In relation to curation and the exhibition, why does art enter the afterlife and how is it’s death perceived as it is placed amongst the constellation?

Essay, 2019

Throughout this source review, I will be exploring concepts raised by Walter Benjamin surrounding the afterlife of a piece of art. His theories suggest that once the art object has been created, it has served its purpose for the artist; it has died and enters its afterlife through curation in an exhibition where it can be witnessed and experienced by people beyond its creator. The exhibition is a constellation, just like stars that die but are still visible for millions of years after, the same thought can be applied to an art object. Benjamin was a pioneer of the constellation and afterlife concept and I have chosen a selection of sources that address the concerns of the topic that will each be evaluated and analysed in relation to their significance upon these theories.

The first source to be reviewed is One-Way Street written by Benjamin, sixty short texts that observe his experience in Weimar Germany, chosen to understand Benjamin’s concepts around the afterlife of a piece of art. The second source is Critical Constellation by Graeme Gilloch, whose writing can be understood as a profound basis for the theories I plan to explore; it analyses Benjamin’s main ideas, and I plan to compare these sources against each other to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their subject matter and relevance to the essay. The third source is One-Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin, a documentary directed by John Hughes in 1992 that explores the relationship between Benjamin’s writings and the monumental impact that Nazism had on his life in Germany before fleeing. I will also be studying a journal article by Raúl Rodríguez-Hernández, ‘Seduction, Constellation, Illumination: The Afterlife of Walter Benjamin in the Writings of Sergio Pitol’, from the book Discourse, which was chosen to obtain a greater understanding of Benjamin’s theories as the text relates Benjamin’s theories to Latin American art and artists in the 1950s. The documentary and journal will be compared to each other to provide understanding for the impact that Benjamin, and his writings, had across the world, and if both have significance towards the essay topic. I will be researching into an interview with Julie Ault about the exhibition ‘Afterlife: a constellation’ she curated and created to identify the role of the artist as curator and what similarities lie between afterlife and constellation concepts in theory and in practice. As a response to Ault's exhibition, I plan to review the Space Shifters exhibition in the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre that I visited in late 2018. Space Shifters was a group exhibition of sculpture and installation-based work, changing the environment of the gallery to encourage the space to be seen in new ways.

Beginning with One-Way Street, written by Benjamin from 1923 to 1926, a literary piece combined of a selection of writings around Benjamin’s experience in Weimar Germany, shows a collection of fragments that provide the reader with a stimulus for cultural theory and philosophical concepts that revolve around modernity and constructivism.1 Constructivism is a theory based on observation and scientific study about how people learn; people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.2 Throughout Benjamin’s writing, it is evident that he is reflecting upon the world around him and how each new experience is reflected from the previous, causing us to change what we believe, or discard the information. With this in mind, we are our own curators and creators of our knowledge and the world that we live in. The source, although initially doesn’t seem relevant to the chosen topic, aims to open up explorations into how we consider experiences in our lives at different stages and how each link to the next. This idea and concept is not unlike the theories of art objects that have a new experience in each exhibition, beyond the control of the artist. Benjamin states in One-Way Street that ‘finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they work throughout their lives’ and that the ‘distracted take an inimitable pleasure in conclusions... thereby given back to life.’3 These ideas are relatable to the essay topic as they suggest movement of fragments (or perhaps movement of artwork from exhibition to exhibition), and how ‘lives’ can be brought back (an artwork entering it’s afterlife). From this it can be understood that the source has relevance to the understanding of how curation can change an experience of a piece of art, and therefore becomes a useful source for the chosen subject even if the literal conclusions taken from the text do not directly comment on the specificities of the essay subject.

