Walter Benjamin Archive

Various aspects of Walter Benjamin’s personal archive are examined by the editors of this book.  It’s not an orderly, objective archive, its very personal and it reveals the passions and interests of the man, who was evidently a keen collector.  There are chapters on the photos he took, his collections of Russian toys and postcards, the sayings of his son as a child, games and riddles, scraps of paper he wrote on, notes he took, the graphic appearance of his writing on the page of his notebooks.

Benjamin’s purpose in creating his archives was to record the present moments and physical surroundings in which he lived.  Saying this seems self evident.  But most of us do live as though the everyday will always be the same; we take our surroundings so much for granted and don’t notice or take an interest in much of it.  Reflecting on, recording and collecting the everyday things around him was an important part of his life and work.

He looked back to the past nostalgically as well.  The toys he was interested in weren’t the factory mass-produced ones of his times, but the beautifully hand crafted ones made by people living a way of life that was remote from his and that was disappearing – that of the rural peasantry.  The ancient past also appears in his archives, for example in a collection of postcards of mosaics of the Sybil’s from Siena cathedral.

Benjamin’s archives, whether recording past or present, are, to us, from a lost past world, both in content and form.  The act of hand-writing these days is quite unusual to see.  While traveling the other day I saw a fellow passenger across the aisle writing – putting physical pen to physical paper – in what looked like a journal, and then later marking up a book with her notes.  I was taken aback by how unusual the sight seemed to be nowadays.  Like the pages of Benjamin’s archives, her writing had a graphic, personal appearance on the page, which expressed her decisions and interests, that made a physical, enduring mark, in a way that electronic media doesn’t.

Benjamin’s archiving techniques – collecting excerpts and cuttings, montaging and sticking them in his journals – can equally be used in the work of the visual artist. They can inform the work and / or become a physically integrated part of it.  Collage comes to mind.  Mona Hatoum’s video, Measures of Distance, herecombines in layers a reading out loud of her mothers letters, with facsimiles of those letters interwoven with Hatoum’s video of herself.  In my work, I layered the sung words and the dance of flamenco in part one work.  In part 2 I layered collages of newspaper consumerism with a painting of household collections to express the modern frenzy of accumulating ‘stuff’.

As I continue through this course I’m hoping myself to become more aware of the visual qualities of everyday objects and events around me.  Apart from providing a source of visual inspiration I think this habit developed may ground one more in the present.

Erythraean Sybil – Floor mosaic, Siena Cathedral
Erythraean Sybil – Michaelangelo

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