Marta Minujín    Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books
The Fall of Universal Myths (La Caida de Los Mitos Universales) by Marta Minujín, 1985. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio

TEXT Jorge Glusberg, 1981 the law

Intro The final stage of Marta Minujín’s work is a monumentalist art, the subject of which is the recreated representation of large monuments and collective mythologies, from the Buenos Aires Obelisk to New York’s Statue of Liberty. Aimed at demystifying those emblems that are deeply-rooted in the popular imagination, she does not hesitate in tipping on its head (violating), that which is normally enshrined as an object of social worship. She transforms monument-myths into objects of another form of worship, but on this occasion of an artistic and non-fetishistic worship that in one fell swoop flattens the vertical or burns, reducing to ash, the image of popular ideals (Carlos Gardel). And so we see the link between art and imaginary de-construction of fetishes, through the real production of installation-monuments in different parts of the world.

A common denominator can be seen to define this work: ostentation and mass participation, a recipient of real things that meet their expectations: panettone, dulce de leche, hamburgers. Is this gratification purely a gastronomic one? No. It is framed within a broader context of a process where the satisfying of appetites has the same meaning as the allusion to the symbols of the daily life of the human being, such as football or the presence of hallowed monuments. In this sense, the de-construction is strongly tied to ecological art. For this reason we refer to her recent works as eco-installations . A distinction ought to be made between an ecology that is specifically natural, and one that is social and cultural, expressed through the massive pieces that Marta Minujín constructs. In this way, an eco-installation would be a piece that takes into account the naturalisation of the cultural, or the imaginary naturalisation of the great mass symbols. An entire conception of man and world is condensed within these fetish-works, which are ultimately nothing other than cultural operators with mass appeal, but at a strictly artistic level.

The active participation of the public constitutes for Marta Minujín the complementary and necessary part of her social work. The social is always manifest in her work, not as a criticism or mockery of collective thought or feeling, but as a socio-contextual interest that contains various nuances: humour, exaltation, criticism, sarcasm, or the metadiscourse of art over reality. Ultimately, it is the recipient who puts the finishing touch on the symbols constructed, granting them their definitive value and their final significance.

versión en español los mitos y la ley de la graveda

This text was originally published by the Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAyC). CAyc was an arts organization based in Buenos AiresArgentina , that was instrumental in creating an international arts movement based on the ideas of systems art within  conceptual art and was initially conceived as a multidisciplinary workshop to explore the relationship between art, science and social studies; it positioned itself as a space to generate a new wave of experimental art. Artist, curator, critic and businessman Jorge Glusberg served as Director from 1968 until his death in 2012. In the late 1960s and early 1970s CAyC brought together leading thinkers and artists, visiting international figures, the local art community and members of the general public.


The Obelisk Lying Down

El Obelisco Acostado, 1978

The Obelisk Lying Down Obelisco Acostado, 1978 Bienal Latino-Americana de São Paulo, Brasil. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio

The Obelisk Lying Down The Obelisk Lying Down presented at the first Latin American Biennale in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 1978, is an obelisk reclined on one of its sides, in a horizontal position, possessing the same dimensions as the Buenos Aires Obelisk. It was made out of wood, chipboard and rope, measuring 67m long and 7m wide at the base. The visiting crowds were able to enter the obelisk at the base, which served as the entrance; spectators entered politely in groups and explored the interior that was illuminated with a black light. There were fluorescent panels on both sides that projected the shadows of the visitors as they walked. On reaching the far end, there were two television sets and a projection on super 8. The films and video-tapes included images filmed around the Buenos Aires Obelisk, and featured interviews with passersby about the meaning of the monument, references to obelisks from other countries and to the inner space of the Obelisk. There were also scenes of fiction showing the Obelisk falling down.

