“Walter Benjamin’s Last Passage” through Poetry and Photography, On Display in the
Feb. 22, 2021
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — The Wakeley Gallery is hosting “La Ruta: Walter Benjamin’s Last Passage,” featuring
the collaborative project by Professor of English and poet Joanne Diaz and photographer
Jason Reblando, Feb. 15 through March 11, 2021.
Located in the Ames School of Art (6 Ames Plaza West), the Wakeley Gallery is free and open to the public Monday through
Friday 2-5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 1-4 p.m.
“La Ruta: Walter Benjamin’s Last Passage” is a collaborative text and image installation
centered around the arduous trek Walter Benjamin made across the Pyrenees in hopes
of eluding the Nazis who were set on persecuting him. Pairing photography and poetry,
Diaz and Reblando draw upon and engage with Benjamin’s own interests—the commonplace,
the ephemeral, and the fragmentary — while also exploring the intersections of landscape,
exile, and migration.
Walter Benjamin was a German-Jewish philosopher, culture critic, and essayist who
was exiled from Germany during the Nazi reigme. In an attempt to escape persecution,
Benjamin fled to the French-Spanish border in hopes of traveling to the United States.
However, he did not make it. With limited options to escape torture or death by the
Nazis, Benjamin died by suicide in a hotel in Portbou, Spain. Benjamin was not well
renowned during his lifetime but Diaz notes, after his death, that, “It’s difficult to overstate the influence he has had on contemporary philosophers,
cultural critics, essayists and visual artists.” It was this influence that drew Diaz
and Reblando to tell the story of Walter Benjamin.
The inspiration for their first collaborative project came from their time spent together
in Spain and reflections on the Spanish Civil War. While in Spain, Reblando came across
a park in honor of Benjamin which sparked his engagement with the subject and, later,
Diaz’s. There are several sites the pair visited in order to interact with the history
of Benjamin and to best understand his journey. The most notable of these was “La
Ruta,” a hike that started in Banyuls-sur-Mer, France, and ended in Portbou, Spain.
Due to circumstantial issues, the couple could not make the trek at the same time;
however, this allowed them to contribute different perspectives within their collaboration.
Reblando, who made the hike first, initiated the project with his photography which
Diaz then drew upon to create her poetry. After an intense process of drafting and
revision, Diaz and Reblando then engaged in the process of pairing and shifting the
poems and images while simultaneously editing each other’s work. The finite quality
of photography doesn’t allow for much editing to be done by Reblando. He notes that,
“The images take on new meaning as the poems come out and I’m trying to think bigger
about what they could mean.” With the goal to create a narrative for each piece, the
pair connected the past and present in order to engage the viewer/reader.
In order to foster a sense of connection between the viewer and the art, the pair
layered the poems and photographs through the use of vellum paper — a type of translucent paper. The viewers must lift the vellum in order to view the image beneath which, as Diaz
states, “allows the words to interact with the image and it also allows the viewer to physically
engage with the poem and photograph as they lift and lower the vellum.”
Diaz and Reblando were inspired by global events such as the Syrian refugee crisis
and violence at the U.S.-Mexico border, which is reflected in their engagement with
themes of exile and migration. Comparing World War II to modern refugee crises, the
voice of Benjamin seeps into the Diaz-Reblando retelling of his story. The pair states,
“Walter Benjamin was speaking to us from a hundred years ago. There was something
prophetic about that voice that we wanted to listen to and engage with.”
Tying the modern and historical, Diaz and Reblando hope that the experiences of Walter
Benjamin will bring new perspectives to our present crises. Diaz said, “For me, it’s one of those examples of when I'm shuttling from past into present.”
Joanne Diaz is the author of two poetry collections, The Lessons and My Favorite Tyrants.
She is the recipient of fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council and the National
Endowment for the Arts. She teaches literature and creative writing at Illinois Wesleyan
Jason Reblando is a photographer and artist whose work is in the collections of the
Library of Congress, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
He is the recipient of a U.S. Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines and an Artist
Fellowship Award from the Illinois Arts Council. His monograph New Deal Utopias (Kehrer
Verlag) was published in 2017. He teaches photography at Illinois State University.
“Women’s Rights Are Human Rights: International Posters for Gender-based Inequality,
Violence and Discrimination” remains on display in the Atrium Gallery.