Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<i>Beatnik Buenos Aires</i> honors its artists to a fault

Beatnik Buenos Aires honors its artists to a fault

Illustration: Facundo Percio

Beatnik Buenos Aires is a curious book, essentially a supplementary text to a Spanish-language documentary about 1960s Argentinean artists that is not readily available in English. And as inaccessible to a strictly Anglophone audience as the documentary can be, so, too, is some of the work of those same artists featured in the book. Beatnik Buenos Aires is reminiscent of an eclectic anthology showcasing various artists, through a visually consistent and striking art style. While the voice of the book is unique (though obviously inspired by the artists it so cherishes), the frequent English translations provided by writer Diego Arandojo of these heretofore untranslated Argentine writers makes this an incisive look at an art world that, until now, was not open to non-Spanish speakers.

The book opens with this introduction: “Back in the 1960s, there was another Buenos Aires. A nocturnal city that competed with its daytime counterpart. A city that sheltered, in its downtown streets and alleyways, an erratic community of artists.” Night is the main visual motif of the book. Even scenes set during the day evoke night. The low light and heavy shadows of most of its pages are a constant nocturnal reminder. The blurry art adds to this, as does the sketchiness and smudginess, as if the book were rendered with the remnant ash of the creative fire that animated the featured artists. Sharp contrasts imply the presence of neon lighting, as one might find on busy city streets, even when indoors. And sound effects are rendered viscerally, becoming piercing noises amplified by the void of night.

At times, artist Facundo Percio evokes the work of the painters, sculptors, and performers that Beatnik Buenos Aires so lionizes. The dark room of a photographer, Iaroslov Kosak, features very little white coloring. A page introducing multi-hyphenate Juan Ioannis Andralis—poet, painter, typesetter, and publisher (including at least one book by Jorge Luis Borges)—uses a nine-panel grid.

The vignettes that make up Beatnik Buenos Aires function almost as hagiographies about the various artists. It would seem worth noting that some of the people contained herein were part of a sun-worshipping cult and others were obsessed with the occult; however, Diego Arandojo and Facundo Percio’s purpose is to valorize the creativity and creative process—with a keen focus on “eureka” moments—of the artists. For example, the reader is shown how a reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” changed the life of a young Hugo Tabachnik.

Yet, it’s in this passionate hagiography where a disturbing facet of the book rears its head. The section on Marcelo Fox depicts his penchant for drawing swastikas and self-identifying as a Nazi. To his credit, those who remember him say he was not a Nazi, and would sometimes call himself a communist. Yet, the use of the swastika, even if just done for edginess, is concerning. Additionally, Beatnik Buenos Aires depicts (based on a true story) artist Iaroslov Kosak attempting to drown a nameless woman who has just dumped him, framing it as him showing her some deep aspect of his photography.

In this way, Beatnik Buenos Aires, while often darkly resplendent, falls for the common fallacy that attributes the quality of a problematic artist’s work to their worst, and most harmful, destructive attributes. This is, of course, not to say that an abusive or harmful artist cannot produce great art. But since Beatnik Buenos Aires’ audience can only access the art of these artists through Arandojo’s words and Percio’s rendering, one wonders why, if they were able to create something so wonderful without abuse, they didn’t hold a more critical eye in their paeans to these admittedly great artists.

ML Kejera is a Gambian writer based in Chicago. His work has previously been published, or is forthcoming, with The Nation and PanelxPanel. He is a Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlistee.