Next month, Marta Minujín, the Argentinian artist credited with being a pioneer of installation art, will create an artwork that has been 40 years in the making. Using a library of 20,000 books representing British politics, she aims to recreate London’s most iconic timepiece, Big Ben. The clock tower itself will be installed, lying horizontally and half the size of the original, in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens. At the end of the show, the public will be invited to take a title home with them, the work slowly being destroyed tome by tome.
“There is a great artistic energy in destruction,” Minujín tells me from her home in Buenos Aires. “People will be together in an event that happens once and can never be repeated. It will stay only in the memory. It’s a strange happening that I hope people will remember all their lives and recall to those who couldn’t take part.”
Minujín is the quintessential eccentric artist: she has a shock of blond hair, perfect red lipstick and wears mirrored aviator shades as she gesticulates wildly over a video link. Destruction has always been a part of her work. In 1963, studying in France, she invited her fellow students down a dead-end street in Paris’s upmarket Montparnasse to deface and burn all the work she had made over the previous three years. To celebrate, she released 500 rabbits and birds into the cobbled street.
Big Ben Lying Down is the culmination of over four decades of similarly iconoclastic work. In 1978, during her country’s last dictatorship, Minujín created a fallen scale model of the Obelisk, a historic monument located in Buenos Aires’s Plaza de la República for the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil. “Everything was terrible at the time and I kept looking at this massive symbol, a sign of this oppression, a sign of the male, a phallic symbol that needed pulling down,” she says. The following year, the artist recreated the monument again in Buenos Aires – but on this occasion it was erect and she made it out of panettone. “The police harassed me but I was allowed to get away with it. They didn’t understand the work, they just thought I was crazy.” At the end of the exhibition a crane laid the life-size obelisk down and people were invited to eat the sweet bread. “The people ate the phallus!” she says with glee.
Minujín was born in 1943 in the expansive Buenos Aires house she still lives in and uses as a studio. It’s now filled with television screens, neon lights and sculptures. Studying first at the National University of the Arts in the city, she was able to go to Paris on a scholarship in 1960 and a field trip to Italy heralded two formative encounters, the first with the pop assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg at the Venice Biennale, the second with the miniskirt, seen worn on the streets of Milan. She was determined to fuse the same sense of fun and fashion into the wild performance works on which she was embarking.
On her return to Argentina she created La Menesunda, an ambitious installation featuring a warren of rooms including a working beauty salon and bedroom complete with a couple getting close under the sheets. The 1965 work, which will be recreated at Tate Liverpool next year, made the young artist famous at home and abroad, with one North American art magazine labelling her the “Latin answer to pop”. Equally innovative was Three Country Happening, a 1966 collaboration with New York-based Allan Kaprow and Berlin artist Wolf Vostell, in which the trio created work transmitted live by local television and radio stations.
“I became interested in fame, and using fame and the mass media as a material in my art. That’s how I met Warhol because we were both working on being famous.” The 1966 coup in Argentina coincided with Minujín being awarded a Guggenheim fellowship allowing her to travel to New York. She had only been in America a short time when Salvador Dalí invited her for an audience. “He had seen my last happening and wanted to meet me. I walked into the room and found many underground people sitting around the table, including Andy.” The two went on to collaborate, not least on The Debt, a 1985 performance in which Minujín handed Warhol a shipment of Argentinian maize, a comment on the crippling debt the country owed America.
“I started to rollerskate all the time because I couldn’t afford the bus. I was becoming popular, hanging out with Rauschenberg, I was on TV so people would stop me on the street. After that, I became a hippy, left New York for San Francisco and hung out on the scene there. I loved that period. We were really happy, we lived in another world.”
So why did she return home, where the dictatorship was still in full force? “I had to go back to Argentina because I am made in Argentina. I wanted to speak to my own people – not the art world but ordinary people, people who did not know about art. But maybe they will like me and they will like what I do.”
It was only with the fall of the junta that Minujín turned her attention to books. She decided to bring the Greek parthenon – “that great symbol of democracy” – to Argentina, recreating it from 30,000 books forbidden by the military. “They had been hidden in the houses of editors and publishers all that time, so you can imagine the excitement of seeing them there for the taking in the middle of the city.” The work was built again for the Documenta exhibition in Germany in 2017, this time with titles banned under the Nazi regime.
Her work continues to be feted and what has not been destroyed is included in museum collections. Yet she says her real interest is not a material or institutional legacy but the atmosphere conjured by her works, something impossible to document. “From the beginning, I was very much against museums and galleries. Museums were cemeteries for art. Now they are a bit different. But I am still against the art fairs. I hate them.” Is she sad that travel restrictions mean she might not be able to get to Manchester to see her latest work installed, and disassembled, herself? “Devastated,” she says. “I am a person of action, always there. The people are the work, I am my work. It is social.”
Big Ben Lying Down will be at Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, from 1-18 July as part of Manchester international festival.
On Thursday 1 July, 7.30pm BST, Marta Minujín will join Alex Clark for a free Guardian Live online event on the opening night of Manchester International Festival. Book your ticket here.
This article has been corrected on 29 June; the panettone work was in Buenos Aires, not São Paulo.