The Work

Passages is the name of the Memorial the Israeli artist Dani Karavan created in Portbou in honour of Walter Benjamin to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. Financed by the Government of the Generalitat de Catalunya and the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany, it was inaugurated on 15 May 1994.

The Walter Benjamin Memorial in Portbou is a sculptural installation thoroughly integrated into the landscape. Karavan’s extraordinary sensitivity enables him to give the natural and urban spaces in which he works a life of their own. He knows how to capture their intrinsic historicity and set the elements in play so that historicity can flourish. Rather than the work incorporating the landscape, the landscape becomes the catalyst that activates the work. In Karavan’s intervention the cliffs of the Costa Brava and such archetypal natural Mediterranean elements as olive trees, stone and wind weave a story about their past as a place of exile and at the same time enact an exercise in contemporary memory.

The title chosen by Karavan, Passages, refers not only to Benjamin’s fateful passage from France to Portbou, but also to his unfinished last work, the Passagen-Werk or Arcades Project, which he began in 1927, a vast collection of writings on the life of 19th-century Paris and its arcades and reflections on the contemporary urban experience. In creating his memorial, Karavan adopted an approach akin to Benjamin’s own, connecting the traces of past pain, memory and exile with the possibility of a new and better future. In fact, the memorial incorporates a number of the thinker’s concepts most characteristic themselves: the philosophy of history, the necessity of experience, the idea of limit, the landscape as aura and the necessity of memory.

When the Israeli artist was commissioned to create the Memorial, he was warned that the budget was limited, but he had no doubts: Benjamin was a kindred spirit. And though he did not set out to illustrate the thought of the writer and philosopher directly — considering himself to be no expert on his work —  he has given visual form to a truly Benjaminian experience. At the heart of Dani Karavan’s Passages is Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk.

Seen from above, Karavan’s work is perfectly integrated into its physical setting, a fold of the landscape itself — a landscape of oxidized granite, a bare, arid terrain of hard grey-brown rocks. Viewed from within, the work offers the visitor a genuine experience: an itinerary that takes in the three points on the Portbou mountainside occupied by the cemetery: three passages that call for the plotting of a course. Instead of imposing a single itinerary, the artist has chosen to give each of us absolute freedom to pass through and construct our own experience. No moral, no message. In this way its three passages — a tunnel and a flight of steps with a surging sea and a whirlpool at the end of it, an ancient olive tree and a platform for meditation, open to the horizon — are a wheel of emotions: exile and loneliness, a lesson in survival and acceptance. Karavan has managed to open up possibilities of experience and in so doing overturn what Benjamin perceived to be one of the most lacerating effects of the pain of the twentieth century: the impossibility of experience.