Radical Woman Marta Minujín discusses the Eternal state of her art and the RECREATION of her 1983 INSTALLATION

by Matthew Bedard

Marta Minujín poses in front of "The Parthenon of Books" 

Marta Minujín poses in front of "The Parthenon of Books" 

Despite a lizardly sun reclining into a thick-of-summer German horizon, there is a coolness to the breeze that skiffs over the coalescing stone walkways here, dancing upward into the fluted columns of legendary avant-garde artist Marta Minujín’s massive installation for documenta 14—“The Parthenon of Books”—a replica of Athens’ Pericles-appointed Parthenon assembled from approximately 100,000 re-published, donated books.

The texts, inscribed in countless languages, were each at some point in history governmentally banned, burned, confiscated, destroyed. And while perhaps poetically reaching (and staying true to matters of the heart), the weightiness of the texts in question explains the eerily cool air whistling through this transient monument, over the heads of the people that mill below, first stupefied at the amount of knowledge congealed here, then selfie-sticked into a kind of archival permanence.

Marta Minujín. Preliminary sketch from “The Parthenon of Books” (2017). Steel, books, and plastic sheeting. 19.5 x 29.5 x 65.5 meters. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives.

Marta Minujín. Preliminary sketch from “The Parthenon of Books” (2017). Steel, books, and plastic sheeting. 19.5 x 29.5 x 65.5 meters. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives.

Of course, much of the heavy-hitting literary canon—that which crops up on required reading lists in our national school systems, or lines the shelves of artists, inmates, politicians, dreamers, activists—contains works and their affiliated livelihoods that were at some point gut-kicked by the persons in power. Vladimir Nabokov fled a country that killed his brother in a concentration camp. MLK Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” from the setting of its title. Anne Frank was executed before her book was found. Jane Austen wrote under a fake name. Jerzy Kosiński masqueraded his way out of labor camps and into elitist social circles before an eventual suicide.

And yet, despite the efforts of government to suffocate the emancipating thought contained in the browning pages of the books that preside overhead—whose cellophane-like wrapping reflects that lizard sun—thanks to persons like Minujín, they’ve continued to breathe. Many, if not most (in keeping with the touch point of this, The Eternal issue) informing contemporary free thought—as well as cinema, government, law, and art—for a foreseeable eternity. 

Marta Minujín. Preliminary sketch from “The Parthenon of Books” (2017). Steel, books, and plastic sheeting. 19.5 x 29.5 x 65.5 meters. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives.

Marta Minujín. Preliminary sketch from “The Parthenon of Books” (2017). Steel, books, and plastic sheeting. 19.5 x 29.5 x 65.5 meters. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives.

Not all books have lived to gain new readers, though, sharing the same sad fate as many of their censored writers. So while a stroll beneath “The Parthenon of Books” elicits a sense of limitless, fantastic abundance, a kind of knowledge void sits atop its makeshift shelves.

But a void is part of the process. And so we make art. Minujín, an anchor of Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, which opens in Los Angeles at The Hammer this September as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA (The Getty’s ambitious initiative to showcase Latin American art in dialogue with Los Angeles) was born in Buenos Aires in 1943. A student at the National University Art Institute, Minujín was awarded a scholarship that took her to Paris and launched a career of defiant informalism, underpinned with pop art and psychedelia, and punctuated by what she dubbed “happenings,” or performances whereby the event was the art itself. Her multifaceted practice scrutinizes and explores, among many things: consumption, identity, and feminism, as well as governmental suppression, perversion, and debt. As her career cohered, Minujín assembled a network of art pals that included Christo, Andy Warhol, Paul-Armand Gette, and numerous others. 

To add a reiterating layer to the assertion Minujín makes through “The Parthenon of Books”—namely, that books are “eternal ephemeral”—this is not Minujín’s first happening concerning literary censorship. In 1983, at the conclusion of seven years of corrupt Argentine “national Catholic” dictatorship, Minujín erected her first “El Partenón de libros”—consisting of 25,000 confiscated tomes obtained from the cellars where they’d been kept by the military—as part of her series, “The Fall of Universal Myths.” The series replicated monumental icons for the purpose of symbolically scattering them into the public realm: a kind of redistribution of corrupted rule into the environments of the masses.

