commodity is the ambition of a truly Benjaminian project, where ideology takes aesthetic form as a structure of feeling.