BUENOS AIRES -- Argentine conceptual artist Marta Minujín celebrated her 70th birthday in full pop icon style. After descending from a horse-drawn carriage dressed in a white wedding gown, long gloves and trademark sunglasses, she waded through a scrum of journalists and gawkers into the MALBA museum, where she was feted by some 300 people, most of whom had paid to attend the event (a fundraiser for MALBA's educational programs). As videos looped through images of "happenings" and large-scale installations she'd created, she "married" art, threw her bride's bouquet to the crowd, ate a bit of bright pink cake, and disappeared into the night. It was a spectacle worthy of an artist who specializes in, well, spectacle.
"She is an Argentine icon. She is our Andy Warhol," says Rubén Mira, an Argentine writer and humorist. "The people recognize her in the street. It's Marta!" added Juan Stoppani, a local artist who also attended the event.
In a career that has spanned more than 50 years, Minujín was an early practitioner of many of the techniques that came to define conceptual art. While living in Paris in the early 1960's, she put on La Destrucción, a "happening" (an event as artwork) in which she brought together her work from the previous three years and had her friends (including the artist Christo) modify them and then burn them in a bonfire. In Cabalgata, an event televised from Buenos Aires the following year, horses "painted" mattresses with buckets of paint tied to their tails while a group of athletes popped balloons and two musicians were wrapped in tape.
"I went through every kind of art you can imagine. I did video art at the beginning. Then I did happenings, violentos, pop art, conceprtual art, site specific. I was always a pioneer; for example, I was the first person to put a TV in a work of art," Minujín said in a recent interview in her studio.
Later, she made the Venus de Milo out of cheese, recreated the Buenos Aires obelisk from fruit cake, and, to mark the end of the military dictatorship in 1983, she used titles that had been prohibited during military rule to build a Parthenon of books on Buenos Aires's main avenue. Save for the Parthenon and a 1985 series of photographs of her with Andy Warhol, paying off Latin America's debt with corn, her works are generally not easily interpreted. More than anything, they exhibit joy; in Minujín's words, "Art is everywhere."
"I like the idea of fun a lot. Because it’s diverse and with it people enter in a state of incarnation that interests me," Minujín says.
A few days after her birthday, Minujín led a journalist through her studios in a middle-class section of Buenos Aires's quiet San Cristóbal neighborhood. The building has special meaning for Minujín; she grew up in one of the four houses she combined to create the studio. Dressed in a white jumpsuit and technicolor-framed sunglasses -- Minujín is always in character -- she walked through a space that felt part workshop, part graveyard. The metal frame of the Venus de Milo, shorn of the 500 pounds of cubed cheese that had adorned her, sat in a patio a few yards from a decorated car wreck and a room full of "art for everyone" -- miniature replicas of her pieces, many on sale for 500 pesos (about $100). In a far room sat giant pieces with names like "Philosophy of the Diagonal Condition", while in the main studio assistants milled around her current work -- technicolor canvases and miniature hollow mattresses that contain sunglasses.
"My reference has always been the mattress. Because nature and life interest me, and considering that people spend half their life on a bed, where they kill, die, dream, and are born, I had to work in mattresses," Minujín says.
As Minujín walks, literally, through the catalog of her career, she launches into a refrain often heard from people looking back at the next generation: things aren't what they used to be. Specifically, the art market and commerce have ruined art.
"It's terrible. We artists of the 1960s never imagined we would sell a work of art. When Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney played, they didn’t imagine they would be millionaires with their own planes. That is a phenomenon of today. Like art fairs: they’re terrible. It’s absurd mercantilism. Artists sell works at them but they’re just another work sold to hang in someone's house. They don't transcend. The products of the fairs don’t enter the history of art," she says. "Before, artists went to Mount Parnassus to be inspired. Now they go to the market."
That said, Minujín doesn't blame artists for what she sees as the current drought. It may just be too much, she says, to expect every generation to produce great art like she and her cohorts did. (Humility is not her shtick.)
"The young artists today seem to be repeating everything. Site specific of the 1960s (I did that), electronic art, installations (I did the first one in 1966), video art... it all seems like a grand repetition," she says. "But I don’t think you can demand too much from human beings. The Renaissance was great because you had Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Then for 400 years nothing happened. Horrible Baroque and terrible decorative art. Then you had Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism and all that happened in the 60s and 70s. Very good. And now we’re repeating everything. The same with music and fashion. Some musicians may have great voices, but there’s nothing like the fanaticism that the Beatles created.”
Minujín isn't throwing in the towel, however. She plans to go out in the same attention-grabbing style with which she has lived her life. For her death, she says she plans to create a large acrylic box, decorated with neon tubes, that will project her happenings. She will sit inside, surrounded by her bronze works. After she is given a lethal injection, a furnace under the box will burn and melt everything, leaving nothing behind but multi-colored ashes. It will be televised, she says. And she seems quite serious.
"I hope they don’t try to stop me. I can pretend that I’m not going to do it, and then I’ll do it," Minujín says.
And what will she leave behind?
"My works, like the obelisk made of fruit cake, will live on in myth," she says.
Photos courtesy of Marta Minujín Studio and Ian Mount.