Marta Minujín. “Leyendo las noticia   (Reading the news)” (1965). Documentation of happening: seven black-and-white photographs. 8 1/4 × 8 1/4 INCHES. Courtesy the artist.

Marta Minujín. “Leyendo las noticia (Reading the news)” (1965). Documentation of happening: seven black-and-white photographs. 8 1/4 × 8 1/4 INCHES. Courtesy the artist.

As Minujín prepares for her show at the Hammer—which will showcase highlights from her decades of voluminous creative production, including art, sculpture, and photographic and video documentation of her happenings, like 1965’s “Leyendo las Noticias (Reading the News)”—she speaks to me over the phone from her studio in Buenos Aires. At the same time as the group show’s opening in LA a few weeks from now, she’s due back in Kassel, Germany for the de-install of“The Parthenon of Books” whereby persons far and wide will be called to come and collect the books. “What will happen?” she asks of the de-installation, laughing wildly, “I don’t know! But something will happen!” 

Indeed. For without creative or impassioned assembly, nothing can or will happen. And without the books that inform our short run at civilization, a happening has no origin, no soul, no reiteration. Here, Minujín speaks about documenta 14, among other topics of everlasting import: 

Marta Minujín poses in front of "The Parthenon of Books" 

Marta Minujín poses in front of "The Parthenon of Books" 

You describe the Parthenon as “Eternal Ephemeral.” What about the artwork is eternal?

It’s totally ephemeral but created with elements of eternity. Books have been forbidden since the IVs. Nevertheless, they are still in force. I used donated books from all over the world, forbidden in every language, in every country possible. It has the same size as the Parthenon in Athens. Also, it is a piece than remains eternal in the minds of every single person that knows it. My Parthenon will stand the 100 days of Documenta in Kassel, but will remain eternal in the memory of social media, in the register of the people that visited the event and of every person that was told about my piece. It will disappear in a trace but will remain in the thoughts of millions.

You’re hosting a dinner inside the Parthenon. Who is seated at the table?

Socrates, Proust, Sartre, Borges, Dali, Warhol. 

Do you have a favorite book that is included? 

Yes. Ulysses by James Joyce. 

How have you seen censorship evolve over time? Or has it?

Unluckily, censorship always existed and it didn’t evolve into non-censorship. It continues nowadays: we have Harry Potter forbidden in the United Arab Emirates or Winnie the Pooh forbidden in China. There will always exist minds willing to censor.

Why do we need books versus tablets, smartphones, podcasts?

This is perfectly clear; you can’t compare what it feels to read a book than what produces to interact with a tablet or a phone. A book makes you think, the others give you everything served. 

One attribute of books that is consistent is glue for the spines. What in your life represents glue?

My art is the glue of my life.

How would you compare the experience of creating this Parthenon with the one you did in 1983?

The feeling is totally different. When I made the Parthenon in Argentina, in 1983, we were leaving behind terrible years of sadness and dictatorship. Argentina was entering democracy. The happiness of the people worked as inspiration to me, to create the first sign of democracy that was the Parthenon. It was made with the books the military had forbidden through those years. This Parthenon is made in a different time. Europe is totally convulsed. Since my Parthenon is the Parthenon of the peace, it houses thousands of forbidden books donated from all over the world, in all languages and from all countries possible.

What are you currently excited about?

I can only think about my own work, always different and unique.

The Parthenon is an ephemeral work, and therefore defiant of the art worlds’ desire to put a monetary value to artworks. How do you value the Parthenon?

My Parthenon has the value of the peace. It’s a hug to the whole world.

Any idea what your next project will be? 

An imaginary city, that never existed before. It hosts the Universal Myths, made with different materials. People can walk and wander in the city and meet all the Universal Myths: the Babel Tower, the Parthenon, the Venus de Milo, the Agora, the Statue of Liberty, between others.

