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The Benjamin Project at Gallery Diet

By David Rohn

The Benjamin Project at Gallery Diet, Miami, by Berlin-based collaborative, ‘Empfangshalle’ and film maker, Thomas Adebahr responds to the influential essay by art and social theorist Walter Benjamin 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 the awe and singularity that defines the experience of the original work of art. This ‘Aura’ for Benjamin ,was not based on the inherent properties of the original artwork, but was related to the externals like the work’s provenance, material value, relation to traditional/spiritual/religious or social constructs that create the perception of it’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 would. Benjamin wanted art to return to it’s original function as a source of pure shared experience, and rejected it’s 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 cult-like and materialistic path Contemporary Art has descended since.

In the case of Empfangshalle, the idea of the ‘Aura’ is examined in a way that is quite different from Helen De Sturtevant and Mark Bidlo – who have focused on reproducing famous (and expensive) Modern art icons – in that their 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’.

And although each reproduction is taken from a different page of the same print edition of the essay text, 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. Although it would of course be easy enough to make a digital copy of the original which would be indistinguishable from the ‘original’.

And then one has to wonder if the film is for sale, and if so, how large an edition, how unique, how expensive/valuable is each edition. 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: On the one hand, 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 both Holly and Bolly Wood have always given the masses what they seem to want: more drama, more sex, and more money-based glamor.

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. And perhaps most paradoxically of all, the world of ‘High Art’ became synonymous with glamor and extravagance, while that of film and T.V. became a dime-store version for middle class wannabes. And of course, what these 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, such as the series of enlarged photos of villages where immigrant sanitation workers came from – that they then applied to German garbage trucks operated by the same immigrants – have been about the paradoxical cultural clashes constantly taking place in our ever contracting global village.

This piece is in no small part about the different cultural views of Easterners and Westerners towards originality, individuality, and value: 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.

Although the works in the ‘Benjamin Project’ aren’t mechanically reproduced, but executed by hand by individual artists, the rote copying of a mechanically-produced (i.e. printed) text inverts Benjamin’s idea about mechanical reproduction/originality (i.e. of text/idea) and the hand-made (i.e. ‘original’/singular (copy)) 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. And it ‘s worth mentioning that Benjamin essay itself, may even be considered to have become, at least in some critical quarters, an iconically 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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  • swampthing

    In the age of re-creation, laser copies are good enough or even better, Computer Numerical Control is favored over lost art of handy-craft. This lover of books genuinely appreciates the facsimile message of this subtle show.

  • Richard Haden

    Gallery Diet exhibit shows a small glimpse of what is a big market for forgeries or copies that flow from the East. As in the Benjamin project, these particular artist, and thousands of other exploiters of third world labor take advantage of factories set up to Copy art. I first heard about these kinds of studios or factories that exist in Vietnam–which came into existence as a byproduct of French colonialism. You see, the old French tradition of teaching art by mimicking old masters was the traditional way to teach painting in France or in its colonies for centuries. When the French colonized Vietnam they set up those same traditions in Vietnam so that colonial French students and later, colonized Vietnamese students could learn how to paint by learning the techniques of traditional western academy. When the French left Vietnam the Vietnamese kept the studios / factories going, only to be interrupted by the Vietnam war. When the war ended the coping factories reemerged with gusto.

    From an add I found on line:

    Hundreds of shops and studios have sprung up in Vietnam’s big cities to cater for the esthetic cravings of the emerging moneyed classes.

    Tucked behind a murky cafe in southern Ho Chi Minh City, Ngo Dong’s gallery doesn’t much resemble Renoir’s 19th century Paris studio but his works recall those of the impressionist master.

    Waving his brush between a half-finished canvas of Renoir’s La Grenouillere and a wooden palette of exotic colors, the 49-year-old painter said his copies have sold well, not just because of his skills, but also because of his deep empathy for the masters. Demand for look-alike masterpieces is so great that Dong has to turn away “vanity” clients who want their portraits done.

    On average, Dong’s studio of six workers churns out 400 pieces a year with about half sold locally and the rest exported.

    Prices are calculated on a basic rate of US$50 per square meter and US$20 extra for paintings with more than one face due to “more intricate copy work”, Dong said.

    As for this dubious project at Diet, I would be more impressed had the Benjamin project been done by the artist themselves, instead of farming out there idea to an emerging China. Hell, we already get most all our media devices made there, why must we get our art realized there– it is the same exploitation of cheap labor-but in this case it happens to be artist labor. The whole thing just reeks of the same old colonizing Bourgeois excuse to out source–hire a cheaper fabricator instead of staying local. Also, It seems to a bit redundant, to add to the point of a conversation another a copy of the most quoted text in recent media studies. The point of the exhibition would have served the same purpose had they done the work themselves–it becomes rather like an exercise in tautology by asking another to do what they should have done themselves.

    Molly Springfield does what the Benjamin project tries to do, but by herself–with her own hand–I think that she is better invested in the literal copy as “textolatry” than The Benjamin duo.

    or see her work at her website:


    Richard Haden

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The Benjamin Project at Gallery Diet