Snapshot: A Shrine to a German Jewish Philosopher

My encounter with the Mies sofa at the Tel Aviv Museum exhibition on Walter Benjamin stayed in my head for days. I could even smell the upholstery.

Haim Steinbach, untitled, 1989, front view: A Mies van der Rohe sofa in a wooden box.
Courtesy of Collection Fonds régional d’art contemporain, Bretagne, Rennes

1. It took my breath away, this Mies van der Rohe sofa, in a work by the American artist Haim Steinbach. Immediately I felt like lying down on it and talking about the dream in which I dangled by the feet, upside-down, from a hanger. I knew at once that the sofa I was thinking of was not, of course, the Mies that appeared to me like a revelation in the museum, but the well-known sofa covered with a Shiraz rug – the sofa from 19 Berggasse in Vienna, which was given to Freud in 1890. In any event, the abruptness of the encounter with this work in the exhibition “Walter Benjamin: Exilic Archive,” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art – which I didn’t so much read, understand or talk about there, although I thought about it afterward – stayed in my head for days, to the point where I could even smell the leather upholstery.

The exhibition, which extends across two halls – unconnected, a corridor passes between them – consists of glass-covered tables of documents that tell the story of Benjamin’s life. There are also artworks crowded closely together, mostly in the bigger hall, in which a work by Micha Ullman is permanently dug into the floor, while on the wall are Dor Guez’s beautiful “scanograms” originally seen in his solo exhibition “40 Days” in London – corrupted photographs of graves in Lod that were vandalized. In his work, everything is always beautiful and terribly precise and clean.

2. Steinbach’s installation tempts me to enter it. Literally. At home I discovered that Steinbach himself wouldn’t have minded if I’d acted on that urge. In an interview I read, he said, for example, that if people have to clean his work, they move its components and reinstall them.

Born in Israel in 1944, he immigrated with his parents to the United States in 1957. In this work, a valuable object in a box unleashes a flood of themes and thus becomes a gateway to fragments of knowledge about Benjamin himself. In the interview, Steinbach also talks about Benjamin’s well-known concept of himself as flaneur, or “stroller,” as influencing his own eclecticism. In the presence of the work – the leather, the metal rods, the systemic holes for the upholstery bottoms – I am thinking of perversion. For a pervert is one who demands, “Say something different to me, new,” while he himself does the very same as in the past. A pervert demands his enjoyment. As is. Served as always – with no change.

A work that jars the senses, squeezed amid a dense display of works (an installation of empty sandstone chairs standing opposite one another in Ullman’s pit, portraying archaeology, a fall, and destruction and memory, which is better than Shahar Yahalom’s shattered fragments of quasi-structures that have been placed at the very foot of the case – and the whole lot of them, I think, needing darkness and specially lit halls). In any event, the curatorial route becomes clearer by the minute: the relationship between works that encapsulate the act of smashing; principled eclecticism and sauntering, the story of Benjamin’s life, and portraits by Gisele Freund on the walls, and in glazed display tables, the chain of documents, photographs and correspondence chosen, by the curators themselves, as they claim, at the Walter Benjamin Archive, housed at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.

Haim Steinbach, untitled, 1989, back view: A wooden box. A casket with a skull peeking through standing on a shelf.
Courtesy of Collection Fonds régional d’art contemporain, Bretagne, Rennes

On the back side of his work, Steinbach placed a burial casket containing a papier-mache skeleton – rather foolish toys, exaggerated. Benjamin would have objected. And I grasp that this shrine to Benjamin, or to those enamored of his centrality, lies in the yawning pit that opened between the Jewish-European philosophizer whose identity strolls across a network of intertwined friends who become his advent readers and interpreters and vice-versa links – Scholem, Adorno and Brecht – and the Davidic-line messianic ethos that has arisen here. The Israeli psyche that could take him in – with all his narcissism, and glory and meta-historical form of Judaism – and that was artistically and intellectually fascinated with him – is now changed. Far away from him and what he stood for. Despite the claims of this exhibition.

Waiting for visitors to move on to some other exhibit, I slip off my soft black shoes, thigh muscles bursting beneath a layer of new fat, and lie down on the Mies van der Rohe like that. Just as I feel like doing.

3. “Gerhard, you may find a chamber for the memories of your youth in this ark I built, when the fascist deluge began to rise. January 1937, Walter” – Benjamin’s dedication to Gershom Scholem in his book “German Men and Women” (1936). The book in which this dedication appears is shown under the glass at one of the tables. Push nonfiction hit my mobile. Another stabbing. Another instant killing by cilivlian.

4. In a return visit with friends who read French, German and English, again I clandestinely caressed the Mies van der Rohe sofa, which is displayed there in that nondescript light. Then, as we were observing the exhibition, reading aloud, I realized that I’d been duped. Because although the book and the dedication are originals, and even though this is explained on the wall at the entrance, still, the documents in the display cases are not originals. They are copies. Not actual archival documents, but photocopies of them. Displayed on glass-protected tables as though they are originals. The archive in Berlin did not lend them to the museum. So why not show them by means of projections, as holograms, or by other display means? Benjamin coined the phrase “mechanical reproduction,” but that doesn’t mean that he himself did not attach immense importance to his actual original letters. He lugged his briefcase and manuscripts to the Pyrenees. The briefcase disappeared, by the way.

A black and white photo of Walter Benjamin.
Gisele Freund

I wrote to the co-curator, Noam Segal: “The documents in the exhibition are photocopies and scans, so why are they displayed under glass?” She replied: “Some of the documents in the exhibition are authentic and require a glass case and special cooling. As for the others, it is a question of modes of display, which themselves touch on and underlie the ‘construction of the historical truth’ as we grasp it. For precisely this reason it was important for us to preserve the form in cases of non-original documents. A matter of framing that needs to be given consideration.” I’m definitely considering it.