Critical Constellation, a book written by Graeme Gilloch in 2002, provides a comprehensive introduction to Benjamin’s body of work through examining his major studies as well as his less familiar work. Texts that originally seem demanding and heavy are interpreted with new insights allowing the audience to interpret the works. The book would be of particular interest to students and scholars interested in social and literary theory, those who are seeking a modern overview of Benjamin’s work, and those already interested in the writings of Benjamin. It is important to consider the author and their professional standing: Gilloch is a sociology lecturer and reader at Lancaster University with a doctorate and a main focus of research in critical theory (especially Walter Benjamin) and visual culture.4 Critical Constellation predominantly discusses Benjamin as a contemporary thinker, exploring the afterlife and constellation theories he proposed decades ago. With an easy to follow approach, this is not an argument based work as it responds to a large selection of previous work by Benjamin, such as Gesammelte Schriften and Gasammelte Breife, to evaluate their successes rather than critique every element of it.5 This source is introductory to Benjamin’s work, but from reading it, there is a great sense of respect that Gilloch has for Benjamin and provides an insightful look into his work that inspires the reader to research the texts in greater depth.

Comparing the two sources One-Way Street and Critical Constellations can provide insight to the influence and impact of each on their readers. In Critical Constellations, Gilloch reflects upon Benjamin’s writings in One-Way Street and states that they ‘began to take on a more pronounced contemporary inflection and radical political colouring’6 once understanding the text in relation to what he has previously written. Gilloch’s writing can help provide context for One-Way Street, and that perhaps without, would make Benjamin’s work harder to understand. From reading Critical Constellations, it is understood that Benjamin was able to obtain important insights into the reading and representation of modern culture through the Surrealists, of which these became valuable to One-Way Street.7 With the context that the ‘surrealistic city of Paris was to provide Benjamin with the architecture, the 'format' for One-Way Street’8, we can begin to draw similarities between context and abstract understandings; if One-Way Street draws from points across a city, linking unrelated (at first) moments, we can apply this to how art pieces link to each other throughout each exhibition. In Critical Constellations, Gilloch states that ‘One-Way Street is a constellation, or montage, of insights, whose power lies not so much within the individual elements, but rather in the sparks occasioned by their juxtaposition and incongruity.’9 This statement is beneficial in understanding the relations between objects and moments and provides both sources with the opportunity to be constructive elements in the essay. Although Critical Constellations appears to be able to provide the subject matter with valuable insight, the text is primitive and has intended to explain rather than to provide the reader with an experience to allow their own judgement which is unlike the text of One-Way Street where the reader is able to make their own assessments.

One-Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin is a documentary directed by John Hughes in 1992, and is the third source analysed in relation to the essay. The source aims to explore Benjamin’s life in Weimar Germany and his flee from the republic.10 As the documentary progresses, it explores the relevance of Benjamin’s life and the experience of a Nazi Germany which provides context for his writings in One-Way Street. On initial appearances, this source can present as unrelated to the theories surrounding constellations of exhibitions and the afterlife of art, as its explores the concerns of Benjamin’s writings in a fragmented approach including interviews with scholars and researchers, re-enactments, readings, and footage from the past and present.11 With this obtained information, it places Benjamin’s ideas in context with the significance of the world in which he was living. Therefore the source becomes of primary interest to the subject matter as the viewer develops an emotional response to the texts and can understand the work in a wider context. This source does not argue in its approach to the subject, rather it explores the positive impacts that have spread throughout the world about Benjamin and the mysteries behind the life he led. The documentary, as suggested by film critic Adrian Martin, ‘must somehow negotiate two likely audiences.’12 As the documentary was screened at a number of international festivals13 , its first audience are those at film culture events and academic conferences, those that are perhaps already invested in the works of Benjamin. However the documentary was also broadcast on ABC in December 199214, to an audience who may be unsuspecting on the work of Benjamin and who the man was. Martin proceeds to state that because of this aim to please two audience it fails as it is ‘too superficial and summary for some Benjaminians, too arcane and obscure for at least one newspaper previewer.’15 This review can help perceive an honest truth of the documentary, and although a statement critiques the effectiveness of the film, this does not provide enough reason for finding the source unsuitable for the essay subject. Albeit the source should be used with a careful and critical approach, but it should not be excluded from the contribution towards the understanding of the constellation and curation of art.

