Walter Benjamin’s Suitcases. Migratory mechanisms

Exhibition 20.07 - 24.09.2017


‘It is a more arduous task to honour the memory of anonymous beings than that of famous persons. The construction of history is consecrated to the memory of those who have no name.’ Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940


The exhibition arose from a collaborative project between different fine arts schools: the Weissensee Kunsthochschule in Berlin (Visuelle Kommunikation. Digitale Medien), l’École des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, l’Escola Llotja d’Arts i Disseny in Barcelona, and la Casa de Velázquez in Madrid.

The students and resident artists created some imaginary suitcases based on the reading of Theses on the Philosophy of History, written by Walter Benjamin (Berlin, 1892-Portbou, 1940). It is believed that the philosopher carried a copy of these documents in his suitcase when he went into exile, before deciding to end his life on 26 September 1940, in Portbou, having been arrested by the Gestapo and knowing he would be repatriated. The European history, memory and identity of today is the underlying theme of these suitcases, which the students have created thinking in Portbou, border crossings and exile; a topical matter with respect to the Europe experienced by refugees.

The concept of history that Benjamin outlined is 100% current. The influence this thinker has had in the field of visual arts helps the students to carry out research and interpret the concept of history reflected in his works and/or suitcases. Portbou is a place that has been marked by history, memory and exile, and the international train station itself is a perfect example, where thousands of refugees passed through. The customs hall in Portbou, the first place where this exhibition was shown in September 2016, is where suitcases were opened and rummaged through before the Shenghen Agreement. The station, which is becoming more and more obsolete, found a new cultural use with this display, which has attracted visitors, has raised awareness of the population and has made the exhibition a stimulus of public and social interest for the people.

The exhibition constitutes a geographical axis around Benjamin, with the participation of Berlin, the city where he was born, Bordeaux, an important city in France, the country that took him in as a German refugee, and Portbou, a Spanish border town, where he decided to end his life.

Each school has carried out a workshop, with months of preparation having gone into the work presented and exhibited. In the case of l’Escola Llotja d’Art i Disseny in Barcelona, the emphasis was put on Portbou as a place of memory, exile and border crossing, due to both the Civil War, in which exiled republicans retreated in horrific conditions, and the Second World War, when people fleeing Nazism, including many intellectuals, crossed the border in the other direction, from Europe to the USA, in the case of Benjamin, or to Latin America. Portbou was a place of transit and hope for many, but at the same time a place of arrests and despair. Walter Benjamin was one of those who suffered. In Spain, historical memory is still a case pending. Students have researched the events of contemporary history starting with the suitcase that Benjamin took with him on his escape, as a way to prevent them becoming lost in history, and instead proposing ‘memory’ as an essential instrument for democracy. 

L’École des Beaux Arts in Bourdeaux (EBABX) has expanded on the Theses on the Philosophy of History, which is the basic text written by Walter Benjamin on twentieth century history. Work was carried out around thesis VII, regarding cultural assets: ‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’, wrote Benjamin. In this border crossing and exile between France and Spain, experienced by thousands of republican, revolutionary refugees, the students use the ‘Angel of History’ (Angelus Novus) to represent this event, without leaving aside modernity and progress.

As for the Weißensee Kunsthochschule Visuelle Kommunikation in Berlin, specialised in digital media, it took the messianic text Angelus Novus, by Walter Benjamin, which questions history and progress and illustrates the historic projection of time from past to present. On a practical level, they suggest redesigning the artistic positions of the thinker in relation to his work and biography: that which is cinematic, illustrative, interactive, photographic and topographical. His outlook has been debated, and they wanted to document his role as a refugee in exile.  

The residents of la Casa de Velázquez, Académie de France à Madrid are already emerging artists who have finished their studies and who, for this occasion, have used the suitcase as his enigma as a starting point, to create two stories that are very different in nature. On the one hand, a sound narrative linking Portbou with the sounds of another Spanish border, with Portugal, and on the other, a story within a suitcase, with the world being a library of classified and organised cultural items, mixing up the remains of history with personal relics.



Curator of the exhibition






Image: Neus Masdéu, Ell, tu i jo. 2016


Curator: Pilar Parcerisas

Collaborative project between different schools of fine arts: Weißensee Kunsthochschule de Berlín (Visuelle Kommunikation. Digitale Medien), l’École des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, l’Escola Llotja d’Arts i Disseny de Barcelona and Casa de Velázquez de Madrid

Artists: Airis Hierro, Alejandro Calles, Alexandre Franquesa, Alexia Manzano, Ana Pulido, Ana Varela, Anka Helfertova, Charlotte Bräuer , Christoffer Ejbi, Cristina Widder, Facundo Galera, Irene Scarpelli, Joan Pau González, Jorge Zavala, Judit Chulià, Julián Chamorro, Juliana Vélez Gutiérrez, Kanako Ishi, Kevin Huber, Lola de Querol, Luka Merlet, Maria Domar, Maria Mar Rego, Maria Turik, Mariko Kumon, Marina Fraga, Mateo Ramírez Louit, Matías Rojas, Mercedes Ruano, Neus Masdeu, Petra Petterfy, Pierre Mahoudeau, Pilar Alvarez, Roser Vallès, Sasha Brylla, Selma Brignetti, Sílvia Martínez Palou, StevenThelen, Vir Andres Hera.