Marta Minujin, 74, is a an Argentine conceptual artist whose work has been renowned for more than 50 years. Today, her art is as vital as it’s ever been, and her latest project is earning praise from all over the world. It’s also going viral online.
In Kassel, Germany, Minujin has constructed a work titled “The Parthenon of Books.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: a full-scale replica of the Parthenon made entirely out of books. The size of the installation is impressive, but its location, medium and message are what carry real weight.
You’ll find “The Parthenon of Books” in the city of Kassel, Germany. Specifically, it’s in Friedrichsplatz Park, a place where, on May 19, 1933, Nazi sympathizers burned thousands of books. That’s why all the books Minujin used share something special in common.
All the books used in the “The Parthenon of Books,” an estimated 100,000 of them, are copies of works that were once banned, or that remain banned, somewhere in the world. It is, therefore, a anti-censorship monument, built in the spirit of democracy and freedom of expression.
Minujin’s installation is just one part of Documenta 14. Documenta is an exhibition of contemporary art held in Kassel every five years. German artist Arnold Bode founded Documenta in 1955 in an attempt to “bring Germany up to speed with modern art, both banishing and repressing the cultural darkness of Nazism,” according to the New York Times.
Moreover, the real Parthenon in Athens, one of the most famous structures of the ancient world, is itself an enduring symbol of political liberty. As Minujin herself described, it represents “the aesthetic and political ideals of the world’s first democracy.”
Minujin worked with 19 students from the University of Kassel to build a list of banned books from around the world. They came up with a tally of about 70,00 titles in all, narrowed down to 170 to use in the piece. The exhibition is considered a work in progress, and visitors are encouraged to bring copies of banned books to donate to it.
The materials used in the installation are steel for the structural scaffolding, plastic sheeting to wrap and protect each book, and, of course, the books themselves. According to Pierre Bal-Blanc, one of Documenta's curators, "The work has exactly the same dimensions as the Parthenon – 70 metres (230 feet) in length, 31 metres in breadth and 10 metres in height.”
One particular book, controversial the world over, won’t be included: Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Though widely banned, the work is, after all, the blueprint for Nazism, so it was never considered for what it meant to be an anti-censorship, anti-fascist art installation.
Minujin says “The Parthenon of Books” is her most political work, although this version of it is not, in fact, wholly original. It’s a recreation of a similar work Minujin constructed in 1983 after the fall of the Argentine junta. The original stood for three weeks, and when it was taken down, the books used to build it were distributed freely to the Argentine public.
George Orwell’s 1984 is naturally included in “The Parthenon of Forbidden Books.” The classic novel tells, or, more appropriately, warns of a future world in which an authoritarian government rules via constant war, surveillance and censorship. Ironically, if not surprisingly, the subversive novel has been banned frequently since its publication in 1949.
Like 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World tells the story of a future dystopia dominated by a sinister central government. But instead of force, the government in this 1932 novel keeps its citizens cowed using drugs, entertainment and other pleasures. It, too, has been subject to censorship for more than 80 years, and appears on the American Library Association's “Most Challenged Books” list.
Not all challenged books face bans due to political subversion. Some of them are just too sexy for the type of people who think censorship is ever a reasonable solution to not liking something. Lady Chatterley's Lover, first written by English novelist D.H. Lawrence, was not published unedited in the U.S. or U.K. until 1959 and 1960, respectively. Bootleg versions of the text were popular before then, though.
Every year, millions of kids get around to reading The Catcher in the Rye, the fictional account of angsty, alienated, annoying Holden Caulfield, the ultimate teenager archetype. Though most consider it a classic, the book has always been challenged due to featuring a teenaged character who swears, smokes, is horny, doesn’t go to church and doesn’t like his parents. Good, because teens won’t be that way if they don’t read this book.
Though widely considered an American classic, Moby Dick is also widely considered unreadably boring. So it may surprise you that it’s also been censored and banned, particularly in the U.K. Why? Sacrilege, sex and disrespect to the British monarchy. Cool! Maybe we ought to give a second thought to reading this one.