Leo Asemota / EoTLA

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Delineated Coincidences

A correspondence between Leo Asemota and Monica Ross


I am curious about your discovery of the “Artwork…” essay by Walter Benjamin.  A friend, Zoë Stewart insisted I read it again when I was first struck by the idea for “The Ens Project”.  I remember reading the essay and being particularly amused and invigorated by it.  Initially because some of Benjamin’s reasoning was quite literal.  I mean, in the period in which it was written, I am sure the essay was quite profound.  In a way actually, it still is.  On the other hand, it was invigorating to read some of the things I was contemplating.  Stage and screen, presence and absence.  How the camera could be purposeful.  All of that excited me.  It also meant that I wouldn’t have to explain it all.  I liked the fact that it didn’t make me want to argue a point, but to refine a process as opposed to simply referencing it.


I am also very curious, in the first instance, about how you came to contact me. Although we have now met and had a couple of long conversations, I have kept forgetting to ask you how this came about. From the outset our contact has been delineated by a series of coincidences, which could also be construed, in a Benjaminian sense, as correspondences: moments where the unexpected connections between things are brought into focus by a jolt in everyday experience, a change in perspective - or perhaps here the event of being unexpectedly approached by a stranger - so that one's assumed awareness of the relation between things is altered, connections are made apparent for the first time.

The image I have retained from our meeting in Brighton last month (October 2007) is the one summoned up by your description of your experience of seeing and filming the Benin bronzes as they were laid out for you on a table in the British Museum. This calls to mind two of the stanzas, under the title Number 113, in One Way Street. Written between 1925-26, Benjamin describes two dreams, Vestibule and Dining Hall, which, retrospectively could be read as dreams of the future: Vestibule, a visit to Goethe's house, white washed like the normative museum or gallery of the later ' White Cube" model, where Benjamin finds his name already inscribed, in the visitors book, in a childish hand; Dining Hall, on the other hand, seems a condensation of the complex syncretism of German - Jewish culture and within it, a 'preparation' which pre-figures the Holocaust to come.

"Benjamin describes everything he chooses to recall in his past as prophetic of the future, because the work of memory (reading oneself backward, he called it) collapses time. There is no chronological ordering of his reminiscences, because time is irrelevant. ('Autobiography is to do with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life'), he writes in Berlin Chronicle"

“Memory, the staging of the past, turns the flow of events into tableaux. Benjamin is not trying to discover his past, but to understand it: to condense it into its spatial structures, its premonitory forms”.

Susan Sontag, “Introduction to One Way Street”.

In the moment when you described your vivid experience in the British Museum it also seemed to me that you could be describing the configuration of a dream that one of your ancestors might have had after the British Expedition which colonised the Benin Kingdom in 1897 and resulted in the removing of the ritual Bronzes to the British Museum.

In 1986 I made a video installation, entitled Number 113, in a house in which Goethe had lived, in Weimar, The work included and developed from a meditation on the above text in relation to the displacement of embodied experience virtually, in the work of memory and through the mediations of technical reproduction. So I am finally getting round to trying to answer your question.


Actually my first encounter with the Benin bronzes goes much further back to 1994 to the “Great Benin” exhibition at the Museum of Mankind.  That exhibition, seeing all the bronze sculptures and other works from Benin’s court art history on display in this cavernous space was a revelation.  It remains a significant moment. One of my works The Inspiriter (The Ens Project’s First Principles: Stage 3 – Misfortune’s Wealth) combines the information sheet from that exhibition. You know I could only ever have been able to see these works in England, or say Europe and America.

Text © 2008  Delineated Coincidences - A correspondence between Leo Asemota and Monica Ross.  

Monica Ross (1950 - 2013) lived professionally as an artist, lecturer, curator and activist.

After Walter: A transmission in two acts

Work in focus


One reason being because these works are now dispersed around the world.  Another is because these are sculptures with a purpose or for a purpose, a specific ritualistic function in a designated site, an altar perhaps or the shrines in the Oba’s (King) palaces. Perhaps that is why it had such an impact, seeing them out of context.  And to have the opportunity to privately view some of the commemorative heads in the collection at The British Museum, be able to study them, to hold them in my hands, and they are heavy, was invigorating. Some of them still had the red mud from the sacking encrusted in them.  You know my ancestral home in Benin is adjacent to one of the streets where the guild of craftsmen that continues to produce sculptures for the palace has resided for centuries.  So in a way, I can relate to Benjamin’s description of two dreams in which he recovers his name in the visitor’s book at Goethe’s house.

I have glanced other writings by Benjamin that are transcribed in “Illuminations”.  Initially it wasn’t easy focusing only on the “Artwork” essay, but now that I have removed that section from the publication I am no longer distracted.  Similar to “Number 113” your video installation in Goethe’s house in Weimer that you developed around notions of memory, my performance interpretation of the “Artwork” essay was in pursuit of the ideas that I felt was central to it, at least to my understanding of it, and to the concepts that were in turn relevant to my project.


I am struck by your use of the word 'recover' here and its implication of a return to a previous set of conditions as the basis for moving forward into the future. It seems to exactly hit the nerve where your project coincides with crucial aspects of Benjamin's thought in terms of how and which aspects of the past are returned in the present. 'To recover' implies not only re-instating what has been lost but also a process of healing that loss and therefore transforming its relation to the present. That is, in Benjamin's terms, a process that is redemptive.

