November 7, 2016
A parthenon of banned books to rise from Nazi ashes in Kassel
by Ian Dreiblatt
In 1933, Aryan dudes and dudettes all across Germany were burning books in what they called an Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist (“Campaign Against the Un-German Spirit”). Fires went up in most major cities, including, on May 19th of that year, a big one at Friedrichsplatz Park in Kassel, near the middle of the country. I hope the reader will forgive some aw-shucks understatement if I say that this did not portend a good couple years for Europe.
A half century later, in 1983, to celebrate the restoration of democracy in her country after years of military dictatorship, Argentine conceptual and performance artist Marta Minujín erected a “Parthenon of Banned Books” along Buenos Aires’s Ninth of July Avenue. The work, which stood in the capital for three weeks, was a scale model of the ancient Athenian temple to which its name refers, made of literary works that had been banned in Argentina. These included books by Freud, Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, and many others, along with—for some reason—The Little Prince. After three weeks, it went the way of all site-specific ephemera, and took on a more permanent form as a series of photographs depicting its construction and demolition. The books themselves were distributed to residents of the city. (If you’re having trouble picturing this, it may be helpful to know that Ninth of July is the widest avenue in the world.)
Now, at a moment with Europe once again facing crises of buzzkillular proportions, Ellie Diaz writes at the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Blog that Menujín has announced plans to build a second parthenon, far larger than the original—no small thing, since the original contained 20,000 books—as part of the upcoming documenta 14 art fair taking place in Kassel and Athens. The piece is set to open on June 10, 2017, and stay up for a hundred days. Menujín has been soliciting copies of banned books—notably at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair—and documenta has put up a site to facilitate donations.
In a statement, the artist wrote, “Democracy without books is not democracy.”
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.