This work has several connotations in its attempt to overturn massive symbols. The first is undoubtedly that of inversion: rendering the vertical horizontal, but at the same time the originality to place on the inside that which is normally outside – the projected images – and the public themselves. And that is where the sense of appropriation comes from, derived from the first: the visitor appropriates the Buenos Aires Obelisk, not by seeing its exterior but by penetrating it, as if the symbol of Buenos Aires par excellence had been turned into a massive artificial uterus. But as in a collective fantasy, a uterus that could contain several people exploring it at the same time and, fundamentally, watching the same thing (the projections), an exterior made up of the dreams and fantasies of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires.

Another sense, this time distinguished from the previous but also connected to them, is the displacement of a myth to other countries. The sanctified exterior thus became the de-sanctified interior by rendering a public monument horizontal. The interior images projected alluded to another type of ritual, this time an artistic and geo-political ritual, in exporting an Argentine cultural myth.

The Sweet Bread Obelisk

El Obelisco De Pan Dulce, 1979

'The Obelisk in Sweet Bread Obelisco De Pan Dulce, 1979. 'Feria de las Naciones', Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio.

The Sweet Bread Obelisk The Buenos Aires Obelisk and the wider part of Calle Corrientes were inaugurated on 23 May 1936, marking the fourth centenary of the city’s founding. More than forty years later, Marta Minujín furnished the city with a new Obelisk. This time, however, it was a transitory, perishable and edible one. The Egyptians erected these monuments in the Ancient Empire, three millennia before Christ, to glorify the tombs of their rulers. Later, obelisks came to be part of temples, erected to commemorate the royal fasti in order to pay tribute to the god Sun. They were made of granite, basalt and quartzite, in general not exceeding thirty metres in height. The last to be built in antiquity (in Ethiopia and before the sixth century of the modern era) was built for religious purposes even though they were linked to ritual sacrifices.

Marta Minujín repurposes the symbology created around these statues for her El Obeliso de Pan Dulce , a 32m-tall metal structure, adorned with 10,000 cakes. Erected on 17 November 1980, a lightweight crane was subsequently used to lay the obelisk down on one of its sides – thanks to a special device placed at the base of the structure – before raising it successively in order to end up placing it on the ground. These mechanical dances were witnessed by large crowds visiting an industrial fair. After having been discovered, fire trucks circled around the obelisk and deployed their ladders, distributing the cakes among the crowds, eventually leaving the structure bare.

This was the first edible structure built by Marta Minujín, and it was to signal the beginning of a period of de-erection of great popular-mythic phalluses, one that was to continue with the James Joyce Tower in Dublin.

The artist offered a concrete response to a common question in Buenos Aires: What is the Obelisk for ? Her response was related to the social function that, through the artistic act, can be incorporated into works that reproduce ancient architectural rituals. But this social function must not be confused with the simple necessity to distribute food. Beyond this, as a veritable symbol of re-production, i.e. of the transformation of public works that are deeply rooted in the collective imagination, the laying horizontal of the mock obelisk , through the aforementioned mechanical procedures, speaks to her proposition to bring down great emblems, to violate the law of gravity.

The artwork stands out for its uniqueness and completeness. These two characteristics were extolled in The Sweet Bread Obelisk . But above all the latter, that is, completeness: from the beginning to the end of the process the public participated actively, even following their surprise and the questions that constituted the social context of the de-erection. If an obelisk is carved up and passed around, it is a shared obelisk. Here we must not forget the verses of Pablo Neruda “…I love the love that is shared in kisses, bed and bread…” from his renowned poem “Farewell”. As a metaphor for the poem, the work of Marta Minujín shared out bread and was devoted to a human deity.

The James Joyce Tower of bread

La Torre de Pan de James Joyce, 1980

The James Joyce Tower in Bread. La Torre de Pan de James Joyce, 1980 Earlsfort Terrace, University College and The National Gallery of Ireland during Rosc '80 'The Poetry of Vision', Dublin, Ireland. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio.