This makes me think, yet again, in a different way, about the “Artwork” essay. As we know, this complex essay has been, and continues to be interpreted in many ways by different Benjamin scholars, cultural commentators and art theorists. It is frequently and widely quoted, in fact endlessly reproduced. It has been an important reference point for many artists whether it is directly or indirectly referred to or reflected in the work. * The essay has been a touchstone for me since the 1980's. I have read it many times and sometimes still experience one or other line as new; as if I had not read it at all before. In terms of your project the salient points that come together do so, for me, in terms of how the questions of Benjamin's larger philosophical and historical project are focused in the essay, examining art and its means of reproduction as paradigmatic to the reproduction of larger social and cultural formations, and, at the same time, how Benjamin's thought itself resists conclusion - we might say closure, and therefore readings -or reproductions- of his thought as definitive. For example, although the 'task' of the essay is to delineate how the 'aura' of art is lost through technical reproduction, Benjamin nevertheless inserts subtle asides which leave a door open to speculative, one of argument here and now, and sometimes with a startling contingency to current events. The methodology of Benjamin's writing in itself provides an example of a form of reproduction which revolves around an encounter where experience, rather than goods and currency, is at the centre of a cultural transaction. Every reading is always a different encounter. The construction of the essay works against the "return of the same"(f) in that it maintains itself as an object of interpretation rather than one of consumption: a magnetism that we are more likely to associate with religious -or ritual- texts such as the Quran or Talmud. The text is unchanging in itself and in the demand it makes for a constant renewal of the interpretation of its meanings. The essay begins by mapping the dislocation of the work of art as ritual object into processes of reproduction which serve its commodification into a marketable object. But Benjamin has not entirely dismissed the possibility that ritualistic modes of reproduction might yet provide alternative futures for art beyond the capitalist and fascist models whose mirror images he describes at the close of the essay.

That is, the essay leaves an opening for re-investigation of ritual roles for art, or ritualistic modes of art making, as a potential source of developing radical ways of using technologies to reproduce art - beyond either commodification or instrumentalisation. In the historical timeline of the development of technical reproduction that Benjamin maps in the essay (e.g. from lithography-film), the role of the art object as ritual object occupies an archaic position: one that could be said to relate to the cultural perspective / mis-recognition of African sculpture- the Benin bronzes-as 'primitive', by western colonialism. Yet for Benjamin, the archaic is also always a potential site where

other futures and possibilities can arise, precisely because they have been concealed or their development held back, by the sway of ideological and cultural forces which have relegated them as outmoded, taboo or failed: a cultural forgetting not only of an aspect of the past, but also of its future.


Is this perhaps, what always prompts your revision of the “Artwork” essay and your choice of activity in engaging your particular concerns?


Yes, perhaps it is. The essay works as a focus for me, in itself and as focus on Benjamin's wider thought, in that my readings of it underpin what almost every work I have made since the early '90s investigates, e.g. virtual ritual, a computer based performance / installation in 1991 and passages and fall in 93 and 94. Just For Now is completely overt in its engagement with the essay, valentine, a series of performances and a bookwork developed over several years, hinges and opens out from a footnote in the essay which coincided with the experience of unexpectedly encountering a painting I had only previously known in reproduction. In my other works I would say that my engagement with Benjamin's writings is less obvious but that his thought informs both my conceptual approach and practical procedures e.g. a methodology of waiting and observation that follows clues rather than a predetermined plan, an absorption into the subject matter which allows something unpredictable to emerge over time, and allows for coincidence and criticality to have an equal relationship in resolving formal questions and relationships. I have written elsewhere that my work is often described as time-based, but that I have always also been interested in time itself, and therefore how history and memory are reconstructed and represented in the present and future - particularly in terms of pasts which have been relegated as failed or consigned as irrelevant to the present in some way.

The same preoccupations have led work I have made with other artists such as fact of the matter, an e-book, with Anne Tallentire and texts on time, event and the relationship between performance art and its documentation, archiving, repetition or translation into other media e.g. justfornow (and then) and The Trouble with Performance Art which discusses the work of other artists. My involvements as a curator have been led by the same concerns. A relevant example to our conversation here of course, is the exhibition and book Deposits, by Uriel Orlow. (2002-2006). As you know, Uriel had completed a series of new works, and a publication, about the Benin Bronzes only a short time before you contacted me and introduced me to your project. (F)


That’s right.  I did meet with Uriel and his “Benin Project” intrigues me in some way, partially because I do not know enough about it.  And also because we are both interested in two of the vital components on which the ancient Kingdom of Benin and its people’s identity was founded on. You know, its art tradition and its functions, and of course the demolition of that as a result of the British military campaign in 1897.

I think the aspect of time other than “time-based” also engages me.  I initially found the term “time-based” downright confusing.  But over the years I have sort of developed a personal understanding of it that I continue to apply to my practice.  Whether in the making of the work, its presentation, the experiencing of it, time has always been embodied in the idea. And I believe this resonates in Walter Benjamin’s observations in the “Artwork” essay. I believe the sense of aura he associates with is most definitely time-based, of an experience that is particular, possibly singular and unique within a specified domain, site-specific even.  In my situation with regards to the performance “After Walter”, I was enthusiastic about presenting these attributes and to set it amidst conditions that would also enable Benjamin’s original work to be refreshed.

The essay is also a reminder I think.  I accept that this is most likely where the strength in the essay lies. The gist of it is really established on the foundation on which the human scene was founded: art, ritual and technology.  I am reminded of this when I read the essay.  That it can be reduced to that.  This is why it has been important to me and of course to my project.