Artforum by Cesar Aira

In a collection of short essays, Cesar Aira discusses his love, bordering on obsession, for the American fine art magazine Artforum. Called, simply, Artforum, as a work of nonfiction it is something of an anomaly in the writer’s oeuvre. Written in the first person, the book carries all the markers associated with the writer — slim volume, short paragraphs covering a large breadth of territory, smatterings of magical realism, and stunning visual imagery. While, overall, they lack the magic of his fiction, the majority of the essays still manage to deliver on individual moments that delight.

The best of the bunch, to my mind, is The Sacrifice, which opens the book. Aira wakes up on a Saturday morning to the sound of rain. He experiences a sense of foreboding, followed by mild alarm, realizing that the windows had been left open overnight due to the heat…

The thing is, because of the heat, we left all the windows open day and night, and near the windows there were tables, chairs, and armchairs, and on these were books and magazines; there was an enormous amount of paper in the house. All of us in the family were readers, the bookshelves were overflowing, books and magazines were piled everywhere. It was inevitable that some would be within reach of the rain, which could come in through the open windows. It’s well known how destructive water is to paper.

He soon discovers his fears have come true and one of his precious magazines has been damaged… but also transformed. In typical Aira fashion, the story takes us somewhere we don’t expect to go. A trick he manages to pull off better than anyone else writing today.

Not every essay is about Artforum. There is one about clothespins, and the philosophical and metaphysical implications of their breaking, which is lovely. But on the whole, the collection is uneven and I found the majority weren’t particularly memorable. The fault, of course, could lay with the reader. I expected a rollicking and ridiculous adventure as we followed Aira on his single-minded quest to obtain issues of Artforum magazine (apparently hard to come by in Argentina). But this book is not that. At a superficial level, most of the essays are about waiting for the issues to arrive by International post and the mental games the writer plays in order to rationalize why they are late or fail to appear entirely. In one episode, Twenty Four Issues of Artforum, Aira learns from a friend about a windfall of back issues at a used bookshop. After he buys the magazines he has lunch with another friend, who gives him a surprise gift. The essay evolves into a meditation on the emotional and spiritual connections we form with both people and inanimate objects. It reminded me of Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, specifically the parts where he warmly recounted meetings and conversations with old friends. Of course, what Aira is really writing is a book about his development as a writer and an artist (nothing new there) and disguising it as a book about the magazine Artforum. Still, I can’t help wishing there’d been a little bit more about the magazine — its history, as an object — included in the text.

While not enough to label a genre or even a literary trend, — though one might be very slowly developing — I do feel there have been a number of books published and pushed over the past few years that engage in narrow examinations of one subject as the means of understanding another. I’m thinking about books like On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera (which I just reviewed at Ron Slates One the Seawall). In the review, I compared it to The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Both women are dealing with personal illness: Barrera with her loneliness and depression, and Bailey with a rare disease that had her confined to her bed for months. I also compare it to Eric Plamondon’s 1984 trilogy of novels about the actor Johnny Weissman, the poet Richard Brautigan, and Steve Jobs. And Nathalie Legers’ Suite for Barbara Loden, which I only recently learned is part of another trilogy (or, as the author calls it, a triptych) on feminist artists, which includes one book about the French Countess of Castiglione and another about the Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca. Are these books responses — conscious or otherwise — to the internet, Wikipedia, and our collective habit of diving down rabbit holes on obscure topics?

I’ve always been partial to Chris Andrew’s translations of Aira, but Katharine Silver won me over. The voice she uses is familiar — close enough to the novels but subtly toned-down so that we understand this is the writer speaking to us as himself, rather than through a character. Aira novels tend to grow on me over time. There are passages that individually dazzle but, on the whole, there needs to be a ripening period. In that way, Artforum is no different from his other books that I’ve read.

In 2014, Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos translated portions of “What Aira Says” by Sergio Pitol. It’s wonderful, a convergence of two of my favorite writers which I believe is still unavailable in its entirety in English. Pitol makes a distinction between “the highest expressions of Aira’s art and the more tedious or lesser ones”. (If you are an Aira fan the entire post is worth checking out). Right now I would classify Artforum as among the lesser expressions. But, that said, I like it better than I did a week ago. And a month ago I found it entirely underwhelming. So who knows what my feelings will be a month from now? That ability to linger and metamorphize in a reader’s mind over time is both magical, rare, and at the essence of why I continue to admire Ceasar Aira.

Title: Artforum
Author: Cesar Aira
Tranlator: Katherine Silver
Publisher: New Directions, New York (2020)
ISBN: 978 0 8112 2926 5

Visiting India – A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I have a confession to make.  I’ve never been to India.  It’s incredibly annoying to try to spend an entire month focusing on a place that you’ve had no first hand experience with.  Which is why I’ve decided to call in a ringer.  Erica Derrickson not only spent a significant amount of time wandering around India…she came back with a book full of photographs.  Which, by the way, you can purchase (but more on that later).

