When documenta 14 opens next spring in Kassel, Germany, with the theme “Learning from Athens,” one of the biggest callbacks to the ancient Greek city will be a to-scale replica of the Parthenon installed right in the middle of the Friedrichsplatz—built out of some 100,000 books.
Flash back 34 years. In 1983 the Argentinian artist Marta Minujín built El Partenón de libros (The Parthenon of Books) in Buenos Aires after the collapse of the country’s military dictatorship. Erected along a central boulevard, the artwork comprised nearly 30,000 books that had been banned by the outgoing junta. Next June, Minujín will recreate the monumental work at documenta 14, expanding its audience and speaking to the continued repression of knowledge, the persecution of authors, and ignorance in the political sphere worldwide.
“All countries are concerned by suppression of knowledge by power at one moment or another,” says curator Pierre Bal-Blanc, when asked about revisiting the work in a new context decades later. “The presentation of the Parthenon of banished books is a recognition of the initial act of resistance,” he went on. “It recalls the importance of being vigilant.”
Last week the artist and documenta kicked off a collection drive for 100,000 books that have, at some time since their publication, been banned. A growing list of over 60,000 titles was developed in collaboration with professors and students of the University of Kassel. The collection of these books from public donors is part of the artwork. “Mass participation,” says Bal-Blanc, is critical. “Everyone should contribute in order to make it a collective ceremony.”
Marta Minujín, El Partenón de libros (The Parthenon of Books, 1983), installation, Avenida 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires
Photo: Marta Minujín Archive
Mass participation also extends to the afterlife of the artwork: in 1983, after it stood for five days, two cranes tipped Minujín’s Parthenon to the side so members of the public could take the books home, playing a personal role in bringing them back into circulation. In Kassel, a final ceremony is planned for September 2017. The once-forbidden books will return to the public as individuals and libraries absorb them into their collections.
The work’s new Friedrichsplatz location in Kassel is not insignificant. In the 1930s, some 2,000 books were burned there during the “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist” (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit). Later, the Fridericianum, then a library and today a central documenta venue, caught fire during an Allied bombing attack, seeing another 350,000 books lost.
Minujín was born in Buenos Aires in 1943 and has made work criticizing the Argentinian dictatorship and other oppressive political regimes throughout her career. She is known for her “livable sculptures.” Just as the Parthenon symbolizes “the aesthetic and political ideals of the first democracy,” books are symbols of knowledge, free speech, and democratic thought in her practice.
Minujín is not alone in her preoccupation with books and their accessibility. The two iterations of The Parthenon of Books straddle a growing lineage of library-building artworks. Earlier this year Wafaa Bilal collected books to rebuild the destroyed library at the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad. First exhibited at the Art Gallery of Windsor in Ontario, the successful project has been extended to 2018 and will be shown across four more institutions in North America. At the Liverpool Biennial in 2010 Alfredo Jaar installed the Marx Lounge, a reading room-as-artwork that went on to have multiple iterations, with each edition’s books going on to furnish local university libraries. Katie Paterson, whose Future Library kicked off in 2014, will also return her artwork to the public—in 98 years’ time, once the trees she planted in a Norwegian forest have been harvested to make paper for its books.
Marta Minujín © Marta Minujín Archive
Minujín herself erected an 82-foot-high “Tower of Babel” from books in different languages after Buenos Aires was named 2011 World Book Capital by UNESCO. “A hundred years from now, people will say ‘there was a Tower of Babel in Argentina,’” she said at the time, “‘and it didn't need translation because art needs no translation.’” Books not taken home by viewers went on to form an archive referred to as the “Library of Babel.”
The dissemination of knowledge in all these works is at once a symbolic and material gesture. In a time when books are increasingly distributed digitally, when information can be shared more quickly than ever before, these projects all return to the physical form of the book. Bal-Blanc mused on the importance of this materiality: “Books don’t relate only to reading but also to a more sensual relation that everybody has with his own private library. Books are part of us or we are partly made of books ourselves. A book is not just the metaphor of a body, it is also what exists between the bodies.”
The Parthenon of Books is part of Minujín’s series La caída de los mitos universales (The Fall of Universal Myths), which replicates iconic monuments, like the Statue of Liberty, in order to “break them up into pieces and redistribute them in the public realm.” Considering documenta 14’s “Learning from Athens” rubric, Bal-Blanc describes the series as “using an emblem of occidental culture and twisting it in a new direction.” The Kassel intervention will build on this act of reframing: “The documenta 14 work will break with the myth of occidental art as the only reference and look for a redistribution between south and north culture.”
Documenta 14 will run for 100 days in both Kassel and Athens, with artists invited to contribute site-specific works in both cities. Will there be a complimentary project in Greece?
“There is already a Parthenon in Athens,” says Bal-Blanc. Minujín is indeed proposing a related project that involves Germany for the Athens exhibition, but it is still “too early to talk about it.”
You can contribute once-banned books to the Parthenon of Books by mail or in person in Athens or Kassel. Information on how to donate can be found here.
Andrea Alessi is the Managing Editor of ArtSlant.
(Image at top: Marta Minujín, El Partenón de libros (The Parthenon of Books, 1983), installation, Avenida 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires. Photo: Marta Minujín Archive)
Tags: Parthenon of Books Marta Minujín libraries book art documenta 14 learning from athens
The website will be permanently closed shortly, so please retrieve any content you wish to save.