Marcus Rees Roberts
A Room in Portbou, 2002

Artist’s Book, 29.7 x 21.2 cm (11 3/4″ x 8 3/8″); 24 pages. Inkjet on Somerset Velvet Enhanced 255gsm and Hochtransparent 110gsm, with printed collage on hand-made paper. Hand-sewn; softback; edition of 130. Special Edition: 30 from the edition of 130 are presented boxed with an original one-plate etching.

In September 1940 Walter Benjamin died in a hotel room in Portbou. In 1933 he had fled Berlin for Paris. When the Vichy Government signed an armistice with Germany he decided to leave Paris, hoping to escape to the U.S. In Marseille he had tried to board a ship bound for Ceylon, but failed. With increasing desperation he crossed the Pyrenees and reached Portbou, the Spanish border town on the Mediterranean. Here he was betrayed by the hotel owner and, fearing that he would be turned over to the French border police, who in turn would hand him over to the Gestapo, he committed suicide.

Marcus Rees Roberts has long been interested in the work of Walter Benjamin and wanted to make a book with references to his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. For a book made digitally he thought this would have made an interesting point but, unable to obtain permission, he has written a text himself in the form of a letter to Walter Benjamin, imagining his arrival and his last day in this dour and forbidding place. There are also two images in the book from Kosovo, and references to the camps from which Walter Benjamin was escaping. The artist wanted the adjacent pages to be seen through, and veiled by, these spectral images.

The themes of this book are exile, despair and betrayal, and the artist’s attitude towards events that take place beyond his window, but which do not immediately effect him. It is also overshadowed by genocide, whether it be called The Final Solution or ethnic cleansing.

 

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