PRINT February 1987


SINCE SEEING HIS RECENT RETROSPECTIVE at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago I’ve been inclined to think of Jannis Kounellis as chief successor to the late Joseph Beuys in the line of “alchemic” artists. Many people have been making reference to alchemy lately; last summer’s Venice Biennale, for example, included not only Sigmar Polke’s alchemic work in the West German Pavilion, but a large section on art and alchemy organized by Arturo Schwarz, who must be considered a forerunner to the current wave of interest, since he began decoding alchemic allusions in Marcel Duchamp’s work twenty years ago. Is the current talk of alchemy another critical default before the nostalgia and multiformity of artistic “pluralism”? Are critical analogies between various works of art and the symbolic correspondences traditional in alchemy anything but a search for a loophole in the prevailing historical materialist analysis of culture? I think it is too soon to say. In speaking of Kounellis’ art as alchemic, I mean only that its play of substances, metaphors, and associations hints at the same sort of liberating promise that alchemy offered to some of our ancestors, who suffered postlapsarian time—existence after the fall from grace—as we suffer history.

The goal of the ancient practice of alchemy is liberation from the laws, hierarchies, and dualities of mundane reality. The emblematic alchemic operation is the transmutation of base metals into gold, which is conceived as the perfect state toward which they tend in the supreme order of things. And Kounellis, like several other arte povera artists including Giuseppe Penone and Gilberto Zorio, tries to instigate ways of thinking that transcend the materialist hostility to metaphor, the oppressive dominance of empirical thought that determines our experience of the awful inertia and trajectory of history.

One gallery in particular at the museum imposed the sense that Kounellis thinks of relations between matter and meaning in terms of transmutability. Approaching this gallery, you could hear a continuous rushing sound which suggested river rapids. Then, as you entered, you felt a blast of dry heat. Along three walls of the rectangular space Kounellis had hung abutting plates of unpainted steel. Across the steel panels ran slender lengths of copper tubing, like long flower stems. And at the end of each tube a gas jet burned continuously with a bright blue, softly roaring flame. There were 34 gas jets among the three sets of steel panels and one more in a separate piece nearby. These pieces sustained a physical intensity that made the histrionics of expressionistic art seem futile and yet was as impersonal and also homely as a kitchen stove. With their heat and propellant rasp, the jets gave a sense of powering the whole show, and of cooking raw materials into comestible meaning.

Kounellis’ work, with its elemental qualities, and its recurring implications of a vast industrial infrastructure, embodies the idea that today we cannot really be sure about what makes something count for us as “art,” and must, in consequence, ponder a shower of possibilities. Neither the esthetics of forms and materials nor the history of artistic conventions, neither ideological analysis nor psychoanalytic nomenclature, definitively illuminates something as “art.” The idea goes beyond the notion that the sources of art and of its convincingness are unconscious, other than rational, although I think Kounellis would agree that they are. His intuition, I believe, is that the powers shaping the contemporary world are more profoundly and sinisterly obscure in the ways they determine what we take for subjective experience than are the repressed facts of our own individual histories.

The installations at the museum wore a conceptual air. The show collected several of Kounellis’ familiar arrays of steel shelves; in one room they were piled with shards of wood and of shattered sculpture casts, in another each shelf hung beneath a tongue of soot deposited on the wall, presumably by a naked flame. The soot marks read as symbols of absence, or perhaps of pain, like scars that outlast the memory of their causes. In the museum’s long narrow mezzanine Kounellis set three wall pieces made of steel, wood, unspun wool, and lead. This segment of the show was a high point both of physical beauty and of intellectual enigma. In this ancillary space it was possible to be alone with the work, although lingering there meant feeling isolated in your own subjectivity, the art being so compelling yet so difficult to speak about.

The fact that Kounellis’ art objectifies anxiety about the import and value of subjectivity is one of its strongest claims to our interest. We are familiar with this anxiety as a response to the flood of information that swamps us in everyday life, in which we see just how negotiable are objectivity and subjectivity. Does any of the information we take in from distant and dubious sources count as “knowledge”? What value remains to subjectivity if information of the world means nothing other than that provided by the media? How do we orient ourselves in a world in which all information appears already to be institutionalized, owned, codified, and distanced from every individual’s life? Kounellis’ suggestion is that we learn to see substances, objects, and symbols as mutually transmutable, as a play of fragments whose chance configurations generate knowledge not of the world, but of possible patterns knowledge may form when observations, memories, conventions, symbols, and spontaneous associations are combined and recombined freely. Some patterns may conform to those of official or of pragmatic knowledge, others may be purely “poetic,” nonsensical, “crazy.”

