Every day we consume a jumble of pictures and text unmoored from their original context, and information is delivered with product promotions. Decades before Google, the German-born critic and theorist Walter Benjamin predicted life in today’s consumerist culture in his sprawling masterwork, The Arcades Project. A new exhibition at The Jewish Museum, on view until August 6, “The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin,” uses photographs, videos, sculptures and drawings to illustrate Benjamin’s essays. It shows that contemporary artists are still wrestling with the changes Benjamin tried to classify and interpret.
Benjamin’s magnum opus was legendary long before it was published. An intellectual omnivore who wrote about photography, Baudelaire and Goethe, Benjamin began work in 1927 on an article about Paris’s arcades, the vaulted pedestrian malls where shop windows competed for the attention of passersby. He expanded the essay, making notes on other features of modern life that distinguished it from the pre-capitalist age. Before he fled Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940, he entrusted his stack of dossiers to writer Georges Bataille, who hid them in the Bibliotheque Nationale. When Benjamin was stopped at the French-Spanish border, he committed suicide. His unfinished work was presumed lost until it was rediscovered in a library vault more than 40 years later.
The Jewish Museum’s multidisciplinary show is divided into 37 sections, each corresponding to a thematic chapter in The Arcades Project. Walead Beshty’s images of shopping malls represent Benjamin’s article on the Arcades. Lee Friedlander’s images of shop windows illustrate Benjamin’s thoughts on The Flaneur, the browsing stroller. Another of Benjamin’s key characters was The Collector, whose bourgeois longing for domestic comfort is expressed by acquiring art. The Collector is represented in a self-portrait by Cindy Sherman, posing as a rich woman in her salon. Collier Schorr’s close-up of a model illustrates Fashion, which Benjamin saw as a form of commodity fetishism. Andreas Gursky’s image of the bustling Singapore Stock Exchange illustrates Benjamin’s notes on the Stock Exchange, where capital had become abstract. Joel Sternfeld’s images of Utopian societies represent the impulse to create a life with a higher purpose than simply the accumulation of wealth.
The show also includes works by James Welling, Taryn Simon, Rodney Graham, Tim Lee and other artists, vintage photos of the Paris arcades by Atget and his contemporaries, and poems by Kenneth Goldsmith. Strolling through the collage-like show gives viewers the sensation they are touring the fertile mind of Walter Benjamin. —Holly Stuart Hughes