documenta14’s pièce de résistance reaches its full ephemeral potential this weekend as Argentine artist’s anti-monumental work is stripped to its iron structure to redistribute the books to the public.
Marta Minujín’s majestic Parthenon of Books was fully assembled and stunned audiences in Kassel, Germany, last weekend, only for an entire day before the last part of the project – a more lasting one in its pervading symbolism – began. The dismantling of the massive structure covered in some 70,000 books will be complete tomorrow, when the Parthenon will be stripped to its iron core and bared of its precious trove of forbidden knowledge, which will be redistributed to visitors and the public so that the once-banned written word may continue to be read throughout the world.
Minujín was invited by the Kassel-based contemporary art exhibition documenta to revive her 1983 project at this year’s edition. albeit different from that fledgling Argentine democracy struggling with the fresh wounds from the military dictatorship that led the artist to build a Parthenon covered in thousands of once forbidden books, the current global context still faces numerous challenges and Minujín’s work stands as universal and effective as always.
In an extra touch of symbolism, the new Parthenon of Books was built in Kassel’s Friedrichsplatz, the same place where the nazis had burned thousands of books, mainly by Jewish or Marxist authors, in 1933, in the “action against the Un-German spirit.” The installation was set in such a way as to copy the position of the Parthenon in Athens and it even has the same size as the Greek original: 70 metres long, 30 metres wide and 10 metres high.
Minujín launched an international campaign to collect the books necessary to cover the entire structure, the only condition being that they had once been or were still be banned somewhere in the world.
Launched in 1955 in Kassel, a historically significant town in Western Germany that had to be rebuilt after being devastated by Allied bombing during the war, documenta has grown from very humble beginnings to become one of the most important art exhibitions in Europe. Held once every five years since 1972, it promised a special edition for 2017 under the helm of Polish curator Adam Szymczyk, formerly the director of the Kunsthalle Basel in switzerland, who split the exhibition in two separate parts: one in Athens (April 8 – July 16) and the other in Kassel (June 10 – September 17), under the generic title “Learning From Athens.” The political reactions were swift, with the Germans bemoaning this decision that would take documenta away from them and the Greek ex-finance minister accusing the organisers of promoting something tantamount to “crisis tourism.”
It was in this divisive ambience that Minujín staged a performance in Athens in april: following the same principle of her 1985 project alongside Andy Warhol of symbolically paying Argentina’s foreign debt with corn, this time the artist had a double of German Chancellor Angela Merkel joining her on a stage to pay back the Greek debt with olives.
As for Minujín’s Parthenon, more than 70,000 books were used to fill the façade and columns of the temple, with the artist hanging the last one: Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which she had kept from the 1983 installation. this time, she told a local newspaper she would take Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, in which passages are blackened, as a powerful symbol of censorship.
At the opening ceremony of documenta14, Minujín transferred the rights for all the books donated to her Parthenon to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, so any remaining volumes may be distributed among underprivileged people after the end of the exhibition.
Coincidentally, the University of Kassel owns the world’s most complete catalogue of banned books. as the artist and her local team of assistants have said, the efforts to narrow the list of forbidden titles were considerable and the final selection features not only shameful reflections from the past but also more contemporary works, banned even in the Western World and by the Vatican. the inventory of this Parthenon of Books ranged from the Protestant reformation to South Africa’s apartheid regime, including titles such as The Bible, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, or more recently, the Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey.
“It is ephemeral art, a mass participation project and a work in progress which is completed when the people read the books,” Minujín has said about her Parthenon. throughout the development of the project, she was constantly under the spotlight, and news media from Europe, the US and Latin America reported extensively on Minujín’s work. In the end, the artist admitted she felt she had outdone herself with this Parthenon, and given the context provided by documenta14, it would be practically impossible to top this accomplishment. in fact, she went even further and said that, even though this is her grandest, most political work to date, she wouldn’t revive the Parthenon again. This would be the monumental swan song of an anti-monumental work.
“I feel like the Queen of the Parthenon,” Minujín told local reporters last weekend as throngs converged upon the recently finished structure to begin the process of receiving the books. “I could create a miracle. This Parthenon is a miracle.”