Title: Passages: Memorial to Walter Benjamin
Author: Dani Karavan
Location: Portbou, Spain
Year Complete: 1994
Description: Steel staircase penetrating cliff side. 5 steel steps off the side of a path, 4m x 4m steel plate with cube resting in middle
Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic. Benjamin moved from Berlin to Paris in the early 1930’s where he wrote many of his most notable works, including The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, The Task of the Translator and Passagen Werk.
In May of 1940 Benjamin obtained a visa to immigrate to the United States. Benjamin’s plan was to enter Spain through Portbou, cross the country into Portugal and then board a ship from there for refuge in the US. Unfortunately Benjamin was confronted by Spanish police in Portbou and informed he would be returned to French authorities, which at this point, meant being handed over to the Nazis. Benjamin committed suicide that evening in the Francia Hotel.
In 1993, the government of the Generalista de Catalunya and the government of the Federal Republic of Germany funded the Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan to design a memorial for Benjamin. The memorial is located on a cliffside in Portbou adjacent to the cemetery where Benjamin is buried.
The first Passage is a steel shaft holding an 84 step staircase penetrating the cliffside. The staircase looks down into a whirlpool in the Mediterranean. 3/4 of the way down a pane of glass restrains the occupants from continuing. Etched into the glass is a quote by Benjamin:
“It is a more arduous task to honor 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”
The second passage is 5 steps off the side of the pathway to Benjamin’s grave. The steps position a view onto an olive tree and the Mediterranean beyond. Karavan often uses olive trees as a symbol for reconciliation.
The final passage is a 4m x 4m steel plate with a cube resting in the middle.
Rather than creating something to be observed as an object, Karavan wanted to provide an experience for the viewer that established a tie to the scenes and landscape that filled the final days of Benjamin’s life. Karavan was also looking to evoke the progression of feelings of exile, possibilities, limits and finally acceptance.