Whitehot Magazine

March 2009, The Benjamin Project @ Gallery Diet

March 2009, The Benjamin Project @ Gallery Diet
Empfangshalle, The Benjamin Project, oil on canvas, courtesy Gallery Diet

The Gallery Diet
174 NW 23rd Street
Miami, Florida, 33127
March 14th through April 4th, 2009


The Benjamin Project, by Berlin-based collaborative, Empfangshalle, and film maker Thomas Adebahr, responds to social theorist Walter Benjamin’s influential essay on the reproduction of art. Specifically, in his 1935 essay, Art In The Age Of Mechanical  Reproduction, Benjamin identified ’Aura’ as a fundamental element of awe and singularity that defines the experience of the original work of art. For Benjamin, this ‘Aura’ was not based on the inherent properties of the original artwork, but was related to external factors such as the work’s provenance and material value, as well as its relation to traditional/spiritual/religious or social constructs. These combined elements create the perception of a work’s unique value. So, for example, the kind of vibrational visual experience one might experience in front of a particularly excellent original Cezanne or Rothko (but not through a copy), isn’t what concerned Benjamin. But the high auction value, and the heroic, individualistic and socially liberating gesture associated with Pollock’s work was of great interest to him. Benjamin wanted art to return to its original function as a source of pure, shared experience, and rejected its use as a symbol of value. He felt that (with film in particular) "mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual." Needless to say Benjamin would have been horrified by the cultish materialistic path to which contemporary Art has descended.

In exploring these issues, artists Helen DeSturtevant and Mark Bidlo have focused on reproducing famous and expensive modern art icons. In the case of Empfangshalle, the idea of the ‘Aura’ is examined in a way that is quite different. The reproductions of the (double) pages of the actual printed text of Benjamin’s essay were executed by different Chinese artists who specialize in art reproduction in the Chinese city of Dafen, the ‘world capital of art reproduction’. Although each reproduction is taken from a different page of the same print edition of the essay, each one is reproduced in markedly different ways. Does this mean that these paintings of texts have the ‘aura’ Benjamin described, or can that only happen if they re-sold for a high price, or become critical milestones of 21st century art-thought? It’s worth mentioning that the one piece in the show that is not a reproduction is the film by Thomas Adebahr; so instead of reproducible/mechanical work being reproduced, it is the film that becomes the ostensible original created for the show.

The paintings of the text themselves are about as dry as intellecto-critical based art can get; in fact, they are an acridly playful look at the paradoxical world  of theory, practice and culture we inhabit. Benjamin’s doctrinaire Marxist theory seems to want to sacrifice some of the ‘fun’ of Capitalist World art for the streamlined integrity of social advancement and intellectual purity. Benjamin hoped that film could rescue society from the fascination and drama of money and ritual. But of course Holly- and Bolly-wood have given the masses what they always seem to want: more drama, more sex, and more money–based glamour. The ‘Art World’, wound up taking the ‘high ground’ of intellectual content, while paradoxically becoming vulnerable to accusations of ‘elitism’ and out-of-control market–driven materialism. Perhaps most paradoxically of all, the world of ‘High Art’ became synonymous with glamour and extravagance, while that of film and t.v., a dime-store version for middle class wannabes. And, of course, what Chinese reproducers of oil painting usually create are copies of perceived ‘masterpieces’, for which there is a  mass market; a commercial activity that arouses complete disdain in ‘High Art’ salons, where Benjamin’s ‘Aura’ is most-valued.

Other work by Emfangshalle has been about the paradoxical cultural clashes constantly taking place in our ever–contracting global village. One such piece involved applying enlarged photographs to German garbage trucks. The images were of the home villages of immigrant sanitation workers who operated the trucks. This piece is in no small part about the different cultural views of Eastern and Westerners towards originality, individuality, and value. For example, based on a belief that the work of the great traditional Chinese painters were unsurpassable, Chinese artists spent entire lives humbly trying to reproduce works by great Masters of the past instead of focusing on individualistic penchants or tangential innovations. At the same time, Western art schools became increasingly interested in innovation to the point where it became so central a value that the idea of innovation became as important as the actual innovation itself.

In The Benjamin Project the works aren’t mechanically reproduced but executed by hand by individual artists. The rote copying of a mechanically- produced (printed) text inverts Benjamin’s idea about mechanical reproduction/originality (text/idea) and the hand-made (‘original’/singular) work in a way that is at least as paradoxical and mind-bending as anything else we’ve had to try to make sense of in human behavior. It‘s worth mentioning that Benjamin’s essay itself, may even be considered, at least in some critical quarters, to now be an iconic and revered work of innovative theory with an ‘Aura’ of  it’s own. The fact that it has now been reproduced by artists specializing in reproduction art would seem to confirm this.

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David Rohn

David Rohn grew up in the suburbs of New York, the city in which he lived during most of the ’70’s and ’80’s. After studying Architecture, Art and Urbanism at NYU, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and Pratt Institute, he moved to Miami where in 1995 he began to exhibit paintings, videos, installations, and performances. Currently associated with Carol Jazzar Contemporary Art, Miami, his work has reached museums and collections both public and private. David Rohn has contributed art reviews to Art Press (Paris), The Sun Post (Miami), Art Papers (Atlanta), and TWN (Miami-now defunct), and online publications TuMiami, MAEX and ARTLURKER. For more information please visit: www.davidrohn.net

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