The James Joyce Tower of Bread The James Joyce Tower, which Marta Minujín presented at the ROSC’80 international exhibition in Dublin, finds its inspiration in Ulysses . Its publication, in 1922, earnt her similar measures of both applause and censure from the Irish man of letters – then forty years of age. This large composition in prose, half-novel half-poetry, was said to hail the dawn of a new era in literature, whilst also being disparaged as an affront to the traditions of the art of writing. To tell the truth, it was both; and consequently established a foundational divide.

Following Joyce’s death, in 1941, no one now ventured to question the revolution ushered in by Ulysses , which had taken its place as one of the canonical achievements of the century and, as such, one of the great works in the literary annals of humanity. Let us recall that in the initial pages of his text, the author describes the circular stronghold of Sandycove, to the south of the Irish capital, which held within its walls one of the book’s lead characters: Stephen Dedalus. Today, the tower of Sandycove is home to the James Joyce Museum and has become a legendary monument for Ireland.

With the James Joyce Tower , Marta Minujín continued the experience she brought to Buenos Aires in late 1979 with her El Obelisco de Pan Dulce , an experience that the artist considered extending to other symbol-monuments such as the Statue of Liberty in New York, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Pyramids of Giza or Nelson’s Column in London. The piece consisted in constructing a replica of the James Joyce Tower in the external patio of Dublin University. This replica featured a metallic structure, lying on a cement base, boasting the same dimensions as the original: 8.50m tall and 11m across. A fleet of trucks brought in 5,000 freshly-baked loaves of bread dispatched by the Edmond Downes bakery, mentioned by Joyce in his book The Dubliners (1914). Thirty people sporting uniforms bearing the Downes logo placed the loaves in the tower, covering the metallic structure. Finally the tower was laid down on the ground with the help of a crane belonging to the Irish fire brigade. At once, the spectators – in a collective commotion where aggression would blend with confusion – ran off with the loaves.

This tower was perhaps the second edible sculpture created, after the Obelisk of 1979. One of the fundamental features of this work was collective participation. Since its erection, the public knew that the tower was made for them. However, their participation was confirmed at every stage of the process. We know that there is no art without consumption; it is in being received that the piece is completed. Marta Minujín went further still, by making – physical – consumption the sine qua non of this process. And so it was that the symbolic was devalued, by making the vertical horizontal, by rendering it edible. The James Joyce Tower is connected to the artist’s transition through happenings and performances , two disciplines in which she has excelled in recent years. The flattening of the Tower renders it de-constructive art , the overthrowing of structures and a clear social metaphor, one that opposes the verticalism of societies in the modern day and in the past that, as in Ancient China, had a language where the stresses used in speech would denote the stratification of social classes.

on Fire

Carlos Gardel de fuego, 1980

Carlos Gardel on Fire. Carlos Gardel de fuego, 1980.   4th Medellin Biennial, Colombia. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio

Carlos Gardel (1981) In 1981, at the Medellin Biennale, Marta Minujín continued to demistify popular emblems, this time creating a statue of Carlos Gardel that measured 12m tall and 3.4m wide: a metal structure covered with cotton. The structure was located in an area outside the exhibition centre, and whilst thirty people dressed in the style of Gardel accompanied with his statue the Gardel tangos playing out of speakers, a crane lifted the structure. Later, evoking the fatal accident that would cost the singer his life, Marta Minujín set fire to the structure, simulating the events of 45 years ago.

The Eiffel Tower, the pyramids of Egypt, Venus de Milo, the Obelisk of Buenos Aires, Brazil’s Sugarloaf Mountain, are some of the popular myths that Marta Minujín has explored and demystified. “These monuments – myths with great popular reach – photographed by thousands of tourists, eternal sites of romantic rendezvous and encounters, constitute the symbol of a place, its most immediate essence; and this is why I am interested in considering the possibility of creating a reflection around its traditional symbology and that of “disrupting them”, converting them into “others…” These words written by the artist reflect her preoccupation along two lines: that of demystifying places, and that of making reflections on emblems that are not buildings, like the football, dulce de leche and, in this case, the figure of the most popular of Argentine singers.

