Art in novels: “The Illogic of Kassel”, aka the Avant-Garde’s decline, by Enrique Vila-Matas

Antonio Carnevale

The critic is alive. The critic is dead. Around the status of the art critic there is an endless debate, nowadays basically questioning the actual possibility of existence of this crucial voice which should balance out the power of money-driven interests and sometimes tricky auction prices. In terms of art writing one the few options still available seems that of an oeuvre whose subject-object is indeed the very work you intend to criticize. A shining example of this approach is the novel “The Illogic of Kassel” (2015) by Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas, a writing extraordinarily rich with philosophical themes related to contemporary art. And its object is not just a single work of art, but the total body of work exhibited in the last edition of Documenta (Kassel, 2012).

Vila-Matas’ writing process starts off with a phone call. Chus Martìnez, member of the large curatorial staff selected by Documenta’s director Christof-Bakargiev, invites the writer “to be part of Documenta”. The invitation however is not to write a novel about the event, but rather to become part of the show as if the writer were to become a sort of installation: Vila-Matas was thus supposed to turn into a living work of art.

Specifically, Vila-Matas would have had to spend a few hours during the day in a Chinese restaurant for some weeks. What he was required to do was simply to sit and write. No particular topic had been pointed out with regards to what he was supposed to write in that restaurant. The director and her staff only advised the writer that, while carrying out his activity, he should get in touch (that is to say being open to “interrelate”) with those restaurant’s customers who showed any interest in his work or who simply wanted to engage with him.

If that phone call to invite the writer is indeed the incipit of the novel, what comes after however is not the chronicle of Vila-Matas’ experience as a living work of art. The writer “interrelated” to the customers, the “intellectual-installation”, as Christof-Barkargiev and Martinez had imagined it, will have little luck (only one customer will turn out to be interested to “interrelate” with the writer in the end). On the contrary, Vila-Matas’ interaction with the entire city of Kassel, with the installations on show at Documenta, and with the public of these latter will be extremely successful. As a result of these “interrelations”, the trip, and so the novel, will translate into a long and narrative attempt to respond to the query whether contemporary art (or “avant-garde”, as defined by the writer) is a bluff or a serious matter.

The response to such a “macro” question, which arrives very clear anyway, will be formulated by the author through “micro” problems triggered by the single works seen at Documenta and solved by resorting to digression. That is to say the story of the modern flâneur, who wanders around the city without bias and relates in first person, with a slow style, like an intimate secret, his experience, combining autobiography, fiction, travel writings, philosophy and a good amount of literary quotations.

Hence, we shall let the reader get lost into Vila-Matas’ story, and approve, or disagree for that matter with the words he addresses to artists such as Ryan Gander, Lee Miller, Pedro Reyes, Pierre Huyghe, Janet Cardiff, Tacita Dean or Tino Sehgal. We will just point out three reasons why “The Illogic of Kassel” is a very interesting sample of innovative art critic, albeit sui generis. First of all, it is a poetical work which sets itself as an extension (in a narrative form) of a critic-curatorial idea (that of Christof-Bakargiev and Chus Martinez): both in the method, since the writer is indeed an integral part of Documenta, and in the merit, for his text shows a symbolic interpretation of Documenta in line with the programmatic aims of the director. Secondly, it offers a critical approach to various works on show, thus becoming a precious evidence of artistic literature. Third, it casts a glance at the art system, entering the debate on the avant-gardes’ decline.

December 22, 2016