Youthful nihilism, contradictory impulses, preferences and desires catch up with Rob Doyle in his explicitly autobiographical novel Threshold. It is a cerebral and playful book, with accounts and investigations from his travels, and a threshold that explores reality and fiction, desire and fascination. As a protagonist Doyle's quest is for a meaningful significance that transcends the mundane. His is a novel with more energy, more comedy, and more direness than your everyday novel. Doyle describes wanting to exact a toll by confronting the reader.
Nesrin was a Kurdish artist who claimed to have slept with two of the 9/11 hijackers, simultaneously, during a trip to America when she was seventeen, weeks before the men perished in a ball of fire above Manhattan. It was almost certainly a lie, but Nesrin used it as the basis for a video work, Love Collision , which was shown at underground galleries and club nights in Berlin. The work comprised a hardcore porn film in which Nesrin has sex with two men, intercut with footage of cities at night and hedonistic dance parties. The three performers have verses from the Koran inscribed on their bodies – a clear nod to Theo van Gogh’s film Submission.
I knew all this because my friend Fran told me about Nesrin when he heard I was visiting Kassel to cover the documenta festival for an art magazine. Nesrin was living in the city, and Fran thought it worth putting us in touch even though she was, he wrote in an email, ‘definitely evil, but in an original way’. Under no circumstances should I go to bed with her if the possibility arose, he insisted. It would not – ‘repeat, not ’ – end well. I replied that there was more than enough scorched earth in my past already. ‘Ah yes,’ he wrote back. ‘Scorched Earth Rob, lives his life like a retreating Nazi.’
Nesrin was an obscure artist in more senses than one. I read a few descriptions online of works she’d exhibited, but no search result divulged what I really wanted to know: what she looked like. I could find no photographs bar a couple of shadowy, indistinct portraits that suggested a slight, dark-haired woman dressed in black. I emailed her and explained that I was a friend of Fran’s. I mentioned the dates of my stay in Kassel and said it’d be cool to meet up if she had time. Two days later, Nesrin wrote back that she would rather not meet, but asked if I would be willing to participate in an ongoing artistic production relating to ‘art tourists’ in Kassel. I wouldn’t have to do much, she explained, just follow occasional instructions that she would send by email or text; for the rest of the time I could go about my visit as normal. Curiosity outweighed wariness; I agreed to take part.
The present curator, Adam Szymczyk – a man so hip he didn’t even need vowels in his surname – had declared that the festival would address the multiple crises the world was currently enduring: mass migration, the renaissance of the far right, looming ecological catastrophe and so on. Leaving aside the crisis of his unpronounceable name, you could see Szymczyk’s point – it really did feel like emergency time on planet earth – but this institutional yoking of art to political engagement seemed symptomatic of a broader cultural synergy: everywhere you looked, art was becoming indistinguishable from social work, progressivist politics, liberal guilt. To join the tribe called contemporary art, it was required that you loudly declaim a humanitarian worldview and place your work at its service. Often, when I looked at contemporary art, I sensed I was meant to fall on my knees and flagellate myself. In the programme there was even a listed event entitled Shame on Us, relating to the refugee crisis. That was it: Szymczyk would not feel satisfied unless everyone who visited Kassel crawled away in shame. The European Christianity of which art for centuries had been the efflorescence was finished – no hip artist would be seen dead with it – but its morality hung over the continent like ancient incense, and the scolding curators and shame-artists were its priests.
I left the documenta Halle just before eight o’clock, as the festival was shutting up shop for the night. Walking along the hillside that rose from Friedrichsplatz towards the high point of the town, above the motorway and forests, I scanned the rain-soaked walkways and elevated gardens – all quite deserted – for stray artworks. Now and then I mistook real-life objects for artistic representations of themselves – like this tent, surely pitched by a refugee or a vagrant, perched on a hillside beauty spot, looking out over balustrades. But wait, it was a real artwork – as opposed to a real tent. I approached cautiously, just in case, but yes, it was made not of canvas but of sculpted marble, a creamy-gold hue, its folds and billows smooth and lovely under my palms. The tent seemed to radiate an inner luminescence, the brightest point on the wintry August landscape. I stepped around the front and found that the tent was open. Muddy footprints were splattered across the fl oor. I stuck my head inside to see if it reeked of piss: it did not. If I’d had a sleeping bag I’d have been tempted to buy a few cans and curl up in there for the night, looking out at the rain and getting plastered. I liked this sculpture. I felt a pull towards it, as if it were my home in another reality. True, I again had the sense of an artist wagging her finger at me – the ease of my life compared to the biblical sufferings of the refugees who flooded Europe – yet there was an optimism to this luminous tent, squat like a Buddha with its back to the middle-aged crowds of Kassel.
The next morning I hurriedly fixed a mug of instant coffee, skipping breakfast to make up for a late start, the students in adjacent blocks having kept me awake blasting hip-hop with bass that rattled the headboard. I read an email that had arrived while I was in the shower, from Nesrin. She instructed me to visit an address that Google Maps indicated to be nearby. Fifteen minutes later I arrived at a ground-floor address in a run-down block on a street that was deserted but for a dog that snarled weakly before descending into a pedestrian tunnel.
