NEW YORK — It isn’t only encouraged to walk aimlessly from one artwork to another, stopping only by whichever piece catches one’s eye — it’s the idea behind “The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin,” a new exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum.
Visitors assume the role of a flâneur, someone who strolled through Paris at leisure, encountering ideas, objects, and characters seemingly by chance and in no particular order. That’s how Jewish philosopher Benjamin encountered life, said Shira Backer, the museum’s Leon Levy Curatorial Associate. The newly opened exhibit is “like being inside Walter Benjamin’s brain,” she said.
A Marxist German-Jewish-philosopher and theorist, Benjamin is considered one of the most astute commentators on early European modernity. However, faced with imminent deportation to a concentration camp, on September 27, 1940, Benjamin overdosed on morphine. His posthumously published magnum opus “The Arcades Project” serves as the base for the exhibit.
Benjamin once described “The Arcades Project” as his “dialectical fairy tale” — a study of Parisian arcades, glass-roofed corridors he regarded as capitalist illusion.
He started the work in 1927. Originally intended as a short reflection about Paris’s 19th century iron-and-glass vaulted shopping passages, or arcades, the work expanded — significantly.
“It weighs 14 pounds and is 1,000 pages long. It’s a very strange thing to encounter, but it’s actually a book you can browse through,” Backer said.
Because it’s not a conventional book, it demanded an unconventional exhibit, said Jens Hoffmann, the director of special exhibitions and public programs for the museum.
The exhibition explores the relevance of “The Arcades Project” today by highlighting contemporary artworks that relate to the subjects of each of the book’s 36 chapters. The sections are called “convolutes,” from the Latin word for bundle — a reference to the folders used to organize the manuscript’s handwritten pages. These subjects range from fashion and dolls to iron construction and Karl Marx.
Born on July 15, 1892, in Berlin, Benjamin was the oldest of three children. He grew up in a wealthy and cultured Jewish home, and during his youth was keen on reading and pursuits like butterfly collection. He kept a list of every book he ever read.
“I’ve been fascinated with Walter Benjamin since I was a teen. What I always find fascinating is that you can open it [the book] up to any page and dive right in because it doesn’t have a narrative,” Hoffmann said.
The exhibit, which runs through August 6, uses contemporary artworks in media ranging from photography and video to sculpture and painting, and annotations by poet Kenneth Goldsmith, to explore Benjamin’s work.
For example, the artist Adam Pendleton incorporated W.E.B. DuBois’ 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk” in a wall-size graphic statement as a way of interpreting Benjamin’s convolute regarding social movement.
To show the convolute about arcades and department stores, photographs depicting abandoned shopping malls from Walead Beshty’s “American Passage” series are displayed.
“The three elements, Benjamin’s text, Goldsmith’s poems and the artwork give the exhibit many layers. It’s like the Talmud, there is commentary and sub-commentary,” Hoffmann said.
Materials from the Walter Benjamin archive in Berlin, including facsimiles of pages of the original manuscript for “The Arcades Project,” historical photographs, and a number of architectural models of the Parisian arcades that inspired Benjamin are also on view.
“His subject was the flâneur, but he is also the flâneur. In that way the exhibit is a nice match with our lives today, how we too gather fragments and put them together, how we see the world,” Hoffmann said.
‘His subject was the flâneur, but he is also the flâneur’
The exhibit takes on a particular poignancy knowing that Benjamin’s life ended in tragedy.
In 1940, Benjamin was living in Paris. He fled the day before the Nazis stormed the city. Before he made his way to the American consulate in Marseilles to get a visa he gave his friend Georges Bataille the unfinished “Arcades Project.” Bataille hid the work in the National Library where it remained until its discovery in 1981.
Meanwhile, Benjamin had secured transit visas to cross Spain and Portugal, but still hadn’t secured legal passage across France. Instead he planned to cross the Pyrenees to reach a Spanish fishing village. It was an arduous journey for a healthy person, and Benjamin was not fit.
Benjamin crossed with a band of refugees. However, at the Spanish customs house an officer told them they were going to be sent back to France — which meant deportation and likely death in a concentration camp. Instead Benjamin took morphine and died on September 27, 1940.
That “The Arcades Project” remained raw and unfinished is fitting, Backer said.
“It’s hard to imagine it otherwise,” she said. “Its unfinished nature seems to be inherent to its work.”