The photos in India:  A Thousand Words are beautiful.  The perspective joyful.   They show a landscape and culture that is tangible – as if you could step through the image and into that world without missing a beat.  In her introduction Erica describes India as a place of contrasts.  She cites “poverty and privilege, abundance and scarcity, empowerment and disenfranchisement, purity and filth, the ancient and the modern, enlightenment and ignorance, and life and death.”  But looking through the photographs I could see only the positives in that statement.  So I asked her – did she do that on purpose?  Here is her answer.

India is indeed a country of extremes, and yet while my book does reference that in the opening pages, this book is not about directly portraying those extremes. While moments can be labeled as ‘joyful’ or ‘depressing’, the way I see it is that the images I take are moments that occur in the ambience of the contrasts of these labels.

If you were to look, for example, at the picture near the end of the book of the young child wearing the orange top and a strange scowl on her face. I took this image on the banks of the holy Ganga river in the ancient city of Varanasi, aka Benares, one of the most sacred and ancient urban sites in India. Mark Twain once commented that “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” The child is seated on the steps of one of these ancient bathing ghats (a set of stone carved steps and platforms created for accessing the river) from which the local population has been bathing for generations spanning across centuries. In this same holy city, along the same holy river, there are other sacred ghats that do not host the activities of the living, but rather the Hindu rituals of the dead. Every day, for the past two thousand or so years, hundreds of bodies are burned on grand pyres and ceremoniously interred in the waters of the sacred river. Hindus come from all over India to have their remains laid to rest in this sacred city; to have your body buried in the holy Ganga is to instantly attain Nirvana and end the cycle of life and death, and to wash your living body in its waters is to wash away your karma. Considering the ambiance of these extremes, bathing the bodies of the living in the same waters that are receiving the ashes of the deceased, the look on the child’s face reveals something different, or rather, begs some different questions. This moment of beauty, a fleeting expression that questions the origins of innocence, intends to offer a fleeting glimpse into a world so attuned to the cycles of life and death.

You can find Erica’s book (and see more pictures) by following the link to  India: A Thousand Words.

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How & Where: Michael Pollan vs. Witold Rybczynski

The Michael Pollan book I’m reading reminds me of another favorite author of mine – Witold Rybczynski.  Both writers devote themselves to what could easily become unwieldy topics (gardening & cities in these examples),  yet they succeed in keeping the information manageable by dividing it into short, entertaining and self-contained essays.  I found their writing style to be similar, though Pollan is easily the more poetic of the two.  More importantly, both Rybczynski & Pollan display the desire to actively engage the reader’s interest in the topics they, themselves, find so fascinating.

Over a dozen years ago Rybczynski’s book City Life made me care about urban planning.  He introduced me to the concept that cities, like living things, evolve.  American cities are the way they are for a reason; we adapt  where we live to how we live.  And because we live differently from Europeans, Africans and Asians – our cities are different from theirs.

Just like there are layers of complexity to the natural world , the same is true of the man- made.

Rybczynski describes the American city in its many incarnations – New York, Chicago, D.C., Boston, etc.  He discusses how parks, public transportation and civic art came into being.  How the events of history shaped our landscape.  He makes connections that aren’t as obvious to the rest of us.  For example, Rybczynski discusses the famous visit of  Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831  and how the Frenchman did not find the America he had expected.

He had read James Fenimore Cooper’s novels set in the wilderness, and he anticipated that a nation that included pioneering settlers as well as urban patricians would display cultural extremes even more striking than those between the rustic French provinces and the sophisticated capitale.  A travel essay he published describes how a visit to the frontier (present day Michigan) confounded his expectations.  “When you leave the main roads your force your way down barely trodden paths.  Finally, you see a field cleared, a cabin made from half-shaped tree trunks admitting light though only one narrow window only.  You think that you have at last reached the home of the American peasant.  Mistake.  You make your way into this cabin that seems the asylum of all wretchedness but the owner of the place is dressed in the same clothes as yours and he speaks the language of towns.  On his rough table are books and newspapers; he himself is anxious to know what is happening in Europe and asks you to tell him w hat has most struck you in his country.”  Toqueville continued:  “One might think one was meeting a rich landowner who had come to spend just a few nights in a hunting lodge.”

This uniform national “urbanity”, Rybczynski points out, was due largely to the fact that the majority of early Americans dispersed into the wilderness (later into the suburbs) from cities/urban centers.  The reverse was true in Europe – the more established peasant class often making their way into the big cities from the countryside.  So, a defining aspect of the American character and culture is directly linked to how the country was geographically settled.

