In 2011, Marta Minujín painted a mural in a traditional café in Buenos Aires. She asked in return to get free coffee for life. “It was obviously corruption” -she admitted laughing. That is what she does best; she corrupts art. She provokes, she plays and crosses the limits.
Minujín’s career is full of funny little episodes that make you realise that art is for her, much more than just painting. Her way of conceiving art is ‘living in’ art. While her work could be described as being part of the Pop Art movement, the performative arts or the Happening, she is, however, one of those complex artists that simply cannot fit in only one category. She constantly questions art, whichever movement it might be, its rules and its forms.
Marta Minujín was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1943. She was part of an effervescent generation of artists that during the 60s and 70s used art as a tool of rebelling against the system and political conflicts such as the Vietnam War. She has been a hippie, a punk, and an existentialist. She has had hope, she has been pessimistic, and she has thought of killing herself due to this world’s horrible and repeated habits.
At a very young age, Minujín learnt she wanted to be an artist, but realised that attending only one art school would not be enough. She showed an unmeasured passion for learning about art and therefore started attending the three most important art schools in Buenos Aires at the same time, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one on the night shift. Her marks were perfect and because of this, at 16 she got a grant from the French government to go to study Fine Arts in Paris. The grant’s money was not enough to rent a proper apartment, so she moved into an empty warehouse. There was no running water, no bathroom, and no heating. There were rats. She got a cat, used the bathroom from the café downstairs, bathed in the Turkish public baths and got sick very often. However, she was still enjoying it. She was doing what she wanted the most, art.
It was in Paris where she met many great artists and was able to create her first Happening, “Destruction”. She and her partners axed and burnt all the work she had produced over the course of the previous three years. Burning as a metaphor of being re-born. Because art, as Minujín conceives it, must be produced and destroyed. Art is made to last only a moment. She has always believed that art has to be out of the museums (or ‘cultural cemeteries’ as she calls them) to be alive, dynamic, and ephemeral.
Her work would always be like this first happening, interactive and accessible to everyone, art as a democratic act for the public to experience as part of the whole, not as mere observers.
Minujín also studied arts in New York where she met Andy Warhol. They discovered they had similar artistic points of view and soon started thinking about working together. They made a series of photographs where Marta was paying Warhol Argentina´s foreign debt to the USA in the way of corn, which represented for her, Argentina’s gold.
“I took lots of corn, I made a pile, we put two chairs and we took 10 pictures together. I grabbed a corn, offered it to him and he accepted. That way the debt was paid. Considering I was the queen of pop at home and he was the king of pop there, it made total sense to me that we could solve it. After that, we signed the corn and gave it to people. That was the last time I saw him. He died two years later.”
Back in Buenos Aires, she started working on big scale projects. “La Menesunda” was another interactive installation. It was composed by a series of rooms interconnected by corridors where people could walk through without imagining what they were going to find next. There were sixteen fascinating rooms meant to intrigue, provoke, and surprise. Once again, the public was a fundamental part of the piece. Some corridors were completely dark, sometimes lit up by neon lights. Every space had been created as a multisensory experience. A TV tunnel broadcasting the news, a couple in bed (even before Yoko and Lennon’s famous “bed ins”), a woman’s head (ironically representing the female brain filled with make-up and nail polishing), a mirrored room, and even a room, which made you feel as if you are inside of someone’s intestines. Art had to turn the familiar, unfamiliar.
After 15 days the installation was destroyed. At the time, the critics did not understand it and for the public, it was maybe a little bit “too much”. Posing the infamous question “is this art?”, which continues to follow Minujín’ s career up to today, the value of her work was discredited because of its non-formal techniques.
Minujín’s work has also a strong political connection. She has shown a deep understanding of the social context in which she was immersed in and was not shy to show her point of view. In 1983, as a celebration of the return of democracy in Argentina, she presented “El Partenón de libros” (the books Parthenon) an enormous structure made out of 25,000 books that had been prohibited during the dictatorship years. Using art in this case as a tool to convert such a horrible time into something meaningful. The fact that the military had left power only a few weeks before the piece was assembled also shows her brave spirit. When the book building was disassembled, members of the public were allowed to take a book with them. This time, the press acclaimed her and she gained a place in the Argentinian´s hearts. She has also produce numerous works inspired by Argentina`s identity and folklore. She admits being fascinated by Argentinian mentality. (And if you, like me, happen to be Argentinian you will relate with the following) She admires how we adapt to every day unexpected situations, the demonstrations that block the streets, the traffic chaos, the unstable economy, the crisis, and the power offs. She finds this “chameleon power” the soul of the Argentinian idiosyncrasy. Her work contains powerful connotations that only Argentinians would fully understand and appreciate. The “Sea Lion of alfajores” (traditional animal from the coast made of traditional sweets) or the “Obelisk of pan dulces” (Icon of the city made of another traditional food) She is an observer, she looks at her culture’s traditions and works to bring them to an international audience in the form of colossal art pieces.
For Minujín art is taking risks, is doing the impossible. Her work is never timid. She never stops working. She is always thinking about the next large scale project that always has to be more impressive than the one before, a challenge for her and for the audience. That explains her last monumental work. She has announced that this year she will be reaching another level in her career. She is at this moment, building a new Parthenon of Books in Kassel, Germany as part of the contemporary art fair “Documenta 14”. The piece will be 100 meters long made entirely of books that had once been prohibited anywhere in the world, 100 thousand books shown for 100 days. This will be, not by coincidence, set up in one of the squares where the Nazis burned thousands of books in 1933. The recollection of books started last October during Frankfurt’s Book Fair and containers were set around the world for people to contribute with books. This way, the public will be part of the piece from the very beginning and of course one again, they will be asked to take one when the fair is over. The artwork will be only considered complete when the last person finishes reading the last book.
Paradoxically, part of her work can now be found in the Latin-American Museum of Art in Buenos Aires (MALBA); as much as she fights it, conventions seem to be stronger. I would recommend, however, following what she will do next, and if you are lucky you will be able to be part of one of her performances. As that is Marta Menujín’s gift: turning everything into art, even the audience, making you feel an experience, and making art feel alive. If you have the chance, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Documenta14 and take a piece of the Parthenon of Books with you, on the last day. It will make a good reminder of how art can exceed the canvas sometimes.
Image: Marta Minujin, 1963, burning her works in Paris.