The next source under review is ‘Seduction, Constellation, Illumination: The Afterlife of Walter Benjamin in the Writings of Sergio Pitol’ written by Rodríguez-Hernández for the book Discourse. This journal article specifically reflects on the influence of Benjamin on Latin American artists and writers. Rodríguez-Hernández is an associate professor of Spanish, Comparative Literature, and Film and Media Studies at the School of Arts and Sciences, University of Rochester.16 It is crucial to consider who the author is as the text can than be understood in relation to their practice and expertise on the subject. Discourse explores topics on contemporary cultural studies, analysing language and literature and publishes journal articles that promote theoretical approaches to literature, film, the visual arts, and related media, that gets published three times a year.17 Continuous publishing not only shows the relevance of this book to this day still, but also that there is still a response to this subject from people who are interested in the impacts of Benjamin’s writing. This specific article by Rodríguez-Hernández, provides historical context of Benjamin’s writing and how it directly influenced the writings of Sergio Pitol, a Mexican writer and diplomat, who later won the most prestigious literary award in the Hispanophone, the Cervantes Prize.18 This article is of an interesting topic and completely unique in its subject, which not only makes it an intriguing read, but also brings awareness in trying to understand Benjamin’s work in a new light. The ‘afterlife’ term used by Benjamin, is almost always used in relation to an art object and it’s role in the exhibition, but through this article Rodríguez-Hernández, uses the afterlife as a term to describe Benjamin’s own work, or perhaps even Benjamin himself. The journal focuses heavily on Benjamin’s travels to Moscow and Rodríguez-Hernández often compares this experience to Pitol’s relationship with Mexico. It is difficult to find any information that provides a direct correlation to themes of constellation and afterlife specific to art objects. However, although the content of this journal cannot provide specific analysis of afterlife and constellation references in Benjamin’s work, the discussion it still generates around the concepts of Benjamin’s writings are still of interest and importance.

One-Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin and ‘Seduction, Constellation, Illumination: The Afterlife of Walter Benjamin in the Writings of Sergio Pitol’ are two sources that would appear to be very different. Insight to the life of Benjamin in Weimar Germany is provided in the documentary, yet the journal explores his life travelling to Moscow. In the documentary, Anson Rabinbach, editor of New German Critique, is interviewed and discusses the ideas around fragments in our lives and states ‘[in] the fragments of the world that god has now turned his back on... reside certain presences which attest to the former existence of their divine character. You cannot actively go about to discover these divine presences but they can be revealed.’19 From this, it can be understood that the source is pursuing Benjamin’s theories not through literal translations but through their impact on other people. Rabinbach also suggests that to ‘reveal’ or ‘unlock’ one of these emanations, there is a ‘method of juxtaposing things that don’t quite necessarily appear to be related to each other’ which is clearly a noticeable technique of Benjamin.20 This idea of continuously being able to rearrange and restructure completely unique ideas to form new writings, can be seen as a similarity to theories of the exhibition being a constellation of art work. Each art object can come from different locations and be reorganised for each exhibition, creating new revelations of experience with the work as well as creating new constellations and links between each piece. Whereas the journal ‘Seduction, Constellation, Illumination: The Afterlife of Walter Benjamin in the Writings of Sergio Pitol’ heavily focuses on the effect that Benjamin’s work had on Pitol and his experiences. This source perhaps relates to the essay subject best when Rodríguez-Hernández concludes that ‘the personal trauma of the present is fixed, then, in the traces of the past, not necessarily cast into a coherent and singular narrative vision but into a coiled collection of constellations and fragments that can be grouped and regrouped’21, from which meaning of correlation between seemingly separate things can be read. Both sources originally seem apparently different and counterproductive to the essay subject, but through further study and analysis, it can be seen that both contain beneficial insight and observation of Benjamin’s theories.