Like the ascending ashes that rose into the sky as the cotton burned, Marta Minujín managed to create an act of mass communication that transformed spectators into the sole recipients of the work. In modifying the physical state of the structure by burning it, the artist managed to break away from the concept of the popular being eternal, and simultaneously offered a ritual image (fire and ashes) that would evoke the tragic moment of the disappearance of this idol. A disappearance that art elevates to the rank of aesthetic recreation of a myth, of a new expressive form that encourages mass participation. Hence the demystification, which is at once a rupture with the eternal in the public consciousness. The evocation of the physical destruction of Carlos Gardel is thus linked to his imperishable nature in the order of collective representations. It was in this dialectics between recovery and destruction that she located the essence of the work, which succeeded in re-creating to show how the physical is perishable and the mythical imperishable.

The Dulce de Leche Football

The Dulce de Leche Football (1981) The drawings of the Dulce de Leche Football were exhibited at the Montevideo Fine Arts Museum. The Football was surrounded by signs and labels, with the idea of informing the public about their popular objectives. The ball was made up of a tubular structure, covered by a metallic fabric on which thousands of dulce de leche jars were placed. The work ended up being a copy of a regular football, only a million times bigger. This work, if analysed sociologically, is about the demystification of two institutions of everyday life: football, with everything that it means with regards to working-class life and Sunday gatherings, and dulce de leche, an absolute must-have in the larder of any Argentine. Both passions, one linked to culinary mythology and another linked to the sporting, were thus condensed together in a mass participation project. And thus the fundamental elements of the Argentine working class essence were reflected in the two registers mentioned.

On the conceptual basis that mass participation art consists in touching on those basic resources of human beings, such as feelings, and through these to elicit an emotional and compulsive encounter with the artistic act. The creative process consists, in these cases, in producing an installation in movement, or: the invention of the work, its launch, and its completion or conclusion at the hands of the public.The artist’s intention is to turn the monumental football into a protagonist similar to that which, in a stadium packed with 100,000 people, is watched by 200,000 eyes that follow its every move. This mechanism of substituting a football match with an artistic installation is a clear metaphor for creation supplanting institution; or creation supplanting another kind of creation, which draws public interest every weekend.

The Statue of Liberty in Hamburgers

Estatua de la Libertad de Hamburguesas, 1980

The Statue of Liberty in Hamburgers Estatua de la Libertad de Hamburguesas, 1980. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio.

The Statue of Liberty covered in Hamburgers (1981) The Statue of Liberty project continues the idea of the Obelisk Lying Down from Sao Paolo’s Biennale, but this time the piece will be in situ , in Battery Park, opposite the real Statue of Liberty in Upper Bay, the mouth of New York’s Hudson River. The figure will extend horizontally over 50m in length and 17m in height, and will be reclined on one of its sides, leaning on the arm that bears the torch. It will be made of iron and weaved metal wire, with its contours defined by rings of iron that will depict its silhouette along the length of the body. Being covered with metal wire grids on the inside, members of the public moving around the inside of the statue will be visible from the outside by the rest of the spectators.

The idea consists of keeping the statue on display in Battery Park, lit up from the outside and inside. This will enable it to be seen close to the real statue on Ellis Island. At a given point during its exhibition (on the fifteenth day), fire trucks will appear in the morning with their ladders, but they are to be driven by employees of a hamburger company. These employees would coat the statue with a layer of thousands of hamburgers; these would be half-cooked, piled one on top of the other until the iron structure would remain totally covered. Then men wearing asbestos masks and gloves would cook the hamburgers with flamethrowers, toasting them until they become a smoking delicacy. Since this would provide a great public lunch to which everyone would be invited, no one could refrain from gobbling down the hamburgers that covered the Statue of Liberty on just this one occasion.

With this edible installation, Marta Minujín has a twin objective in mind: to bring about a change in the public’s attitude regarding the value ascribed to the monument that the French gifted to the United States, and simultaneously to ensure mass participation through a visual and gustatory stimulus. And she is doing this through a traditionally North American gastronomic symbol (hamburgers), an emblematic accessory, one of the most important symbols in the daily life of the average North American.

