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Marta Minujín, Our woman in Buenos Aires

1 September 2014

Avant-garde artist, 71 / Image by Felix Busso

Marta Minujín made her name with her avant-garde works of the 1960s, during which time she lived in New York and befriended John Lennon and Andy Warhol. She returned to her native Buenos Aires in the 1970s, and has since become one of Argentina’s most famous conceptual artists

Marta Minujín made her name with her avant-garde works of the 1960s, during which time she lived in New York and befriended John Lennon and Andy Warhol. She returned to her native Buenos Aires in the 1970s, and has since become one of Argentina’s most famous conceptual artists

I was always married to art. I decided to be an artist when I was 10 years old. I went to an arts school in Buenos Aires, where I learned everything I could. I wanted to be Van Gogh, the tortured genius. I received all the classical training only to later unlearn everything in an effort to discover myself as an artist.

It started in 1964 with Revuélquese y viva! I showed this at the Torcuato Di Tella Institute in Buenos Aires [a leading promoter of avant-garde art in Buenos Aires at the time]. I used elastic to suspend mattresses from the ceiling, before inviting the public to lie down on them. It was the start of a love affair with mattresses. They are a constant in my work. We spend half of our lives on mattresses. We are born on one and one day we will most likely die on one. 

In the early 1960s, I started performing happenings in Buenos Aires to explore the power of media and celebrity. In La Cabalgata, I invaded a live television transmission using horses and mattresses. I tied buckets of paint to the horses’ tails and walked them over the mattresses ‘painting’ them. At the same time, a group of athletes popped balloons and bound two rock musicians together using tape. It was possibly the first time anywhere an artist had intervened in live media. It created art people could experience in their own homes on their TV screens. 

In Simultaneidad en simultaneidad, I filmed and photographed 60 Argentine media personalities as they gathered in a room filled with TV sets, radios and telephones. Days later I invited the same 60 people back to the studio, where I bombarded them on all sides with the recordings of their own images and voices. I was fascinated by the question, ‘Why do people desire fame?’ 

Fame is an ingredient of my work, and celebrities are my artist’s brush. I like observing celebrity, as Andy Warhol did [Warhol collaborated with Minujín on her 1985 artwork El pago de la deuda argentina con maíz, “el oro latinoamericano”]. I am curious about how the famous use celebrity. I became good friends with Andy while living in New York in the 1960s. New York was amazing. 

I arrived in 1965, but Andy, [Roy] Lichtenstein and [Robert] Rauschenberg already knew me as the girl who released chickens from helicopters [Minujín’s happening, Suceso Plástico (Plastic Event), involved releasing 500 chickens from a helicopter]. They were just making their first millions then. I got to know the Chelsea Girls, including Nico. I got to know [John] Lennon, who was beautiful. I guess I was something new. Female artists were still undervalued then. But art doesn’t pander to gender. When I threw 500 chickens from a helicopter nobody cared if I was male or female.

The hippy movement was beautiful, a movement for peace, though it ultimately failed. To be crazy then was wonderful, we had to be crazy to use our minds. I lived off scholarships. I had something like 17 in total. I never sold any art. I was very anti the museum and gallery circuits. I threw away or gave away all of my work. 

Much of my art is ephemeral, and lasts only days. I am interested in demystifying our national symbols and icons. Take La Estatua de la Libertad de frutillas, for example, in which I recreated New York’s Statue Of Liberty. I coated my statue with fresh strawberries and invited the public to pick the strawberries from the artwork, causing the work to disintegrate and disappear. 

By doing this, I deconstructed the icon, what I call the myth, and challenged its power to inform our sense of self. This mass participation is vital to my art. I love how people are free to participate. In Buenos Aires I recreated our national monument, the Obelisk, from 30,000 loaves of fruitcake, before inviting the public to dissemble it piece by piece. In the end, there was nothing left. The moment people began to dissemble it, they made art. 

Perhaps my most famous monumental work was El Partenón de los libros, which I created in 1983 to mark the fall of Argentina’s dictatorship. It was a replica of the Athenian temple, only covered with 20,000 books, whose titles had been banned by the military junta. It stood for six days on the 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires’ main avenue. 

On the final day, the public dismantled the work by removing each book one by one. In Germany, I recreated the Berlin Wall from Frankfurters. In New York I wanted to do The Statue Of Liberty in hamburgers. The authorities declined, fearing mass food contamination.

I travel a lot, but I always return to Buenos Aires, which is my home. It is a convulsive city, but I have my escapes. I love the MALBA and PROA museums of modern art, the Colón opera house and walks along the Puerto Madero waterfront. 

My studio is another refuge. It’s located in the San Cristóbal district, an old neighbourhood on the city’s south side. It’s where I grew up. In fact, my studio occupies my childhood home. I have a favourite bar too, La Rambla, where I have been a regular for 30 years. Nobody there cares that I am famous. 

Celebrity can be discomforting. As a media figure, people project their own image of me all the time. It is the power of the myth again. As long as the myth of who I am exists, I am that person. It exists as much as I myself exist. I have so many ideas. Right now, I am crafting a Leaning Tower Of Pisa from thousands of bottles. 

\In 2013, I celebrated my 70th birthday by ‘marrying’ art at the MALBA. I always believed I was married to art and wanted to make it official – to throw a great wedding party, wear a white dress, cut the cake and be whisked around the MALBA by horse-drawn carriage. It was wonderful. But I’ll tell you a secret: I always wanted to dress as a bride. I married my husband 54 years ago. I was 16 years old, but the legal age for marriage was 18. I falsified my age, and I didn’t get to wear white. 

marta-minujin.com

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