To continue the understanding of Benjamins impact across the world through his writings, the next source reviewed is an interview with Ault, an artist who has described her practice not as making art objects, but through making exhibitions.22 Ault created ‘Afterlife: a constellation’ an exhibition first opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2014.23 The interview with Ault was created for the Whitney Museum of American Art in which she states the exhibition takes up ‘in a very general sense: issues of disappearance, recollections, the way things are recollected, histories are recollected. Through artistic practices, through archiving practices’24, concepts very similar to those of Benjamin. For example, the curator now has control of the art: it has entered the afterlife and is removed from the what the artist may have originally intended for it. Although it is unclear if the exhibition title came as a direct response to Benjamin’s theories, it is still interesting to see how she has translated these concepts into an exhibition space. The exhibition also featured mirrors in the entryways, inspired by Liberace’s former mansion25, that would cause the viewer to see a fleeting glance of a figure or a kind of apparition reflected elsewhere in the gallery. These moments of seeing something that isn’t quite there reflect thoughts of the afterlife, bringing the gallery space alive with notions of something that isn’t there anymore. Ault appears to be aware of the ‘constellation’ in the world of art and believes that ‘a game of tag is set in motion as the exhibited constellation lays open innumerable relationships between archiving, memory, history, and narrative.’26 Drawing commonalities and relating different pieces of art to each other is identifiable as a link to the concern of art objects entering the afterlife once the curator administers their role in the exhibition. The brief interview with Ault, is a source that provides a very basic understanding of some concepts that she has used in her work. Unfortunately this source does not bring any insightful information to the subject matter and has not encouraged new ideas reflected from concepts surrounding the afterlife of an art object. Although the exhibition itself is of interest to this topic, the interview does not contribute to the essay subject in enough depth to be of use in an essay. It could instead be used as a judgement of the influence of Benjamin and his writing, but as a primary contribution to the essay it would not suffice.

The final source to be reviewed in relation to the topic, is the exhibition Space Shifters held in the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre, London in 2018.27 This source has no claims to be of relation to Benjamin’s theories and writings, and makes no obvious implications that it is a collection of constellations. However the exhibition held a variety of sculptures and installations that all explore our perceptions of space and visuals. With a wide range of materials used throughout the exhibition from glass, acrylic, oil, and polyester resins, the objects act as devices that change our perception of our surroundings in new and unexpected ways.28 The exhibition was open to the public for five months in a central location of London, of which it can be assumed as a popular and inclusive experience for many people. This is perhaps a main strength of the source as it can be witnessed by thousands of people over a relatively short period of time. However the exhibition was not free, which immediately places the source at a disadvantage of not being able to reach wider audiences. In relation to the concepts surrounding afterlife and constellation, the exhibition does not explicitly seem to reflect these ideas. It is only upon further notice that similarities can be drawn between both. Space Shifters features a selection of work from Anish Kapoor, Alicja Kwade, Yayoi Kasuma, and many more, all of which use a multitude of mirrors and reflective elements in their works.29 As the viewer progresses throughout the exhibition, they are confronted with their own distorted reflection in numerous ways, before reaching larger places where they interact with the space. Kwade’s piece WeltenLinie, features glass walls, mirrored walls, and hollow walls, causing the viewer to disappear and reappear in their vision as they move around the space. This is not unlike Benjamin’s theories of art being able to reappear in the gallery in it’s afterlife. The exhibitions aims are to open our approach to reacting to a space and in this sense it can be seen as a successful experience. However as a source for the essay topic, it does not draw on Benjamin’s theories and to use it in relation for this subject would seem inappropriate and irrelevant.

Immediate similarities that can be drawn between the interview with Ault about her exhibition ‘Afterlife: a constellation’ for Whitney’s Museum of American Art and the exhibition Space Shifters at the Hayward Gallery, are not the relevance of the sources, but the correlation between the use of mirrors in both exhibitions. Ault uses the mirrors to project fleeting moments, apparitions, around the gallery as the viewer walks through, and Space Shifters features mirrors and reflections across numerous pieces of works to deceive the viewers perception. Each piece begins to relate to another in new ways, reflections bouncing from one side of the room to the other, constantly changing the experience of the exhibition and the experience the viewer has with each individual piece of art. A similar experience is witnessed in ‘Afterlife: a constellation’ as the viewer’s sight could be interrupted by brief moments of distortion in the reflections of the mirrors in the passageways. Space Shifters included works from 1966 to 201830 , a range of diverse arts which allowed for a strong connection between each piece through careful curation, encouraging pieces to interact with each other. Both use these moments from the past to recreate something in present day. These constant changes switching between the two states of past and present is similar to concepts of life and afterlife; two interchangeable states where artwork can live. Both these sources contain exciting concepts and have driven the reviews to become a debate of whether or not their content is not direct enough to justify their importance to the topic.

Throughout the source review, I have been selecting and comparing sources in pairs against each other. This was not with the intent to discover if one was ‘better’ than the other, but to assess their effectiveness when applied with context. Each source was reviewed individually, weighing up the weakness and the strengths of their reliability, content, intentions, and more. I have assessed each source in a particular order and with a comparative system: to allow myself to read Benjamin’s earlier thoughts (One-Way Street); to dissect those thoughts through explanation (Critical Constellation); to understand the context of Benjamin’s life during the time he created his work (One-Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin); to assess the impact of his work across the world (‘Seduction, Constellation, Illumination: The Afterlife of Walter Benjamin in the Writings of Sergio Pitol’); to discover his work through art (Afterlife: a constellation’); and to see if I could understand his theories for myself through applying his concepts as I visit an exhibition (Space Shifters). This method and approach worked successfully for me and I focused my efforts into driving the original question through the sources.

One-Way Street, a source with no direct conclusions of constellation and afterlife concepts, was compared with Critical Constellation, which dissected the theories with an appreciation of the work causing a primitive and explanatory discussions to occur, to discover their insight on the subject. One-Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin documentary is a source that I came to conclude should be used with critical approach because, although it provides context for Benjamin’s work, particularly One-Way Street, it presents the refined work in an abstract way that allows for its application on anything: this made the source appear to be relating to the essay subject whereas in reality it was only demonstrating these writings with context. This source was compared to ‘Seduction, Constellation, Illumination: The Afterlife of Walter Benjamin in the Writings of Sergio Pitol’ which explores the theories through their influence on another writer and the source is appropriate and favourable to use in response to the subject of the essay. Ault’s interview about her exhibition, ‘Afterlife: a constellation’, is interesting as a visualisation of these concepts into an exhibition space using a range of art objects has occurred. Compared to the exhibition, Space

Shifters, which I visited in late 2018, seemed to represent themes of constellation, yet there are no clear distinguishable features that suggest it does and therefore Ault’s exhibition has more relevance. However ‘Afterlife: a constellation’ was not the source, the interview was, and unfortunately the interview does not contribute to the essay subject in enough depth to be of use in an essay. Perhaps this is what happens when using Benjamin’s concepts, they are too applicable to any situation to be able to allow someone to devise if they actually represent the subject you are looking at or not. This makes assessing sources incredibly difficult because it feels as though each source is relevant, each drawing from Benjamin and his concepts. However this is why Benjamin’s writings have been so successful because they can be applied to a variety of human experiences, encouraging us to think about everything in our lives with this critical understanding of constellations and each moment connecting to the next. In conclusion, I have discovered a new appreciation for understanding the exhibition as more than just a room of objects, but as a constantly changing and evolving constellation; art objects can be die and restore their lives through entering their own afterlife in each new curation.

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2 Concept to Classroom [online] [accessed 18 February 2019]

3 Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, p. 47-48

4 Lancaster University [online], [accessed 12 December 2018]

5 Graeme Gilloch, Critical Constellations, p. 3

6 Gilloch, Critical Constellations, p. 16

7 Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, p. 90

8 Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, p. 98

9 Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, p. 99

10 John Hughes, One-Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin [online] [accessed 17 February 2019] min. 1:40

11 Kate Matthews, Australian Screen [online] [accessed 17 February 2019]

12 Adrian Martin, Film Critic [online] [accessed 17 February 2019]

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19 John Hughes, One-Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin [online] min. 3:00 20 Hughes, One-Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin [online] min. 4:18

21 Raúl Rodríguez-Hernández, ‘Seduction, Constellation, Illumination: The Afterlife of Walter Benjamin in the Writings of Sergio Pitol’, Discourse, p. 135

22 Julie Ault, MacArthur Foundation [online] [accessed 17 February 2019] min. 0:17

23 Whitney Museum of American Art [online], [accessed 12 December 2018]

24 Julie Ault, Whitney Museum of American Art [online] [accessed 17 February 2019] min. 0:13

25 Whitney Museum of American Art [online], [accessed 12 December 2018]

26 Malmo: Signal Center for Contemporary Art and Inter Arts Center, Ever Ephemeral [exhibition handout], p. 185

27 Southbank Centre [online] shifters [accessed 17 February 2019]

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© Jess Hay
artist based in Glasgow