Is there anything at the moment that you’re afraid of? 

Yes, fear of the fear itself.

We’re captive. Please write us a ransom note. 

To imagine, without any pressure nor censorship.

Written by: Matthew Bedard

Images Courtesy of Marta Minujín Archives



FOOTNOTES: 1100 books once banned exhibited at Documenta 14: The Parthenon of Books by Marta Minujín Global Examples of Forbidden Books:Akhmatova, Anna Andreyevna: Poems 1909–1945; Aristophanes: Lysistrata; Balzac, Honoré de: A Woman of Thirty; Balzac, Honoré de: The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans or A Harlot High and Low; Balzac, Honoré de: The Girl with the Golden Eyes; Balzac, Honoré de: A Murky Business; Balzac, Honoré de: History of the Thirteen; Balzac, Honoré de: Droll Stories; Balzac, Honoré de: Eugénie Grandet; Balzac; Honoré de: The Old Maid or An Old Maid; Balzac, Honoré de: The Country Doctor; Balzac, Honoré de: The Unknown Masterpiece; Beecher; Stowe, Harriet: Uncle Tom’s Cabin; The Bible; Boccaccio, Giovanni: The Decameron; Burroughs, William S.: Naked Lunch; Brecht, Bertolt:; Entire works; Brod, Max: Entire works; Brodsky, Joseph Aleksandrovich: Entire works; Brown, Dan: The Da Vinci Code; Brown, Dee: Bury My; Heart at Wounded Knee; Capote, Truman: In Cold Blood; Garcia Lorca, Federico: Poet in New York; Carroll, Lewis: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Casanova, Giacomo: The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt ; Cervantes, Miguel de: The Ingenious Gentleman Don; Quixote of La Mancha ; Chaucer, Geoffrey: The Canterbury Tales ; Cleland, John: Fanny Hill; Coelho, Paulo: The Alchemist; Coelho, Paulo:The; Zahir ; Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness; Darwin, Charles: On the Origin of Species; Diderot, Denis: Jacques the Fatalist; Döblin,; Alfred: Entire works with the exception of Wallenstein ; Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich: Demons; Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich: The; Brothers Karamazov; Einstein, Albert: Entire works; Ellis, Bret Easton: American Psycho; Faulkner, William: As I Lay Dying; Feuchtwanger, Lion: Entire works; Frank, Anne: The Diary of a Young Girl; Freiligrath, Ferdinand: Ça ira!; Freud, Sigmund: Entire works; Goethe, Johann; Wolfgang von: The Sorrows of Young Werther ; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von: Faust; Gombrowicz, Witold: Entire works until 1986; Gordimer,; Nadine: July’s People; Gorki, Maxim: Entire works; Brothers Grimm: Grimms’ Fairy Tales; Brothers Grimm: German Sagas; Hašek, Jaroslav: The Good Soldier Švejk; Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The Scarlet Letter; Heine, Heinrich: Travel Pictures; Heine, Heinrich: Book of Songs; Heine, Heinrich: The Romantic School; Heine, Heinrich: New Poems; Heine, Heinrich: Germany. A Winter’s Tale; Heine, Heinrich: Atta Troll; Hemingway, Ernest: For Whom the Bell Tolls ; Hemingway, Ernest: A Farewell to Arms ; Hemingway, Ernest: Across the River and into the Trees ; Herwegh, Georg: Poems of a Living Man; Hikmet, Nâzım: Entire works; Hobbes, Thomas: Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil; Hoffmann von Fallersleben: Unpolitical Songs; Horváth, Ödön von: Youth Without God; Horváth, Ödön von: A Child of Our Time; James, E.L.: Shades of Grey trilogy; Joyce, James: Ulysses; Kafka, Franz: Entire works; Kant, Immanuel: Lectures on Metaphysics; Kant, Immanuel: Critique of Pure Reason; Kästner, Erich: Entire works with the exception of Emil and the Detectives Kazantzakis, Nikos: The Last Temptation of Christ; Kisch, Egon Erwin: Entire works; Kundera, Milan: Entire works until 1989; Lasker-Schüler, Else: Entire works; Lawrence,D. H.: Lady Chatterley’s Lover; Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird; Lenau, Nikolaus: Poems; Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich: Entire works (as well as all works on Lenin); Lenz, Jakob Michael Reinhold: The Tutor Or The Benefits of a Private Education ; Levi, Primo: If This Is a Man (United States title: Survival in Auschwitz); Liao, Yiwu: Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society; Liebknecht, Karl: Entire works; Luther, Martin: Entire works; Luxemburg, Rosa: Entire works; Machiavelli, Niccolò: The Prince; Mandelstam, Ossip: Poems 1910–1946; Mann, Erika: Entire works; Mann, Heinrich: Entire works; Mann, Klaus: Entire works; Mann, Thomas: Entire works ; Marx, Karl: Entire works (as well as all works on Marx) ; Melville, Herman: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale; Meyrink, Gustav: Entire works; Miller, Henry: Tropic of Cancer ; Musil, Robert: The Man Without Qualities; Musil, Robert: The Confusions of Young Törless; Myrivilis, Stratis: Life in the Tomb; Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita; Neruda, Pablo: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair ; Neruda, Pablo: Canto General; Nietzsche, Friedrich: The Antichrist; Orwell, George: Nineteen Eighty-Four or 1984; Orwell, George: Animal Farm; Paine, Thomas: Rights of Man; Pasternak, Boris; Leonidovich: Doctor Zhivago; Petropoulos, Elias: Rebetica: Songs of the Old Greek Underworld; Potter, Beatrix: The Tale of Peter Rabbit; Remarque, Erich Maria: Entire works; Rhoides, Emmanuel: The Papess Joanne; Roth, Joseph: Entire works; Roth, Philip: Portnoy’s Complaint; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: Emile, or On Education; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: The Social Contract; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: Discourse on Inequality; Rowling, Joanne K.: Harry Potter series; Rushdie, Salman: The Satanic Verses; Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von: Entire works; Sade,; Marquis de: Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue; Sade, Marquis de: The 120 Days of Sodom; Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de: The Little Prince; Salinger, J.D.: The Catcher in the Rye; Schiller, Friedrich: The Robbers; Schiller, Friedrich: Poems; Schiller, Friedrich: Mary Stuart; Schiller,; Friedrich: Ode to Joy; Schiller, Friedrich: History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands Against Spanish Rule Schnitzler, Arthur: Entire works; Seghers, Anna: Entire works; Sendak, Maurice: Where the Wild Things Are; Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus; Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr Isayevich: Entire works; Steinbeck, John: The Grapes of Wrath; Sternheim, Karl: Entire works; Strauß, David Friedrich: The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined; Suttner, Bertha von: Entire works; Swift, Jonathan: Gulliver’s Travels; Toller, Ernst: Entire works; Tolstoy, Leo Nikolayevich: The Kingdom of God Is Within You; Tolstoy, Leo Nikolayevich: A Confession; Tolstoy, Leo Nikolayevich: What I Believe; Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich: Sakhalin Island; Tucholsky, Kurt: Entire works; Turgenev, Ivan Sergeyevich: Fathers and Sons; Turgenev; Ivan Sergeyevich: Rudin; Twain, Mark: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Vargas Llosa, Mario: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; Vargas Llosa,; Mario: The Cubs and Other Stories; Vargas Llosa, Mario: Captain Pantoja and the Special Service; Voltaire: Candide; Wassermann, Jakob; Michael Reinhold: Entire works; Wells, H. G.: Entire works; Werfel, Franz: Entire works; Whitman, Walt: Leaves of Grass; Wilde, Oscar: Salome; Wilde, Oscar: The Picture of Dorian Gray Zuckmayer, Carl: Entire works; Zweig, Arnold: Entire works; Zweig, Stefan: Entire works.