In Friedrichsplatz park in Kassel, Germany, the square has been a host to history—one smeared with blood and incinerated by fire.
In the center of the square, great plumes of black smoke once rose from fires that burned bright and hot, devouring white-winged books that were used as fuel. Nazi soldiers once stood at attention around the square, watching thousands of books be reduced to cinders. From Albert Einstein to Ernest Hemingway, these books would have been but kindling.
74-year-old Argentine artist Marta Minujín has known a history similar to this one. In her country, a military dictatorship ruled over the people with an iron fist and without remorse.
“Many people in Argentina, they didn’t even know what the word democracy was because the military was killing everybody, and making terrible things,” Minujín told The Economist. “Many, many books were burned.”
But for Minujín, burning books is about more than spilled ink.
“Books are the maker of culture,” she said. “The people learn to think through books.”
Therefore, when her newest art installation was erected in Friedrichsplatz, the very deathbed of literature in Germany, she wanted to make a statement. Entitled “The Parthenon of Books,” it is an installation part of documenta 14, a world-renowned international exhibition of contemporary art. This work is a full-scale replica of the Parthenon itself, but with a surprising twist.
The Parthenon is a monument steeped in history. Dedicated originally as a temple to the goddess Athena in ancient Athens, Greece, it also was significant as a pinnacle of Athenian democracy, which Minujín calls a symbol of “the aesthetic and political ideals of the world’s first democracy” in a released statement.
The democratic principles fortified here became the foundation of western civilization and politics. Minujín juxtaposed the meaning behind this monument with the history of the square and, most interestingly, her building materials: 100,000 banned books.
Sheaths of banned literature wrap around the steel skeletal structure of the “Parthenon of Books.” They were donated from individuals all around the world. Covers ranging from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are tucked behind individual bags of protective plastic. The product looks like organized chaos: random, colorful books line the installation, forming a mosaic of sorts.
These books have been the subject of controversy around the world, but Minujín doesn’t believe that justifies censorship.
“Nobody has the right to forbid books, because you forbid ideas,” she told the Guggenheim Museum. “Democracy without books will not be democracy.”
After the exhibition is over, the books will be taken down. At the base of the monument, all passersby are welcome to pick one up to read for themselves. In this final act, art becomes more tangible—more realized. The diffusion of knowledge and culture binds the world a little closer together.
As Minujín said, “There’s this sense of ideas, of freedom, that must be a universal language, so we can understand each other.”
The exhibition runs through September 17.