:: Article

With My Back Turned On the Reader

By D.R. Hansen.

Still from Dora García’s La lección respiratoria (The Breathing Lesson), 2001

For the first time in its history, the Whitechapel Gallery in London has invited authors to act and react as curators. Over the course of the year, four writers will each approach Spain’s “la Caixa” collection and present their selection alongside a new work of literary fiction in response to the self-selection. With this, the 2010s propensity for framing contemporary art within highly self-reflexive fiction, as seen in the work of Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, Teju Cole and Valeria Luiselli, has reached its culmination.

Not surprisingly, the Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas — who will be followed by Maria Fusco, Tom McCarthy and Valeria Luiselli — is the first to have a go at curating at the Whitechapel, and from 17th of January his selection of six works spanning video installation and painting can be viewed in Gallery 7.

Vila-Matas is the obvious choice of author-curator by virtue of his sustained engagement with the visual arts in his writing, which itself approximates the status of conceptual art. In 1985, he published A Brief History of Portable Literature, a neat little novella that tells the roisterous story of a secret society of writers and artists who call themselves the Shandies. Its members, counting Marcel Duchamp and Aleister Crowley, meet in cafés and hotels across Europe to discuss great literature, which is, to their mind, and very much despite their name alluding to the Sterne’s nine-volume novel, portable: brief, and not too serious.

With Because She Never Asked (2015), à la  La vie mode d’emploi written for French artist Sophie Calle, Vila-Matas went even deeper into the misty enclave of art-as-literature, and yet, what must have impressed the actual Whitechapel Gallery curators more than anything, is when the novelist himself was an art installation. For the 2013 dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany, Vila-Matas was asked by curators to be a writer in residence during the exhibition, but in rather unexpected circumstances: he was to sit and write every morning in a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of town.

Vila-Matas did what most contemporary novelists prone to writing about themselves (their numbers are soaring) do: he turned his unspectacular mornings spent walking aimlessly around Kassel, scribbling or sleeping before Chinese and German visitors, into a work of autofiction, The Illogic of Kassel (2014). Is it a novel or a piece of conceptual art? To Vila-Matas, it is neither. Rather, it is an exercise in truth-searching, in delving into the ambiguities of experience, a life-long investigation into his own autobiography. What he hopes to learn in the process, is “how to breathe while swimming. That, for me, would be literature”.

It is in this same mood that he has selected the six artworks on display in the Whitechapel Gallery. “In front of a work of art,” he told us in Gallery 7 on the morning of the 17th, still heavy-eyed, “we usually react in one of two ways: either we are instantly attracted to it or we immediately reject it.”

Without yet knowing why, he chose Gerhard Richter’s I.G. (1993), a photorealistic painting of the painter’s second wife. She has her nude back turned, which is why it attracted Vila-Matas so powerfully, instinctively. Only after choosing all six pieces that make up his “cabinet d’amateur”, a title borrowed from George Perec’s mise en abyme novel published 40 years ago this year, did he realise how they are connected: each is a thread to his past and together they emotively draw up his literary biography.

This nebulous relatedness between the works will not be apparent to the regular gallery visitor, and that is perhaps the point: the writer as curator does not operate like the art historian as curator. The Whitechapel Gallery’s director Iwona Blazwick commented that a writer is allowed to curate much more freely and thereby suggest novel ways of looking at a selection of art. It is Vila-Matas’ prerogative to make up stories, or draw invisible lines between them. Yet he helps us by providing more perspicuous explanations in the brief, and certainly portable, novel-cum-gallery-catalogue Cabinet d’amateur: An Oblique Novel that has been published concurrently to accompany the exhibition.

Aside from the Richter, Vila-Matas has extracted from “la Caixa” a haunting video by Dora García; a melancholic self-portrait by Carlos Pazos; a painting by Miquel Barceló; one of Andreas Gursky’s signature aerial photographs; and a large-scale installation by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

A cabinet d’amateur painting by Willem van Haecht: The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest (1628)

But of all the works, I.G. is the centre piece, if we allow ourselves to be swayed by literary biography as the modus operandi of art curation:

“Richter’s work relates best to my literary work. It takes me back to how I began to write: always with my back turned to the audience. I started to write when I saw Miles Davis perform in Barcelona. During the Franco years, Davis would play with his back turned. And I thought it would be wonderful to write like that, with my back turned on the reader — because I was afraid of the reader. And that’s how I started to write.”

Enqirue Vila-Matas (c) Outomuro

Enrique Vila-Matas’ selection is on display at London’s Whitechapel Gallery until 28 April 2019.

D.R. Hansen has written for Avidly, L.A. Review of Books, International Journal of the Book, CRUMB Magazine, Copenhagen Post, Curator, among others. She is a researcher in English experimental literature and the visual arts at UCL.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 4th, 2019.