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Big Ben Lying Down

Marta Minujín

Manchester International Festival, 1-18 July, 2021

Review by Miguel Cullen

Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, the location of ‘Big Ben Lying Down With Political Books’ is, like all city centres, the locus of life, yet its cohorts are ill-defined, there fleetingly, pell-mell. If you imagine life sped-up, like time-lapse footage, you’d see one thing stand out, and stand still in the gardens: Marta Minujín’s Big Ben. It lies there like the wreckage of something no one has had the motivation to deal with.  On a phone call from Buenos Aires, Minujín calls it ‘a humorous taunt’ directed towards imperialism.

This public installation is a sculpture of Big Ben on its side, walled in a transparent sheath of book sleeves, containing works by Marcus Rashford, Paul Gilroy, Bernardine Evaristo, Dickens and many others. Visitors are meant to take a book away with them, slowly diminishing the ‘monument’. 

Minujín’s work is part of her series where she ‘feeds the countries their own myth’. One artwork involved feeding Argentinians their own phallic Obelisco de Buenos Aires monument, made out of 30,000 panettone. 

Minujín is a typical Argentinian, a cultural primary-coloured cockatoo, with bleached blonde hair, aviator glasses. The artist signs off emails with ‘Abrazos Fluos’; ‘Fluorescent Hugs’. She escaped Argentina in 1961 after a ‘horrible childhood’ and fled to Paris. Later she wended her way to New York, where she worked with Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, before becoming Argentina’s master of the ‘art happening’. She tells me: ‘After the First and Second World Wars, Argentina exported all of the corned beef (in a time of deprivation) to Europe. Well, the British had huge corned beef factories in Argentina making the actual money themselves…’ So Minujín created a corned-beef Margaret Thatcher sculpture which she unveiled at the ICA in 1996.

Imperial powers often remake themselves in their own image. Numerous versions of Big Ben abound. The South African frontier port, Simon’s Town, tucked above the Cape of Good Hope, is home to a clock tower whose horological machinery is made by the same company who created Big Ben’s clock. Big Ben was a potent symbol back then and continued to exert a powerful grip on the imagination of the colonisers and the colonised. In 1916, English residents in Buenos Aires employed the same company, Thwaites & Reed, to make their Torre de Los Ingleses (English [Clock] Tower). It survived a terrorist bomb attack in 1984, and is considered to be a quasi-colonialist relic of British imperial might. Britain even had Ministers Plenipotentiary in Buenos Aires (one of them was Second Baron Lionel Sackville-West, whose granddaughter, Vita Sackville-West, immortalised her grandmother, a Spanish gypsy flamenco dancer, in a memoir, Pepita). I also have a family connection to the story tangential to Big Ben. Thwaites & Reed made a clock for the tower in the village of Oving, Buckinghamshire, which my great-grandfather purchased in the 1950s and my parents still maintain.

Let’s hope Minujín can get all these Prime Meridian of the World clocks to finally stop bonging, one by one, if not all then some. I’ll ask mum.

Photo by Fabio De Paola