If you go into your local bookstore and ask for Artforum, it’s likely that you’ll end up in the magazine section, where the monthly register of contemporary art awaits you. However, there’s a chance your purveyor will lead you instead to the fiction stacks, to confront a slender collection of vignettes by Argentine author César Aira, also titled Artforum. In the latter, translated by Katherine Silver and published by New Directions, the author, or a character based on him, likewise enters or considers entering bookstores in search of this elusive periodical. To stumble onto Aira’s book while searching for the magazine yourself might feel a little eerie, like entering a vortex into which your very understanding of Artforum — what it is and what it means to want it — capsizes in the wake of an author at the height of his autofictional powers.
Aira, who is in his early 70s and has published “at least 100 books” in Spanish, according to the book jacket, is well known for his collection of Artforum magazines — he used them to bolster his arguments “On Contemporary Art” in a 2018 essay of that name, published by David Zwirner Books. Artforum (which was published in the original Spanish in 2014) compiles loosely chronological recollections of acquiring, reading, and, mostly, waiting for the magazine to arrive in Buenos Aires, where the author lives.
The work is fiction to the extent that impossible things take place. In the earliest vignette, dated January 8, 1983, Aira awakens to rain and discovers that a copy of Artforum (specifically, the Summer 1982 issue, with a cover by Robert Mangold) has been left under an open window and swelled up into “a sphere the size of a soccer ball […] whose layout I recognized without recognizing it.” Because of this perfect, implausible transformation, and the fact that none of the other magazines on the table, two Art in America and one Burlington, have taken on water, Aira assumes the issue martyred itself to save the others from the rain. He accepts the object’s intention outright — “I had noticed that things sometimes acted in accordance with their own decisions, that they had whims, fantasies, cruelties” — and arrives swiftly at a point of contemplation. “It was an inexpressibly beautiful object, even though I could no longer look through it or read it. Useless and unreadable, I loved it more than ever. I asked myself a strange question, justified only by the strangeness of the situation: did it love me?”
This is a telling introduction to the book, more concerned with the significance we give to objects — and our inability to shed their significations — than with the magazine itself. Aira calls books and magazines “superobjects,” as they “fulfilled their condition as objects twice over by being specialized carriers of information […] in their infinite variety and novelty they could supplant all other objects in imagination and desire.” Artforum, the book, is the story of that desire, and in turn it transforms the magazine into an ambiguous symbol of everything its reader might lack.
Of course, from the perspective of a petite-bourgeois author living in South America, these connotations have a lot to do with luxury and the capital-w West, “that faraway place where the present existed.” Much of the book is tied up with the vicissitudes of the international and Argentinian postal systems, and their unreliable methods of delivery; even when Aira becomes a subscriber to the magazine, he rarely gets the latest copy on time. He develops waiting games, superstitions on how he might summon the next issue, and even considers constructing an Artforum replica while biding his time, “which could well have been presented in a flattering article in Artforum.” This kind of alchemy, substituting one’s own imagination for reality, pays homage to the works of literary tricksters like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino — and indeed Artforum does to the magazine what Calvino does to the novel in If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), narrating the process of reading, and letting us in on the secret that one of the main joys of reading is anticipation, building up without ever quite arriving at the thing itself. Aira’s replica never makes it off the page, which is exactly the point in a book about a magazine that often doesn’t appear.
Is this all as frivolous as it sounds? That may depend on the weight your give to inanimate things. Last winter, I interned as a fact-checker at Artforum, which familiarized me with the people and business practices behind the magazine today. My Artforum is different from Aira’s, a mutable object that is also a location in space and operation in time. I like to tell people that I started working there by accident, mostly because I felt under-qualified when I was hired. But this ignores the fact that writing for or working at Artforum was one of the first things I aspired to when I moved to New York. In the time since, watching my peers grace their pages or join their staff, my fantasies were stoked and my imposter syndrome inflamed. Why, when I was 18, did I want to work so badly for a magazine I had never actually read?
Like Aira, who was born in Coronel Pringles, southwest of Buenos Aires, I came from a “provincial town […] contaminated by the plains, where fertile soil produced wealth without objective and without objects.” Aira characterizes his bucolic past as lacking in stimuli: “I felt it sharply on the intellectual level.” Yet the author recognizes the magazine’s inability to fill this void completely as central to its allure, since there is always the next issue to anticipate. “Within emptiness’s attraction to fullness dwelled an inevitable delay, because there was always a new plenitude, absent and remote. Perhaps all nostalgia and longing are derived from this: the inability of signs to adjust to the present. The regularity of magazines was the scenario of this drama.”
Here is the true promise of Artforum and its ilk — and such a journal exists for every subject or form of knowledge you might wish to possess fully. They represent not just a register of information but a means of registering yourself as informed, the chance to live, in the moment between finishing the current issue and waiting for the next, in what Aira disparagingly calls the “up to date.” For that magical slice of time between issues, you are in the eye of the storm, a cultural milieu that swirls with the centrifugal force of an informed discourse. But, as Aira dramatizes through his searches and the unpredictable arrival of issues, and as I can attest even now, this point is aspired to without ever arriving. The promise of cultural knowledge is never fulfilled, and so the anticipation and continual unfolding of this knowledge must be an end in and of itself.
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Author: Nolan Kelly