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Thomas Verstraeten

On Pierre Menard’s Paradox

The title Pierre Menard’s Paradox derives from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939), in which the narrator recounts how a deceased friend, Pierre Menard, writes – not copies or rewrites - two chapters of Cervantes’ Don Quixote:

“He did not want to compose another Quixote – which would be easy enough – but the Quixote. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide - word for word and line for line - with those of Miguel de Cervantes.[And those pages are] “infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will say; but ambiguity is richness.”

(J.L. Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote)

So Menard’s chapters relate not only to the (re)telling of the adventures of the ‘knight of the sad countenance’ but also to the adventures of the text: not only the story but also the story of the story. Everything connected to the story - other stories, history, the world – was included in Menard’s version. That version had to be the ‘last’, the Quixote, the version in which the “infinitely richer” story returns to itself. Perhaps this heroic and impossible ambition makes Menard a new ‘knight of the sad countenance’ and his ultimate version the beginning of a new story.

For Borges, reading always creates a ‘new’ text, a changed text. Not because the actual text has changed, but because the reality in which it was read has changed. With every reading, the text redresses its present, its topicality. And in that production flow of ever ‘new’ texts, the longer it continues, the more it is about the process of telling than about what is told.

Several years ago, Thomas Verstraeten was still a student in the place where his installation now stands. Occasionally in the afternoon he would go and drink tea in the Moroccan teahouse Tanger, diagonally opposite the St Lucas School of Arts in Antwerp. Stepping inside the teahouse unwittingly turned Verstraeten into a spectator. The experience of the ordinariness and at the same time the exoticism of the place and its everyday occurrences and sounds, changed the way he viewed it. The chair he occupied, briefly becomes a sort of outside from which the perspective on things - which become the ‘spectacle’ - is adjusted.

In the installation and the performance entitled Pierre Menard’s Paradox, Verstraeten redefined that experience and the way the spectator functions. The spectator is everywhere now, perpetually moving and changing perspective.

The installation is a fairly exact replica of the teahouse opposite, the interior having been recreated with obsessional precision. The exact equivalents of pretty well every object were tracked down: the same chairs, coffee pots, glasses, electrical equipment, decorations, etc. As that replica, the installation becomes not so much a copy as a sort of museum of the teahouse. A museum that has collected everything from and about the teahouse; a museum that is complete, and knows everything. And at the same time lacks everything.

Verstraeten has activated the teahouse twice: with a group of actors he performed a particular scene from the Tanger teahouse, “word for word, line by line”. For now.

— by Mark Luyten