The Fall of Universal Myths 1978 - 2021

La Caida de los Mitos Universales

El obelisco acostado/ The Obelisk Lying Down, 1978. Bienal Latino-American, Parque de Ibirapuera, São Paulo, Brazil. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives.

El obelisco de Pan Dulce/The Obelisk in Sweet Bread, 1979. Feria de las Naciones, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives.

El obelisco de Pan Dulce/The Obelisk in Sweet Bread, 1979. Feria de las Naciones, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives.

The Obelisk in Sweet Bread Obelisco De Pan Dulce, 1979. "Feria de las Naciones", Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio.

La Torre de Pan de James Joyce/The James Joyce Tower in Bread, 1980. Dublin, Ireland. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives.

The James Joyce Tower in Bread. La Torre de Pan de James Joyce, 1980 Earlsfort Terrace, University College and The National Gallery of Ireland during Rosc `80 "The Poetry of Vision", Dublin, Ireland. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio.

Margaret Thatcher de Corned Beef (Margaret Thatcher in Corned Beef) by Marta Minujín, 1980. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives

The Statue of Liberty in Hamburgers Estatua de la Libertad de Hamburguesas, 1980. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio.

Carlos Gardel del Fuego/ Carlos Gardel on Fire, 1981. Third Biennial of Medellin, Colombia. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives

Carlos Gardel on Fire. Carlos Gardel de fuego, 1980.   4th Medellin Biennial, Colombia. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio.

El Partenón de libros/ The Parthenon of Books, 1983. 9 de Julio Avenue, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives

The Parthenon of Books El Partenon de Libros, 1983. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio.

Torre de Babel, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2011.

Agora of Peace Agora de la Paz, 2013. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio

Agora de La Paz/Agora of Peace. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2013. Commissioned to mark the 30th anniversary of Argentina’s return to democracy.

El lobo marino de alfajores/Sea-wolf of Alfajores 2014, Mar del Plata, Argentina. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives.

The Parthenon of Forbidden Books at Documenta 14, Kassell, Germany, 2017. Photo by Mathias Voelzke. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives

The Parthenon of Books, El Partenon de Libros, 2017. Courtesy Mathias Voelzke.

Big Ben Lying Down With Political, 2021. Courtesy Marta Minujín Studio.

Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books at the Manchester International Festival, Manchester, England, 2021. Photo by Ezequiel Velazquez. Courtesy Marta Minujín Archives

Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books at the Manchester International Festival, Manchester, England, 2021. Photo by Fabio De Paola

La Caida de Mitos Universales/The Fall of Universal Myths is Marta Minujin’s ongoing series of large-scale artworks begun in 1978:

  • 1978 Obelisco Acostado (The Obelisk Lying Down), Bienal Latino-Americana de São Paulo, Brasil.
  • 1979 Obelisco De Pan Dulce (The Obelisk in Sweet Bread), Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • 1980 The James Joyce Tower in Bread, Dublin, Ireland.
  • 1980 Carlos Gardel de Fuego (Carlos Gardel on Fire), 4th Medellin Biennial, Colombia.
  • 1983 El Partenón de Libros/ The Parthenon of Books, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • 2011 Torre de Babel/Babel's Tower, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • 2013 Ágora de la Paz/ Agora of Peace, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • 2014 El Lobo Marino de Alfajores/Sea-wolf of Alfajores, Mar del Plata, Argentina.
  • 2017 El Partenón de Libros/ The Parthenon of Books, dOCUMENTA 14, Germany.
  • 2021 Big Ben Lying Down With Political Book, Manchester International Festival, UK. 
Every effort in good faith has been made by Marta Minujín Studio to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The Studio apologizes for any unintentional errors or omissions and would be grateful to be notified of any corrections that should be updated on this website. Please contact martaminujinestudio@gmail.com .
time A conversation between Marta Minujín and curator Gabriela Rangel, 2021