In Praise of Indiscipline

Rodrigo Alonso

"Come again?" bellowed the police chief in response to the request from the Colombian artist Walter Mejía, who, along with Narcisa Hirsch and Marie Louise Alemann, had gone to the station to ask permission "to devour a woman in front of the Teatro Coliseo." Mejía sweetly explained that they were visual artists who had put together a giant female figure whose skeleton they planned to fill with all sorts of food as part of an event to be called Marabunta. "In the street? By no means!" the officer proclaimed, apparently not vexed by the insinuation of cannibalism but perturbed by the threat of disturbing the public order.#
Primera Plana (Buenos Aires), November 7, 1967

In its section dedicated to gossip in the worlds of culture and show business, the influential weekly Primera Plana recounted the misadventures of the producers of Marabunta (Swarm, 1967) as they pursued their plan to carry out their project on the street.# The street, which until just one year earlier had been the setting of bold interventions by the pop artists close to the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella,# was now, under the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía (1966–70), a dangerous and suspicious place subject to constant surveillance by the authorities. Don't artists consider the problem of public order? Don't they have a space of their own, an orderly and protected place in which to carry out their projects without unsettling everyone else?

The 1960s witnessed major transformations in Argentine art, especially its institutional configuration. Young creators turned away from traditional venues of legitimacy (museums, galleries, cultural centers) and eschewed the artistic disciplines instituted by the historical canon (painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, etc.). Through actions in public spaces and discotheques, trendy gathering spots and the mass media, they created eccentric, though not necessarily marginal, art, undisciplined art insofar as it was morally disobedient and opposed to established artistic disciplines.

In Buenos Aires, unlike in the rest of the world, the leading players in this process were largely women artists. While very few of them called themselves feminists, their works and their public lives often manifested a vision of the female universe at odds with deeply rooted patriarchal values. Gender disobedience, in the classic feminist sense of the term,# made itself felt in attitudes and in symbols; the place of women in the community was the crux of conflict and the object of constant reworking. The body was a privileged battleground even though the nude body was very rarely seen in Argentina. What was recurrent, though, was irony, extravagance, symbolic displacement, even exaggeration and gall. Constant references to eroticism and sexuality undermined the modesty required of women under patriarchal morality. At the same time the body as discursive support and as a means to convey information was crucial to making way for later conceptual practices.

This battle ensued largely in the mass media rather than in art venues.# From very early on these women artists understood that their pursuit of an art tightly bound to daily life could be furthered only if the limits of the art institution were ignored. The mass media, as public arena and as sphere for the construction of social reality, were a crucial territory in that struggle. The researcher Catalina Trebisacce has pointed to the role that the mass media played in the feminist awakening in Argentina in those years insofar as they propagated an image of the modern woman that undermined her role as domestic operator. "In a disorderly and contradictory manner," Trebisacce explains, "[much of the mass media] introduced ideas that questioned conservative morality regarding issues of sexuality and love relationships."#

Fig. 1. Marta Minujín, La chambre d’amour (The love room), 1963
Fig. 1. Marta Minujín, La chambre d’amour (The love room), 1963.
Dyed wood, metal, chains, fabric, paint, synthetic foam. Installation view, Nicola L. studio. Courtesy of Marta Minujín Archives

The mass media were also the symbol of a power encroaching on the public domain, co-opting reality with their biased and alienating discourse. In her action Leyendo las noticias (Reading the news, 1965), Marta Minujín (b. 1943) signaled this change and its repercussions on the social and individual body. Wearing an outfit made of newspapers, she dived into the waters of the Río de la Plata, under which she was freed from the heavy burden of information. The body was central to much of Minujín's production from those years. Her early constructions with multicolored mattresses called attention to intimate physical activities such as rest and sex. In both La chambre d'amour (The love room, 1963; fig. 1) and ¡Revuélquese y viva! (Roll around and live, 1964),# viewers were invited to enter through door-vaginas and to express themselves, perhaps by making love. Beyond the references to female anatomy, these pieces were striking because of the way they activated viewers' bodies—one of the main pursuits of Minujín's work into the present.

That intention led Minujín down more complex paths in La menesunda (Mayhem, 1965), produced with Rubén Santantonín (1919–1969), a work that took the form of an experience in a device to be walked through. By means of aromas, textures, and temperature effects, La menesunda elicited a direct sensorial response on the part of visitors. In exploring the work's various stations, viewers were immersed in a lived, immediate space and invited to give themselves over to play, astonishment, and delight. According to the artist, the aim of these works was to "unalienate" people (not only the art audience), to unsettle their daily lives, to shake them violently out of their routines so that they might participate in an exceptional event. Later Minujín's work would address the ways in which the mass media and new technologies were transforming both the public and the cultural landscape and—indeed mostly—processes of socialization and of subjectification.# In this sense she was a true pioneer in the expanding sphere of technology art.

Excerpted from Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985. Copyright © 2017 by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Inc. Published by DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel. The full essay can be found in the exhibition catalogue, available here.

Epigraph: "Marabunta," Primera Plana (Buenos Aires), no. 254 (November 7, 1967): 59.

The idea was to cover an enormous female skeleton with food and to put it out on the street so that passersby could devour it. Since the police did not grant authorization to use the street, the experience took place in the lobby of the Cine Coliseo on the night of the premiere of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up (1966).

The Instituto Torcuato Di Tella was a cultural institution at the forefront of artistic experimentation in Buenos Aires from 1963 to 1970. It was supported by Siam-Di Tella industries, which flourished under the developmentalist policies pursued by President Arturo Frondizi in the early 1960s. The institute had centers dedicated to the visual arts, to theater, and to contemporary music. It organized two important prizes, one of them international in scope and the other for Argentine artists; both appealed to the most outstanding artists of the time. The focus of the institute was decidedly avant-garde and international. See Andrea Giunta, Avant-garde, Internationalism, and Politics: Argentine Art in the Sixties, trans. Peter Kahn (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

Argentine artists were particularly aware of the importance of the mass media in the formation of cultural and social life. In 1966 the theorist Oscar Masotta gave a course on that topic at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella that yielded emblematic works like Simultaneidad en simultaneidad (Simultaneity in simultaneity), by Marta Minujín, and the manifesto "Un arte de los medios de comunicación," written by Eduardo Costa, Raúl Escari, and Roberto Jacoby. See Oscar Masotta et al., Happenings (Buenos Aires: Jorge Álvarez, 1967).

Catalina Trebisacce, "Una segunda lectura sobre las feministas de los '70 en la Argentina," Conflicto social (Buenos Aires) 3 (December 2010): 26–52.

In lunfardo, a form of slang associated with Buenos Aires, revolcarse means to make love.

In works such as Simultaneidad en simultaneidad (Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, 1966), Circuito (Circuit) (Expo '67, Canada, 1967), and Minuphone (Howard Wise Gallery, New York, 1967).