The German Jewish writer Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), one of the most important philosophers and cultural critics of the twentieth century, began The Arcades Project in 1927 as a short piece about Paris's nineteenth-century iron-and-glass vaulted shopping passages. With their labyrinthine architecture and surrealistic juxtapositions of disparate objects and people, past and present, the arcades offered an ideal prism through which to examine the era’s capitalist metropolis and the phenomenon of modernity that had its origins there.
Benjamin worked extensively on his manuscript, which grew into a sprawling compendium of quotations, reflections, and notes. When he was forced to flee Paris to escape Nazi persecution, he entrusted it to his friend Georges Bataille. Some years after Benjamin’s untimely death, the text was discovered and published.
The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin will explore The Arcades Project and its ongoing relevance through works of contemporary art representing the subjects of each of the book's thirty-six chapters. The exhibition will combine archival material from the Walter Benjamin archive in Berlin, architectural models, and artwork to evoke the elaborate structure of Benjamin's text.
Transposing Benjamin’s arcades to the galleries of the Museum, the exhibition invites the visitor to take on the role of the flâneur, the archetypal leisured city dweller who strolled through Paris at ease, coolly attentive and open to happenstance. In addition to traditional wall labels, the poet Kenneth Goldsmith will annotate each work with appropriated texts, extending Benjamin’s reflection on Paris as the capital of the nineteenth century into New York as the capital of the twentieth.
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