Costumes, capitalism, and poetry: new exhibit re-examines Walter Benjamin's “Arcades Undertaking” – The Architect's Newspaper

For one delirious week, guests to the Jewish Museum in New York might view the exhibit Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design downstairs, and go upstairs to see the exhibition The Arcades: Up to date Artwork and Walter Benjamin. Chareau—the architect of the well-known Parisian Maison de Verre—escaped efficiently from Nazi Paris to New York, whereas Benjamin didn't. Perhaps, Benjamin by no means visited Chareau’s tremendous-deluxe, bourgeois residence-workplace of Dr. Jean Dalsace (constructed 1928–32), regardless of Benjamin’s admiration for metal-and-glass constructing fabrication as an emblem of contemporary life—following the modernist architectural historian Siegfried Gideon.

Benjamin, just like the Surrealist poet Louis Aragon, creator of Paris Peasant (1927), most well-liked to benefit from the ruins of bourgeois life: the decaying 19th-century glass-lined Parisian procuring arcades. There, the Surrealists met of their favourite cafe and imagined assignations with prostitutes, posing as tailors, service personnel, photographers, card engravers, or launderers within the small retailers of the arcade. Earlier than his suicide on the Spanish border fleeing the Nazis in 1940, Benjamin wrote the quick essay “Paris: Capital of the 19th Century” (1935). This outlined his intention, starting with the arcades, to explain the historical past of Paris as a contemporary metropolis by its detritus—its fragmentary waste and destruction. It was part of his bigger challenge for a adverse historical past of the bourgeoisie.

In distinction to the readability and precision of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro–designed Chareau exhibition downstairs, with its historic documentation, imaginative recreations, digital actuality, and shifting sectional projections, the Benjamin Arcades exhibition is probably appropriately a jumble of fragments. This impression appears unusual at first, as Benjamin’s most well-known essay, “The Work of Artwork within the Age of Mechanical Replica” (1936), was a mannequin of readability, founding the self-discipline of contemporary media research in mass societies. Right here, Benjamin recognized the handcraft aura of true inventive manufacturing as a nonetheless-humanist worth in a contemporary, Marxist universe. Chareau’s handcrafted machine design downstairs may appear to efficiently exemplify this need for authenticity, but nothing of this exemplary high quality seems upstairs.



Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Undertaking consisted of 26 alphabetically ordered folders in capital letters—ten in decrease case—with seemingly random titles containing pictures, analysis materials, press cuttings, and items of his textual content that may be helpful for the challenge. These are like phrase clouds surrounding a complicated and complicated hidden digital object of mental inquiry that might emerge in writing. Many students have investigated, prodded, and projected their ideas into these phrase clouds, looking their which means for a number of generations. The catalogue incorporates two worthy essays additional contributing to this huge scholarship, one explicitly exploring Benjamin’s concept of an city, collective “optical unconscious.” Every exhibition piece is itself accompanied by a phrase cloud created by the modern American poet Kenneth Goldsmith. (There are additionally standard wall texts.)

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #474, 2008. (© Cindy Sherman/Metro Footage, New York)

The concept of linking every of Benjamin’s alphabetical Parisian folders to a up to date artwork piece drove the number of the exhibition, which is entered by a ghostly and intentionally weak re-creation of a scaled-down Parisian arcade. Cindy Sherman, disguised as “a collector”in an enormous framed , confronts this tight entry in by far probably the most highly effective correlation within the present. Sherman’s artwork of disguising her private id in different individuals’s apparatuses, garments, styling, and cosmetics, ties on to Benjamin’s studying of the trendy metropolis.

This choice highlights masks, alienation, and the “sandwich-board males” of Benjamin’s youth who carried commercials on their fronts and backs on the Berlin sidewalks, hiding their humanity, just like the Surrealists’ imaginative and prescient of the prostitutes advertising and marketing their magnificence and our bodies as merchandise within the arcades. Different selections like an early Andy Warhol film (within the “Boredom” folder!) echo this weakly. Nonetheless different selections, like Chris Burden’s miniature Tower of London Bridge mannequin from a toddler’s building package, mock Benjamin’s enthusiastic predilection for the Positivist triumphs of bourgeois civil engineering (following Gideon), corresponding to big iron bridges and the Eiffel Tower.

The drawback of the exhibition arises from the supposition that it's potential now to make an accurate correlation again to Benjamin’s fragmentary notes that carries any actual which means. We reside in a really completely different age of digital, not mechanical, replica. It's an age through which Sherman represents the new regular of what Benjamin would have referred to as, following Marx, commodity fetishes and distractive phantasmagoria. As an architect and urbanist, I discovered Lee Friedlander’s 2011 pictures of New York store home windows reflecting the road, buildings, and sidewalks, and exhibiting the clothes mannequins, to be probably the most evocative of Benjamin’s a lot-cited flâneur (whose leisurely gaze captured the working lifetime of the town and its denizens). My different favourite merchandise was solely within the catalogue, a Benjamin’s Dream comedian e book (2016) by Vito Manola Roma. Right here all of Benjamin’s fears and insecurities about capitalist monsters, ladies and intercourse, the town and infinite mazes, alienation and authenticity come alive in an evocative, livid, generally violent literary and visible fantasy world.

Benjamin’s unfinished challenge and fragmentary notes do remind us of simply how fragile bourgeois life, freedoms, and tradition are in instances of financial misery and political extremism. Benjamin was a sophisticated character: a Marxist who resisted Communism having visited Moscow, a excessive bourgeois who sought social justice and a good life for almost all following Bertolt Brecht, a secular, rational modernist who thought there have been limits to our information and believed in historical myths, just like the Jewish Kabbalah.

Leaving the aesthetics of the Arcades exhibition apart and its distractive phantasmagoria behind, and returning to the world outdoors, we enter the universe that drove him to suicide. The curators of this exhibition couldn't have foreseen this modern flip of American politics. So sadly, this exhibition reminds us powerfully of our personal fragile scenario and Benjamin’s horrible, confused, depressed, and weakened situation on the Spanish frontier in 1940. His companions crossed the frontier the subsequent day; allow us to hope we will likely be so fortunate.

The Arcades: Up to date Artwork and Walter Benjamin
The Jewish Museum
By August 6

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