Fifty years ago, a legendary artwork opened in Buenos Aires: La Menesunda by Marta Minujín and Rubén Santantonín (1919-1969). At that time it shocked, confronted and made people feel uncomfortable. Last October, Minujín and other artists that were involved in the original project, reconstructed the artwork at the Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires, in celebration of its anniversary. La Menesunda, meaning confusion and mixture in Buenos Aires’ slang, is neither a happening nor an artwork, it’s an experience. Minujín and Santantonín built a labyrinth of sixteen rooms, each one with their own specific function: to generate a different sensation in the visitors. While visiting the installation it’s impossible not to ask ourselves what the purpose of reconstructing the piece is and if it shocks with the same intensity as it did in 1965.
During the time that the original show was opened, it was a huge success. People queued outside di Tella Institute, a nonprofit foundation that aimed to promote Argentinian culture. The foundation was where the newer artists and vanguards could be discovered. It was fundamental in the emergence of artistic movements and it was in the institute where now renowned artists such as Antonio Berni, Delia Cancela, Gyula Kosice, Julio Le Parc, Marta Minujín, among many others, started creating and developing Argentina’s modern art. These artists were visionaries and their objective was to break with the traditional ways of conceiving art. Moreover, they were not alone: their visions and philosophy were accompanied by similar conceptions that were rising around the world. Argentina was part of the crazy and complex 1960s and the di Tella Institute was where all the action happened.
The artists were fearless and original. It was in the Institute that Marta Minujín, one of the most famous Argentinian artists, started her career. From the first moment, Minujín was unruly and lively. Her performances and events made a mark on the country’s art history and since her appearance on the cultural scene, conceptual barriers have been broken. Her pieces shock and place questions in the spectator’s minds. The visitors are, in most of her art, a fundamental part of the experience. Although her pieces are playful and might seem harmless at first sight, they are full of political content and criticism. One of the most famous installations was The Parthenon of Books (1983), which was made with books that were censored during the period of dictatorships that Argentina went through between 1976 and the time of the installation.Santantonín was a self taught artist that became recognized for his ‘art-things’, a series of shapes and bulks made with paper, cardboard, paint, plaster and dressing. At that time, this pieces were repulsive, unclassifiable and impossible to understand.
Minujín and Santantonín conceived this piece to provoke. Its objective was to take people out of their comfort zone and their routines. What makes La Menesunda so special is the fact that all the rooms are made with elements we know, with people in everyday situations. However, the rooms are arranged in an awkward way where visitors must crouch, step onto soft surfaces and climb stairs. What happens inside the rooms generates dilemmas: to look or not to look at the couple talking while tucked in bed? Should we stare at them as if they were a sculpture or rapidly leave the room? Should we press that button? Which path should we choose? Almost nothing is defined and nothing is said when you enter the labyrinth, you only have to follow the signs that indicate where to go. Confusion leads the way out.
While walking through La Menesunda it’s impossible not to think about how they managed to reproduce such an enormous project. It surely wasn’t easy and the reconstruction of the labyrinth presented many challenges. One of them was the lack of plans to understand how the rooms were arranged. The registers of that time weren’t enough to see how the structure was assembled. To figure out the dimensions of the space that the labyrinth occupied, the experts had to visit the original di Tella Institute and use plans from other expositions. The work of the restorers and artists was thorough; they even recreated the distribution of the queue visitors have to make, since only eight people are allowed to be inside the installation at the same time.
In addition, another difficult task was to define the size of every room. The information was fundamental to replicate the original experience of the visit. It was also very hard to find the original materials, pieces of furniture and decorations used in the original piece. The televisions, freezers and beauty products were from brands that don’t exist anymore and the team had to track them down in flea markets or replicate them. In addition, there were safety factors to consider related to the materials that could be used and also, the durability of the labyrinth. This factor was important because the original structure was made to last fifteen days, while the 2015 version had to last for five months.
Other factors that were taken into consideration were the portability of the artwork, taking into account that it has to be easily transported in case of an exhibition in another museum. Despite all the obstacles that were faced in rebuilding La Menesunda, the reproduction is almost perfect. Even though there are some details that are different from the original piece, the experience is the same.
The reconstruction of this fantastic invention invites the viewer to reflect about its aim nowadays. Is it possible to bring new meaning to the piece? Is it the same one from 1965? One of the most interesting effects of the installation is the exploration of the role of the body and how it interacts with the environment. The body was the protagonist of the art of the 1960s; its incorporation into the world of art was crucial for the development of this era. In La Menesunda, people are the main characters. Without visitors, the construction loses its power. People not only have to be in movement to leave the labyrinth, but they are in close contact with the surfaces of the walls, floors and ceilings.
While visiting the Minujín and Santantonín creation, it may be tempting to take out your smartphone to take pictures and record the experience. However, my advice is not to do so. The intention of the piece is to let the visitors feel, touch, see and smell. It’s a chance to connect with the environment and leave the digital world behind. The piece might be seen, nowadays, as a criticism of the loss of physical contact and the growth of relationships through social networks. La Menesunda is a chance to pause the need to always be online and to let your body be free, be trapped and be confused. In the time you spend there you experience emotions such as amusement, shock, hesitancy, happiness, embarrassment and repugnancy. This whirl of feelings is a liberating experience that you would like to repeat after crossing the exit door.
La Menesunda can be visited at the Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires (350, San Juan Avenue) until the 22nd of May. The exposition will be temporarily closed from the 28th of February to the 15th of March for refurbishments. The museum is opened from Tuesdays to Sundays.