Benjamin as hollow window dressing
Walter Benjamin—the much-loved German philosopher who committed suicide rather than risk death by Nazis—entrusted his final, unfinished manuscript to Georges Bataille, who hid it in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where it was discovered after the war. That manuscript was both paean to and pillory of modernity. Fascinated with the soaring metal-and-glass pedestrian passageways in Paris, which were lined with shops and teeming with patrons, Benjamin considered these arcades the ultimate symbol of industrial capitalism, where it was most obvious that the real fuel keeping the factories running was insatiable consumption. The three-volume opus known as The Arcades Project inspired the bravely experimental, occasionally brilliant, but often frustrating group exhibition "The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin."
Benjamin's formidable project, composed of a mixture of quotations, notes, and commentary, is here reduced to thirty-six subject headings, each paired with an artwork and a related text by poet Kenneth Goldsmith. (Goldsmith, whose Project Projects-designed acrobatic typography recalls Guillaume Apollinaire's shape poems, and whose book Capital is based on The Arcades Project, emerges as the real star of the show.)
Benjamin called his chapters convolutes, and one of the first explored by this exhibition is "Panorama." Three wall reliefs by Nicholas Buffon that depict New York's Jewish eateries (and the historically landmarked Stonewall Inn) are charming and weird tributes to a disappearing, idiosyncratic urban landscape. But Goldsmith's text does little to amplify these works, and they come across as superficial ciphers. This facile tactic—one artwork loosely related to the convolute, plus one text, then repeat—persists throughout the show: four photos of mannequins in shop windows by Lee Friedlander, each titled New York City and taken in the late aughts, illustrate "The Flaneur"; Mike Kelley's aluminum light fixture, modeled on his childhood home in Detroit and casting an ominous, unfriendly glow, serves as an inconsequential helpmeet to "Dream City and Dream House, Dreams of the Future, Anthropological Nihilism, Jung"; Good Hand Bad Hand (2010), Rodney Graham's photographic diptych mounted on lightboxes of a stone-faced man playing poker is used in concert with "Prostitution, Gambling." Artworks are relegated to merely illustrating various aspects of modernity, such as electric lighting, railroads, and reproduction technologies.
Not every pairing is a dud. The few occasions when an artwork transcends the deferential position of illustration are deeply satisfying. Andrea Bowers is represented by Triumph of Labor (2016), an imposing and immense recreation of a nineteenth-century print dedicated to "the wage workers of all countries." Joined with the heading "Commune" and a text by Goldsmith composed of quotes celebrating the WPA, it's a refreshing hark back to the New Deal and its unwavering support of the arts—and the drawing's cardboard-and-black-marker aesthetic connects it to contemporary protests. Under the heading "Social Movement" is Adam Pendleton's site-specific installation composed of framed prints and screen-printed vinyl adhered to the wall. The installation features the words of W.E.B. Du Bois and is accompanied by another text by Goldsmith that calls out "clicktivism" for its failure to adequately address social ills. Jesper Just's eerie 2013 video, Intercourses, set in a pseudo-Parisian housing structure in China—an actual ruin, since the elaborate and cheaply fabricated buildings were never finished and are now moldering uselessly—is a stunning metaphor of the ruins left behind by the mad rush of capitalism and is headlined "Ancient Paris, Catacombs, Demolitions, Decline of Paris."
In the moments when "The Arcades" exhibition succeeds, it shines brilliantly, casting an illuminating spotlight on our continuing struggle to absorb, comprehend, and maybe most of all, defend modernity. But you have to wonder what the bespectacled thinker himself would have made of this show, in which much of the art seems well behaved and tame. If there is a ghost haunting The Arcades, it isn't Benjamin, but the diminished Jewish Left, once a redoubtable force for intellect and justice that emerged during the late nineteenth century—thanks, in large part, to the Marxian ideals that Benjamin upheld. Here, the Jewish Left materializes via Benjamin's philosophy as hollow window dressing, cynically trotted out to elicit nostalgia rather than truly challenge conventional thinking.
"The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin" is on view at the Jewish Museum in New York until August 6, 2017.Claire Barliant is a freelance writer and editor based in Cambridge, MA.