April 30, 2021
Big Ben goes belly-up in book-based building bonanza
by Tom Clayton
Big Ben has been in the news quite a lot for a 157 year-old, 13-tonne, under-repair-since-2017 bell.* This major UK tourist attraction, housed in one of the most-photographed buildings in the country, is seen by many as a symbol of British endurance. It has also acted as both a touchstone and a flashpoint in recent years, as the conversation around national pride has become increasingly volatile in the wake of the Brexit referendum.
Most recently, the tower was at the heart of a furore over a proposed one-off “bonging” as the UK began its withdrawal period from the European Union on January 31 last year. A campaign to raise funds (or, as Boris Johnson had it, to “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong”) was closed after failing to convince the House of Commons that the huge estimated cost—£50,000 per bong!—was worth it. In the end, the bell rang out twelve times anyway on New Year’s Eve 2020, as the UK officially left the EU – but not before another row about whether some other bongs in December were Brexit-related bongs, or simply test bongs. Everyone clear?
Now, as per a report in The Art Newspaper, a gigantic new installation by Argentinian artist Marta Minujín in central Manchester will feature a replica Big Ben lying on its side – and made entirely of political books. The 42m sculpture (around half the size of the original Elizabeth Tower), will be unveiled as part of the Manchester International Festival, which takes place from 1-18 July this year. Big Ben Lying Down With Political Books will consist of around 20,000 books that have “shaped British politics.” Minujín says of her new piece, “The English people will be very surprised … Some will find lots of humour [in the work].”
It’s not the first time books have been used as building materials in art installations. In August 2012, as part of the Cultural Olympiad which ran concurrently with the Olympic Games in London, an astonishing 250,000 books were used to create a labyrinth in the South Bank Centre. The brainchild of Brazilian artists Marcos Saboya and Gualter Pupo, and built with the help of over 50 volunteers, it paid homage to Jorge Luis Borges, and was even crafted in the shape of his fingertips. In 2010 a garden built in Quebec, Canada, and designed by Berlin landscape architect Thilo Folkerts and Canadian artist Rodney LaTourelle, featured walls of books which were built outside and intended to be reclaimed by nature. By 2012, the books were already beginning to decay, with large mushrooms sprouting between the pages.
Few objects are more evocative when repurposed than books – and with Big Ben rarely straying from the heart of the national conversation, it’s virtually guaranteed that Big Ben Lying Down With Political Books will get tongues wagging again. Bong!
*as with any self-respecting article about Big Ben, it is my duty to inform you that Big Ben is just the name of the bell, although it is frequently used to describe the whole tower / clock / bell combo. The tower itself was simply named named the Clock Tower until 2012, when it was renamed Elizabeth Tower to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. So there we go.
Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.