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Hippies and Happenings at the MALBA

by Carla Harms

Like the artist herself, Marta Minujín’s exhibition “Obras 1959-1989” at the MALBA is a bit of a trip. Leading the spectator through a 30-year-period of the seminal Argentine artist’s most prolific work, curator Victoria Noorthoorn took on the enourmous task of exhibiting not only Minujín’s material artworks from that period, but also revisiting projects that the artist labelled “happenings” and “environments”, that were originally interactive art performed live. The challenge with a show like this lies in the fact that much of this work was never intended for exhibition in a museum, and therefore cannot be shown in a conventional manner. The result is a lot of documentation, and for that reason you need a fair bit of time to get through it all. But it is worth it in the end not only because you come out of the exhibition with a better understanding of what Minujín is all about, but also because you feel like you’ve taken your own little trip through the 60’s and 70’s.

The exhibit starts out with Minujín’s early works, including two abstract oil paintings and a series of sculptural Informalist abstract works from the early 1960’s. Dark, textural, and earthy, at first glance the works do not appear to belong to Minujín, who is well known for her colorful mattress sculptures that belong to the era of Pop Art. But what these early works do represent is an early interest in two major themes: first, the art spectator’s experience in space, and second, a foray into the use of found or everyday objects and materials. Both of these themes continue to show themselves in various ways throughout the rest of the exhibit.

Hippies and Happenings at the MALBA

Given the vast amount of documentation and the number of works on display, it would be impossible to explore them all in this article. But there are definetly some pieces that shouldn’t go without mentioning. The first is Minujín’s hand-sewn and brightly-painted mattress sculpture series called Erotics in Technicolor that she began while living and working in Paris under a fellowship and continues to work on today. With titles like All the Lovely People and For Making Love Inconspicuously that evoke the free-spirited hippie attitude, the sculptures emit a decidedly 60’s vibe.  One in particular, Wallow Around and Live!, is a little room made of mattresses that the spectators could enter during its original exposition. This work, along with  200 Mattresses (The Soft Gallery) from 1973, a room made up of 200 single bed mattresses that the viewer is invited to enter and experience, highlight Minujín’s interest in the spectator’s encounter with space within the context of art.

Hippies and Happenings at the MALBA
Hippies and Happenings at the MALBA

The mattress theme is one of the more striking themes in the exhibit, also evident in one of the most exciting works, Mayhem, which was one of Minujín´s environment pieces. Originally one of 16 situations presented in 1965 at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, Minujín built a bedroom with a bed where a couple sits and talks as they would before going to sleep.

Painstakingly created at the MALBA to match the original 60’s design of the bedroom, the environment includes two live actors who lie in bed and converse together as if no one is there. Watching and listening to them is a very odd experience. Although we are aware that we are watching two actors, it is hard to shake the feeling of peeping in on someone´s private space, adding an interesting layer to the piece, and is Minujín´s ultimate goal. By creating situations that are strange and embarrassing to anyone who accepts them as real, the artist challenges the spectator’s notion of time, enabling them to freely experience sensations.

Hippies and Happenings at the MALBA

While there is no shortage of interesting happenings that the exhibit documents, one in particular caught my attention, in part Minujín talked about it at the chat with the curator held at the MALBA on the Monday following the exhibition opening. Known as Visual Event, the happening took place in 1965 in Montevideo, Uruguay at the Peñarol soccer stadium. There, influenced by Federico Fellini’s film 8 ½,  Minujín procured a group of motorcyclists, 20 fat ladies, 20 body builders in muscle shirts, 20 brides and grooms wrapped in adhesive tape, and 20 beautiful women who were all to interact with the audience members. The result was this: the beautiful women kissed the men in the audience while the body builders lifted their wives, the fat women rolled around on the ground. Meanwhile Minujín arrived at the scene by helicopter and threw 500 live chickens, lettuce, and flour over the participants. Apparently the 10-minute-happening garnered plenty of international press after things got out of control, with one participant beheading a live hen to make a blood painting.

Even though visitors of the MALBA can’t experience the happenings first hand, the exhibit does a great job of creating an intense visual experience. Past the mattress rooms and with strains of 60’s music in the background, one section invites you into a dark room with dayglow paintings on the floor, where a psychedelic film plays on a big screen and light box collage works line the walls. With Minujín’s homemade hippie outfits hanging outside above a round bright orange chaise, the whole experience is a bit of a sensory circus. But why expect anything less from the artist, who, projected on a video screen wearing light-up purple sunglasses, beckons the visitors to move on to the next floor to see the rest of the show? Indeed she is an Argentine artist who has succeeded in getting this country to do just that—continue to explore the idea that art is so much more than what we think it can be.

The exhibit runs through Feb. 7, 2011 at the MALBA.

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