Pollan & Rybczynski  look at social norms which, for most of us, seem too mundane to question…  tending a garden, mowing a lawn, moving to the suburbs, visiting the park.  In doing so, they cause us to see and understand our lives in new ways.  They lead us to ask questions:  Pollan about how we live with nature and Rybczynski about the way we live among our fellow men.

The Monday After Christmas…

It’s December 28th and here’s a list of what Santa dropped off at our house this year.

  • Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark – So far I’m really enjoying this book.  Basically, Stark began farming heirloom tomatoes in Pennsylvania and selling them to chefs at NYC’s Union Square Greenmarket.  Interesting reading particularly for vegetable gardeners.  Fortuitously, my Seed Savers Exchange catalog arrived a few weeks ago and March is right around the corner!  A great way to escape the ice and snow.
  • The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville – I am so excited about this book!  It was Melville’s first novel and winner of the 1997 Whitbread First Novel Award.  I took a peek at the Prologue, which establishes the narrator in a way that is surprisingly similar to Eating Air.
  • Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn – A recent issue of The New York Review of Books had an article on this book which caught my interest.  The authors are a husband & wife journalist (and Pulitzer winning) team who in their travels discovered that  one of the things struggling countries have in common is the oppression of women.   In Half the Sky they explain how this kind of attitude toward women is not only morally wrong, but economically ruinous.
  • Plagues & Peoples by William H. McNeill – Originally published in 1976, Plagues & Peoples examines the effect of diseases (particularly large scale outbreaks) on history & society.   It’s covered with excerpts of rave reviews from the likes of The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books & the Washington Post.   This is a great additional to my library’s Disease shelf.
  • Interaction of Color: New Complete Edition by Josef Albers – A surprise Christmas gift, I’ve already begun flipping through the pages – but I anticipate the need for an extended sit down before I’m comfortable reviewing this gem.  The color illustrations are gorgeous and I won’t even get into how beautiful the books are, by themselves, in the slipcase.  This is one of those books that moves into the realm of an object, and if you have the opportunity to look one over in person (regardless of whether you are interested in art books) I definitely recommend doing so.

Books given as gifts are my favorite things, if only because they show as much about how the giver’s mind works as they do about the receiver’s tastes.  I’ve never been that big of a fan of the end of the year/end of the decade lists, because, let’s face it – the same books are pretty much repeated again and again.  But a list of the books exchanged over the Holidays… that’s always going to turn up something new.

Leave a comment below with what turned up under your tree (or other appropriate holiday accessory) this year…  And if you’re interested in what everyone else is reading the Monday after Christmas, stop by J. Kaye’s Book Blog for the weekly meme.

The Sartorialist by Scott Schuman

Sartorialist

I’ve been a fan of The Sartorialist blog for a long time.  So when a companion book was published collecting  some of the great photography from the site, I rushed out to buy it – literally was at the bookshop looking for it the day it was released.  Why am I a fan?  Because you won’t find a lot of super models in Scott Schuman’s book or on his blog.   The Sartorialist is less about fashion, more about style.

The photographs are of random (and some familiar) people he sees on the street – taken on the spot in a composition style that always reminded me of August Sander.   And it says a lot about his work that designers use Schuman’s street photos for inspiration – versus his doing photo shoots with models dressed head to toe in the latest look (though he does some of that too).

And now The Sartorialist, in book form,  gives you 512 pages of people looking fabulous without having to turn on your computer.

I could gush about Scott Schuman’s work for hours, but he explains what he’s doing better than I ever could:

I saw this gentleman on Fifth Avenue around 56th Street.  Instantly I could tell from the Italian cut and sophisticated colour and fabric of his jacket that he was special.  I stopped him and asked if I could take  his photo, and he looked at me suspiciously and replied, ‘Why do you want to take a picture of me? I am a bald fat man.’  Now, I am a very polite and positive person, so I started to reply that, ‘No, you are not …’; but then I caught myself and instead replied, ‘Yes, but you are a well-dressed bald, fat man.’

That caught him off guard.  I followed up my first response with, ‘So, is that southern Italian tailoring?’  It was, and I knew it was, and my recognition of that was what won him over.  A longtime friend of mine, David Allen, once told me that one of the basic needs of people is to be understood.  I think that the fact that I seemed to understand this man and what he was trying to communicate through his style is why he agreed to let me take his photo.

He goes on to talk about how he received an overwhelming response to the photos of this well dressed man after posting them.  Other men, with similar body types, were printing the photos off their computers and taking them to stores because they wanted style – but didn’t have a blueprint to follow.

Normally, I’d post some of my favorites here.  Instead, check out The Sartorialist and find your own.  Scott Schuman also has a monthly article in GQ Magazine, with more of the same.  My favorite, though, is still the blog.