“I hope people will remember this for the rest of their lives”: why Marta Minujín wants to destroy Big Ben | Art
NOTNext month Marta Minujín, the Argentinian artist recognized as a pioneer in the art of installation, will create a work of art that has spanned 40 years. Using a library of 20,000 books representing British politics, it aims to recreate London’s most iconic timepiece, Big Ben. The clock tower itself will be installed, horizontally and twice the size of the original, in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens. At the end of the show, the public will be invited to take a title with them, the work being destroyed little by little volume by volume.
“There is a great artistic energy in the destruction,” Minujín tells me from his home in Buenos Aires. “People will be together in an event that happens once and can never be repeated. It will only stay in memory. It is a strange event that I hope people will remember all their lives and will remember those who were not able to attend.
Minujín is the quirky artist par excellence: she has blonde hair, the perfect red lipstick, and wears mirrored aviator sunglasses as she gestures wildly over a video link. Destruction has always been part of his job. In 1963, while studying in France, she invited her classmates to a dead end in the chic Montparnasse district of Paris to degrade and burn all the work she had done over the previous three years. To celebrate, she released 500 rabbits and birds on the cobbled street.
Big Ben Lying Down is the culmination of more than four decades of equally iconoclastic work. In 1978, during his country’s last dictatorship, Minujín created a scale model of the Obelisk, a historical monument located in the Plaza de la República in Buenos Aires. “Everything was terrible back then and I kept staring at this massive symbol, a sign of this oppression, a sign of the male, a phallic symbol that had to be taken down,” she says. “The police harassed me but I was allowed to get out. They didn’t understand the job, they just thought I was crazy. Two years later, the artist recreated the monument for the São Paulo Biennale in Brazil, then suffering from its own brutal diet – but on this occasion, she did it in panettone. At the end of the exhibition, visitors were invited to eat the sweet bread. “The people ate the phallus! she said with joy.
Minujín was born in 1943 in the large house in Buenos Aires where she still lives and uses as a studio. It is now filled with TV screens, neon lights and sculptures. First studying at the National University of the Arts in the city, she was able to go to Paris thanks to a scholarship in 1960 and a field trip to Italy marked two formative encounters, the first with the pop assemblies of Robert Rauschenberg. at the Venice Biennale, the second with the miniskirt, seen worn in the streets of Milan. She was determined to merge the same sense of fun and fashion into the wild performances she embarked on.
Upon her return to Argentina, she created La Menesunda, an ambitious installation featuring a maze of rooms including a working beauty salon and a bedroom with a couple getting closer under the sheets. The 1965 artwork, which will be recreated at Tate Liverpool next year, made the young artist famous at home and abroad, with a North American art magazine calling her “the Latin answer to pop. “. Equally innovative was Three Country Happening, a 1966 collaboration with New York-based Allan Kaprow and Berlin-based artist Wolf Vostell, in which the trio created works transmitted live by local television and radio stations.
“I became interested in fame and the use of fame and mass media as material in my art. This is how I met Warhol because we were both working to be famous. The 1966 coup in Argentina coincided with Minujín being awarded a Guggenheim scholarship to travel to New York. She had only been in America for a short time when Salvador Dalí invited her to an audience. “He had seen my last event and wanted to meet me. I walked into the room and found many underground people sitting around the table, including Andy. The two went on to collaborate, most notably on The Debt, a 1985 performance in which Minujín handed Warhol a shipment of Argentine corn, a commentary on the country’s crushing debt to America.
“I started rollerblading all the time because I couldn’t afford the bus. I was getting popular, I was hanging out with Rauschenberg, I was on TV so that people would stop me in the street. After that I became a hippie, left New York for San Francisco and hung out there. I loved this period. We were really happy, we lived in another world.
So why did she come home, where the dictatorship was still in effect? “I had to go back to Argentina because I’m made in Argentina. I wanted to talk to my own people – not to the art world but to ordinary people, people who didn’t know about art. But maybe they will like me and they will like what I do.
It was only with the fall of the junta that Minujín turned his attention to books. She decided to bring the Greek Parthenon – “this great symbol of democracy” – to Argentina, recreating it from 30,000 pounds banned by the military. “They had been hidden in the houses of publishers and publishers all this time, so you can imagine the excitement of seeing them out there for the taking in the middle of town.” The work was reconstructed for the Documenta exhibition in Germany in 2017, this time with titles banned under the Nazi regime.
His work continues to be celebrated and what has not been destroyed is included in museum collections. Yet she says that her real interest is not a material or institutional heritage but the atmosphere evoked by her works, something impossible to document. “From the start, I was very against museums and galleries. Museums were cemeteries for art. Now they are a little different. But I’m still against art fairs. I hate them. “Is she sad that the travel restrictions mean she may not be able to get to Manchester to see her latest job set up and taken down herself?” Devastated, “she said.” I am a person of action, always there. People are work, I am my work. It’s social. “
Big Ben Lying Down will be at Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, July 1–18 as part of the Manchester International Festival.
On Thursday July 1, at 7:30 p.m. BST, Marta Minujín will join Alex Clark for a free Guardian Live online event on the opening night of the Manchester International Festival. Book your ticket here.