‘The Illogic of Kassel’ by Enrique Vila-Matas (2014) – 220 pages Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom
‘The Illogic of Kassel’ is Enrique Vila-Matas’ account of his one-week sojourn at the avant-garde art festival Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany in 2012. He was both a participant in and an observer of the art installations at Documenta 13.
During World War II, Kassel had the misfortune of being the location of several Nazi armament factories, and ninety percent of Kassel’s downtown area was destroyed by Allied bombing. Also fierce tank battles destroying much of the city occurred here during the Allied invasion toward the end of the war.
Germany under Hitler had classified German art as degenerate, expelling and murdering its artists. In an act of redemption after the war, Kassel started Documenta in 1955, and now thirteen of these festivals have been held so far. Kassel is now considered a world center for contemporary art.
As a participant, each morning Vila-Matas was to sit in a Chinese restaurant in Kassel, the Dschingis Khan, and just do what he normally would do and write in front of the public. As an observer, Vila-Matas was “a sort of erratic stroller in continuous perplexed wandering”.
The good news about ‘The Illogic of Kassel’ is that it is written in the mature self-confident style of Vila-Matas’ later works such as ‘Never Any End to Paris’ and ‘Dublinesque’. In other words, this is a work that makes the reader think about the world around them, to press deeper into the real questions than we normally would go. This is a mind-expanding work. For better or worse, Enrique Vila-Matas has become my guru, my guide.
Vila-Matas is fervent in his advocacy of the avant-garde:
“Perhaps it is this desire for something more that propels us to seek the new, to believe something exists that still can be distinct, unseen, special, something different, around the most unexpected corner; that’s why some of us have spent our whole lives wanting to be avant-garde, because it is our way of believing that in the world or maybe beyond it, out beyond the poor world, there might be something we’ve never seen before.”
However ‘The Illogic of Kassel’ is by no means an easy read; it is a most difficult read. First, even though he describes many of the art installations at Documenta 13, don’t expect any sort of meaningful criticism of any of them. Vila-Matas is much too polite for that. Since this is non-fiction and deals with the real people putting on Documenta 13 and the real artists, Vila-Matas treads carefully, way too carefully. No art installation or person is ever criticized in any way. Vila-Matas describes these art installations in detail, but these descriptions do not come alive and do not have much impact. He apparently feels he cannot criticize anything or anyone. He also never praises any one piece of avant-garde art highly for fear it might hurt the feelings of other participants. Vila-Matas is a lousy critic, and the book slogs down when he is out surveying the field. None of the officials of the festival comes alive either, because of Vila-Matas’ friendly politeness to neither criticize nor over-praise.
I would have much preferred a fictional account of the art festival where the author would not have been constrained by the bounds of courtesy.
So my bottom-line feelings about ‘The Illogic of Kassel’ are quite ambivalent. I highly regard Vila-Matas’ mind when he is dealing with literary, philosophical, and historical issues, but his take on Documenta 13 was slow going and quite inadequate.