Reflections on Benjamin’s “play of mourning”
This question continued to haunt me as I at last reached Midway Plaisance, where, on one of the historic Boulevards designed by Burnham, I believe I may have seen ghosts of an age past clustered among those few neighborhood residents who had begun to emerge into the rainy day, huddling under CTA bus stops along the Boulevard. With my camera slung over my shoulder tucked under my scarf to protect it from weather, not in fear of crouching inhabitants of the space we shared, my small video camera (still attached to its flexible tripod) in my back pocket and my jacket hood pulled low over my face, I gasped as my reflection in the empty pond of Taft’s Fountain merged with his figure of Time (above). The 1000 faces of Jauame-Plesna’s Crown startlingly met in a vision of my reflection, folded in a single moment of time upon those of Taft’s 100 figures stretching 110 feet across the edge of Chicago’s historic Jackson Park.
In his seminal work, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin (1928) addressed allegory in trauerspiel, or the “play of mourning,” noting that “Allegory, like many other old forms of expression, has not simply lost its meaning by ‘becoming antiquated’” (p. 161). Too often, as I learned from my research, Chicagoans treat monumental public art as just that: antiquated pieces obstructing their movement from one point to the next, a phenomenon I captured in my video documentary. Benjamin noted the specific sequence that occurs as a piece, whether it be written, visual or conceptual, slips into antiquity: “What takes place here…is a conflict between the earlier and the later form which was all the more inclined to a silent settlement in that it was non-conceptual, profound, and bitter” (ibid). Thus, a piece relevant within its own epoch stands to become entirely ineffectual as it slips toward antiquity. Benjamin reiterated Cruezer’s definition of symbol, which is different from allegory, noting it has a “momentary…stirring and occasionally startling quality…of brevity” (ibid, p. 163). Art potentially provides the viewer with a jolting sense of shock.
Shock. Benjamin (1928) identified it as that moment in which the viewer is suddenly hit with a work’s “stirring…and startling quality,” striking her like “the sudden appearance of a ghost, or a flash of lightning which suddenly illuminates the dark night. It is a force which seizes hold of our entire being” (ibid). As I faced Taft’s Time, flashes of lightening did not illuminate December’s drizzle; however, the presence of past, present, history, monumentality and criticality became an overwhelming force seizing my mind, spirit, intellect, and as I stood shivering in the rain, I realized, even struck my body.
This shocking force was driven home time after time throughout that first day as I searched for Chicago’s fallen monuments, and it was an energy that confronted me as I again passed by Taft’s Time after dark that evening. My first day was rife with frustrations because docents at local art museums, schools and galleries couldn’t identify nearby works of art, much less tell me where Bach and Gray’s lost monuments might be found. When I first began discussing my project with Wittman, he predicted I would encounter two types of people: those who knew everything about the pieces, and those who knew nothing. He was right. And in my on-site interviews, I was surprised by the separation of those two types of people, as well as where I encountered them.
What Wittman didn’t anticipate was the third type: those whom I would meet who knew much but had nothing. As I walked across what had been identified by my GPS as .4-mile stretch of grassy park, I met the most valuable participant in my research process, a young gentleman who escorted me past Taft’s Time safely conducting me through the park in which the inactive Fountain rests. This life-long Englewood resident, after asking for money, walked along beside me away from Taft's sculpture. He claimed he had never taken the time to really look at it, but guessed it depicted the Civil War because of the presence of the soldier on horseback. Although he was able to provide a basic description even though we were no longer within sight of the sculpture, he self-deprecatingly admitted he didn't pay much attention to it even though he was able to describe its towering figures, colors and textures quite thoroughly, including which projecting figures best provided shelter after dark. He added he was more concerned with finding money for his next meal than paying attention to art. As we continued walking, I asked him if he would mind my recording our conversation, and he declined, but added I could mention him in my thesis if I wanted to do so.
While we continued to discuss the monumentally large steel-reinforced concrete sculpture, he suggested in the future, I might wish to avoid walking through the park alone. I thanked him for his company, and told him I appreciated his awareness of his community, adding he was more attuned to the formal elements of the sculpture than any others I interviewed, including those who were employed at the university nearby. He smiled awkwardly, reached out and shook my hand, and said he hoped he would see me again sometime as I continued my research. I genuinely returned the same wish, but as one street person to another, in an existence marked by transience and impermanence, we both knew a repeated chance encounter wasn’t likely.
 For a full analysis and description of the conversations I had with my on-site participants, visit my SAIC Portfolio link.