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On Contemporary Art by César Aira (image courtesy David Zwirner Books)

Originally delivered as a speech at a 2010 colloquium in Madrid, César Aira’s On Contemporary Art — published as part of David Zwirner Books’ “Ekphrasis” series — delineates features that have become all too familiar wherever artworks are interpreted, acquired, archived, or exhibited. For Aira, “Contemporary Art,” though not quite the enemy, refers to the emergence of an ahistorical time period when “there are no more Picassos, no more anguish about influences.” The authentically modern artist creates in perfect indifference to history — an attitude that can be traced back to the modernism of Duchamp.

In the first section of On Contemporary Art, Aira reflects how, “in 1967, in a bookstore in Buenos Aires … I bought the book Marchand du Sel, the first compilation of the writings of Marcel Duchamp … This book … contained a transparent fold out of a photograph of The Large Glass (1915–1923) and has since become a valuable collector’s item — so much so that I had to buy a pocketbook edition so I could stop fondling it and be able to keep it in good condition in case I wanted to sell it one day.” The tension between an artwork and its reproducibility becomes an essential theme in Aira’s discussion.

According to Aira, an artwork always outpaces its reproduction — however narrowly in an age where reproductions are increasingly more thorough and immersive. It’s the revelation of distance — the experience of lack felt through reproducibility or mediation — that properly defines art. For Aira, “this lack, small or large, in reproduction, this programmatically imperfect reproduction, suggests another work of art; the irreproducible point is there to generate not exactly a different work but rather a different story.” Stories and artworks conflate for the novelist Aira. Reading his words, one might think an actual work of art only serves as an ideal limit for an indefinite number of reproductions, an indefinite number of stories.

Aira claims that stories, more than artworks, occupy the increasingly dense middle distance between an artwork and its reproduction. Using his personal collection of Artforums to illustrate his point, he notes an “increasingly impoverished and disheartening visual display” over the years. But such a disheartening visual display implies that something exists beyond the words of a magazine article. Within the space that emerges between an artwork and its image, there is room for a multitude of creative imaginings, what Aira calls in the final sentence of his speech “a constellation of partial and provisional exceptionalities” — none of which is to be preferred over any other.

Out of the space created around an artwork, environing it like a shell, new values can be inscribed onto lived experience. On the theoretical plane, Airas’s account of the elusive presence of an artwork in descriptions and reportage has a conceptual richness about it that makes a phrase like “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” seem like the most banal truism. Aira notes that he never found Walter Benjamin’s concept of an “aura” to be entirely convincing, and argues that the various narratives assembled around a work are just as viable as the original object.

Against this democracy of interpretation, someone might claim that all art, whether described or experienced, is bullshit because it’s so weighted with capital it’s practically invisible otherwise. Aira, however, believes one shouldn’t reduce art to the business of art: the world of curators, gallerists, critics, and archivists. When art does lend itself to these modes of collection, appreciation, and commodification, this only testifies to its power of realizing community, signaling new forms of collective life.

In the book’s afterward, writer Alexandra Kleeman experientially fleshes out Aira’s somewhat abstract discussion. She relates a situation where she visits a museum, but the line is so long she never gets to see the celebrated centerpiece on view. Instead, she ends up telling stories about the artwork with other people waiting in line: “Our line, like a swaddling cloth, encircled the entire work, and set it apart from the busy metropolitan background. From within it, we generated an aura of anticipation that colored the world rosily. We set in motion stories about the work’s contents, just as we would have done had we made it inside to see it — and these stories were unrecorded, not transcribed, irreproducible, the ghostly effects of the absent object.” This perfectly captures Aira’s key shortcoming. Art is rarely validated by becoming an absent object. Not every work tells a story; not every story told about a work enriches it.

On Contemporary Art (2018), by César Aira, is published by David Zwirner Books and is available on Amazon and other online retailers.

Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer and artist currently based in Berlin.