In 2012, Enrique Vila-Matas was among a small number of writers invited to participate in thirteenth version of the massive quinquennial art exhibition Documenta held in Kassel, Germany. Vila-Matas was asked to serve as “writer-in-residence” at a local Chinese restaurant called Dschingis Khan and to deliver a lecture. In the novelized version of his time in Kassel, The Illogic of Kassel (New Directions, 2015), the entire experience was a blow to his self-esteem, a humiliation that Vila-Matas seemed to fully enjoy. All in all, he writes, he spent a few miserable half days in the restaurant where he was only visited by a couple of unpleasant characters, while his lecture was attended by two to three dozen largely uninterested people. And yet, Vila-Matas, much to his surprise, finds that he was utterly euphoric in Kassel, instead of being his usual anguished and melancholic self.
The Illogic of Kassel has all of the trappings of being an ephemeral, let’s-make-something-out-of-this-lousy-experience book. And yet, to my mind, it’s Vila-Matas’ best book to date for several important reasons. First, he has finally nailed his own character. In previous books, we are usually meant to see the main characters as versions of the author himself – a cranky, often miserable, writer deeply enmeshed in literature but struggling with his own writing. In Illogic, Vila-Matas has retouched the outline of his character to be marvelously endearing Chaplinesque writer who is bumbling and canny and honest to a fault. His character has a mercurial temperament that can shift instantaneously from suspicion to guilt, from deviousness to feeling wounded, from being petty to displaying inordinate pride, all in the space of a few sentences. Stuck for a week amongst the international art set of Documenta, Vila-Matas portrays himself as an inarticulate amateur in the art-speak that is their lingua franca. And yet his character gives us, his readers, a highly sensitized and affecting response to the many works of contemporary art he encounters.
The artworks that Vila-Matas encountered and described at Documenta 13 included pieces by some of the most avant-garde, non-traditional artists working today. Here are three works that he spends considerable time experiencing and writing about: Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled, a work of “consummate oddness” and “extreme weirdness” that consisted largely of a statue with a real beehive covering the face, a field of compost, and a live dog with a painted leg; Tino Sehgal’s This Variation, which consisted of “a space in darkness, a hidden place in which a series of people awaited visitors and, when the moment was right, sang songs and offered the experience of living a piece of art as something fully sensory”; and Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise, (The Invisible Pull), which seemed to consist of a current of wind circulating around an otherwise empty room. What impresses Vila-Matas about these (and a few other works) is the “necessity of learning how to stand apart, to situate oneself on the metaphorical outskirts of the outskirts” (which he later suggests is “distanced from galleries and museums”). Only art located there “could really be innovative.” Somewhat surprisingly, Vila-Matas is a highly articulate guide to some of the more esoteric and “difficult” artists of recent years. That said, he’s no push-over for contemporary art; he encounters pieces with a wary skepticism, but then he closely examines the range of sensations and reactions he has with each encounter.
What Vila-Matas does with Illogic is create a book that is the equivalent of the artworks at Documenta 13, a book that stands outside the commercial mainstream, that seems ephemeral and yet has a haunting impact, that opens up new doors rather than providing answers. Vila-Matas has a sense that, in contrast with contemporary art, “in the literary sphere, the avant-garde has lost ground, if not become almost entirely extinct” – and he clearly wants to fill this void with his own writing. Later on, Vila-Matas offers what sounds like a credo:
Some of us reject the repetition of what has been done before; we hate [writers] telling us the same as always, trying to make us know things all over again that we know so much about already; we loathe the realist and the rustic, or the rustic and the realist, who think the task of the writer is to reproduce, copy, imitate reality, as if in its chaotic evolution, its monstrous complexity, reality could be captured and narrated. We are amazed by writers who believe that the more empirical and prosaic they are, the closer they get to the truth, when in fact the more details you pile up, the further that takes you away from reality; we curse those who prefer to ignore risk, just because they are afraid of loneliness and getting it wrong; we scorn those who don’t understand that the greatness of a writer lies in his promise, guaranteed in advance, of failure; we love those who swear that art lies solely in this attempt.
The Illogic of Kassel also introduces us to a more politicized and history-conscious Vila-Matas than in any previous book. Despite the personal euphoria he experiences amidst the artworks of Documenta, Vila-Matas realizes that his visit to Germany is a stark reminder that Europe is, in his mind, a dead continent.
I was in the center of Germany, in the center of Europe, and there, in that center, it was more obvious than anywhere else that everything had been cold and dead and buried for decades, ever since the continent allowed itself to make its first series of unpardonable mistakes…The weight of our most recent terrifying past history was too much, a history in which horror was the dominant presence…Europe, already a tragic composite, would never again manage to feel part of the world in a good or natural way, in fact would never again manage to feel on earth in any way at all.
He never fully elucidates the events that comprise this “series of unpardonable mistakes, but the “recent terrifying past” is an obvious reference to the Nazi era and the Second World War. The stark contrast between Vila-Matas’ personal sense of exhilaration and his conviction that Europe has committed historical and moral suicide relates to his renewed conviction that “art and historical memory were inseparable,” and that “any activity connected to the avant-garde must never lose sight of the political dimension.” As a result, contemporary art “was the only window left open for those still searching for spiritual salvation.” The book ends on a note that I would never have expected from the eternally melancholy Vila-Matas. Here he is in a taxi on his way to the airport:
Art was, in effect, something that was happening to me, happening at that very moment. And the world seemed new again, moved by an invisible impulse. Everything was so relaxing and admirable, it was impossible not to look. Blessed is the morning, I thought.