As Nesrin had indicated, the door was unlocked. I stepped inside, leaving it ajar behind me. In the centre of the small studio room was a bed, low and unkempt, whose soiled linen no doubt accounted for the reek of stale sweat that hung in the air. On the floor next to the bed were two red buckets, empty. Six words were written in black marker on the wall: Eternity has never been so precarious. Pasted around the text were a number of black-and-white photographs that, I realised with a start, had evidently been taken the previous evening: I was looking at myself, from a stalker’s distance, wandering in the rain through the deserted gardens at the top of the city. I’d had no sense of being followed; the awareness that I’d been the object of covert attention brought a nervous thrill. Spotting a black marker on the floor by the bed, I picked it up and wrote the words Fuck Arses next to the first message. Two could play this game.
I spent the rest of the morning seeking out permanent installations from documentas past, the imaginative sediment that had accrued over decades on Kassel’s parks and squares. The rain held off and silvery light leached through the clouds that hung above the city, awaiting orders. A text came in as I walked towards the Hauptbahnhof – my curator friend Stavro in Berlin, telling me his friend Estefanio was in Kassel for the week; I ought to meet him, he’d know the best parties. On the plaza in front of the train station I descended a metal staircase into a disused underground station that had been repurposed as art space. Weeds sprouted from between the tracks. Long white sculptures resembling strands of DNA snaked through the cavernous structure. Whispering voices filled the air, emanating from unseen sources embedded in the walls. In the glow cast by erratic chandeliers, I noticed a woman on the other side of the tracks, further down the platform. She was dressed in black, with dark hair, and she was taking photographs. I stood watching her until finally she looked up. We gazed at each other for longer than seemed appropriate. Then she turned and walked through a doorway. After hesitating a moment I leaped down, crossed the tracks and followed her. I entered a room where iridescent, digitised mosaics rotated and breathed on the walls and floor. I was alone: she had left through one of three doors, or via the staircase.
Back in daylight, I stopped for lunch at a Lebanese restaurant that bustled with map-clutchers. I ordered a falafel and chips. While awaiting my meal I checked my inbox: there was a new email from Nesrin, sent only minutes earlier. An inline image manifested over several data-sucking seconds. The photograph was in black and white, grainy like a CCTV still. Once more I was looking at myself, from above and behind this time, standing in the grimy studio I had entered hours earlier, with the buckets on the floor. The scene was as I remembered it but for one jarring difference: the bed in the middle of the room was not empty. In it lay the body of an unnaturally tall woman – or the black, scratchy outline of one. It did not look as if the image had been superimposed so much as burned away, an acid-corroded silhouette revealing an underlying dimension. The face was indistinct, but it was easy to imagine it was screaming. I scrolled down. A line below the image read: Choose the caption you prefer. There was a list:
Endlessly disintegrating / My death waits like a witch in the night / Who I fucked and what it meant / Poetry from the past, projected into the future as violence /Love in an air raid / Love in a bomb shelter / Our hate will never die / Only I know how much I loved you / An infi nite and magnifi cent sorrow / Blood butterflies / Once and never again / Family of ghosts / An investigation into my own disappearance / The wanderer and her shadow / A knife without a blade, that has lost its handle / I stay alive only to haunt you / Whispering into a seashell on a beach in the north
I copied Love in an air raid and pasted it into my reply, adding no words to the message. Then I gazed again at the photograph. I hadn’t noticed any camera in the room: it must have been well concealed above the doorway. Again I felt that dark frisson of intimacy, a not entirely unwelcome sense of violation. I sent another one-line email: Was that you in the underground?
Out in the sunlight, with my wheeled suitcase at my side, I still felt like death, like shit, but it wasn’t the extravagant pain I’d woken to. My train left in five hours. Slowly I wheeled my suitcase through the centre of Kassel, past whispering installations and cheery tourists who roamed in the Sunday-morning calm. In a Turkish shop off Friedrichsplatz I bought two bottles of wine and, although I hadn’t smoked in years, a pack of cigarettes. Out in the street I sent Nesrin one last message, telling her again where I was going. I said I hoped she bled to death. I told her I would love her forever. I pulled my suitcase along the pathway that led up from the square, through bright gardens to the roof of the city. The hillside was deserted, as calm as a monastery garden. The marble tent looked no less lovely in the daylight. This time it did smell of piss. I chucked my suitcase inside. Then I clambered in too. I sat with my legs folded beneath me, in the doorway, looking out over the forest, and the autobahn that streaked to the horizon. Some dark-brown vomit had dried on my sleeve. The thought of catching the train no longer seemed compelling. In the high morning sun I opened the first bottle of wine and took a gulp. I felt the liquid pour down my gullet, sloshing through my insides to the pit of my stomach. With that first mouthful of wine I was drunk again, as drunk as I had ever been. I lit a cigarette, and thought maybe I would stay drunk forever.
Adapted from Threshold by arrangement with Bloomsbury USA. Copyright © 2020, Rob Doyle.