The Illogic of Kassel presents something of a literary conundrum. It offers what appear to be perceptive insights, nuggets of wisdom, wrapped around a tale that does not always engage. It is mocking, opaque in places, appearing clever but perhaps for clever’s sake.
The protagonist, a Spanish writer who enjoys morning euphoria and then suffers evening depression, is invited to take part in a prodigious, avant-garde artistic endeavour, Documenta, in the German town of Kassel. Despite his antipathy towards the live installation he will be required to be a part of, the writer agrees as he wishes to solve what he describes as the mystery of contemporary art – to ‘seek the aesthetic instant’.
The writer is influenced by all he reads and observes – his life experiences. He plays out scenarios in his imagination which then inform how he acts. Reading this story felt, at times, like playing a game where the rules kept changing, where the premise and coherence shifted as the plot progressed.
On arriving in Kassel the writer finds himself repeatedly drawn to certain exhibits. He is particularly taken by a vast space, first empty and then leading into darkness, pulled along by a current of air. He opines,
“I had proved that solitude was impossible, because it was inhabited by ghosts.”
Whilst this may appear to be profound, a result of his careful deliberations, it is exactly what the artistic space represents.
In walking around Kassel the writer realises that his evening depression has lifted. He is affected by the exhibits he visits and ponders if art appreciation is purely a state of mind. In an attempt to be cultured, are intelligent people looking for inspiration in what is ridiculous? Does the avant-garde exist when, if acknowledged as art, anything can be accepted?
(I ask myself if I, as a reader of this book, am seeking to be impressed because I believe I should appreciate the skill of an acclaimed author.)
The writer is passed between organisers of Documenta and their assistants. Although enjoying their company he does not always understand what they say or mean. He forms ideas of them and is then discomfited when they do not act as he expects.
“how frightening people are who suddenly show a side of themselves we’d never imagined”
The installation of which he is to be a part involves him sitting at a table in a remote Chinese restaurant becoming a Writer in Residence. To cope with the unknown aspects of this, particularly the attention he may receive, he invents a persona for himself and considers how this alter ego would react to observers.
“we are so many million people in the world, and yet communication – real communication – is absolutely impossible between any two of us.”
The writer comments that the contemporary art of Documenta is created without the contamination of the laws of the market. I found this disingenuous, akin to an author claiming not to care whether or not their book sold well.
The story is witty with much play between experimental arts of all kinds but still I am left feeling underwhelmed. This is much the same as when I view modern art, particularly live installations.
Any Cop?: If designed to provide a debatable literary experience the book succeeds. Whether it is one worth seeking – I am not entirely convinced.