To the end of diverting attention from facts to possibilities, Kounellis’ art promotes disregard for contradictions of logic, of esthetic precepts, and of history. Many of the pieces in his retrospective were amply contradictory: they were both objects and installations, mere raw material and finished work, things to be contemplated and devices to undermine the viewer’s confidence in distinguishing the artist’s activity from the institution’s. “Since the war,” Kounellis has said (meaning World War II), “we have only contradictions.” The medieval alchemist’s operations accorded with a play of symbolic correspondences—between the chemical and celestial, the occult and the empirical—which to the modern way of thinking, with its emphasis on verifiability, is invalid because it overleaps contradictions. The alchemic aim of Kounellis’ work, as I understand it, is the smelting of contradictions to yield a single value: mobility. Such mobility means the freedom to move between the conflicting vantage points implied by a contradiction, the mobility Nietzsche apparently had in mind when he defined “truth” as a “mobile army of metaphors.” It is the freedom to see various possible constructions of reality while identifying with none in particular. This freedom of movement is an essential skill in the contemporary world.

The materials and operations Kounellis uses have an ancestry in European postwar art history—in the work of Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Alberto Bum, and Beuys—but their mundane qualities still strike us first. Sheet steel and lead, scrap wood, burlap, and soot become art materials only with complicity on our part. When Kounellis piles up scraps of wood on narrow steel shelves, or loops a long pigtail of hair through two holes in a panel of steel, you feel the work’s dependence on your capacity to resolve it, or rather to solve it, like an abstruse equation whose meaning is expressible only in other nonverbal symbols. The question of why Kounellis makes sculpture in the ways he does gradually turns into the question of what you could mean by accepting his constructions as art. What vantage point do you occupy when you see Kounellis’ inventions as convincing? That question is the twist Kounellis gives to the traditional issue of meaningful sculptural “views.”

Exemplifying these ideas in the Chicago retrospective were the satellite installations Kounellis did in derelict buildings in downtown Chicago. (Four installations were completed, but the museum could get the city’s permission to open only three of them to the public.) To reach the Erie Street installation you had to walk through a shambles of an office into a factory space and be taken by freight elevator to the top floor. There, in a wide space lit only by daylight filtered through grimy windows, you could see that a disk of metal appeared to slice at above waist level all 42 of the heavy wood beams supporting the ceiling. Around each of the circular disks chugged a tiny electric train with a single switch (activated by an attendant as you entered). Did Kounellis intend the piece to refer to the opening of the American West by railroad? Did he mean us to see in the work a vision of “progress” as a matter of going in circles without knowing it? (The room with the gas jets at the museum included a spiral of steel around its single ceiling column, with a little engine on a snatch of track.) I could not help but think of Niels Bohr’s first model of the atom, with its electrons running in neat circular orbits, an image as embedded in my memory of childhood as electric trains are. As elusive in meaning as it was materially specific, it was a gripping installation (to the point where it overshadowed a second, more conceptual work in an adjacent room), while the West Jackson Street piece was subtler and more grim: a factory corner whose many-paned windows were lined with sheets of lead. Like some futuristic defense against cosmic rays, it suggested a lead-lined world in which weight and darkness would have to replace lightness and light for survival’s sake.

At 401 West Ontario Street, the installation was on the first floor, although you had to explore the space to find it. True to the gist of Germano Celant’s term arte povera, Kounellis’ work in the museum left you uncertain whether you would be able to spot his piece in a situation as esthetically gritty and rich as an abandoned warehouse. But once you rounded the right corner, there was no question you were in the work’s presence, though its bounds remained to be specified. The installation’s physical elements were so integrated into the site as to leave you uncertain just what the work’s limits were. You could see easily where it began, so to speak, but not where it ended.

Kounellis had covered 30-odd feet of a long wall with gold leaf, from the floor up to the third tier of panes in the high transoms above two pairs of double doors. A slat with coat hooks was nailed across one pair of doors, a casual reconstruction of Duchamp’s 1917 readymade Trébuchet (trap). Reminiscent of Beuys, a felt coat and hat hung from it. Immediately to the right of the gilded area was an H-shaped structure of steel I-beams with hundreds of folded burlap bags pressed beneath its crossbar. The juxtaposition of burlap and gold in the context of a factory building brought to mind the oppositions of labor and capital, of wages and surplus value, and of history and utopia. But those associations did not exhaust the fascination of the piece, which, like many others in the show, has existed in different permutations over the years.

The gilding of the wall seemed to relate to the gilding of frames. (As luck would have it, the Art Institute of Chicago was having a concurrent show of European frames made between 1300 and 1900, including plenty of gilded ones.) The gilding of a frame expresses the collector’s pride in possession of an artwork and the value of the object itself. By gilding a wall in a site of urban decay, Kounellis brought the issue of the frame down to ground level. To accept his activity as art, you had to embrace its derelict site. You had to ask yourself whether you were simply being seduced by the radiance of gold. To distance the seduction, you had to turn the gold to metaphor, a metaphor for the possibility of seeing the physical world—even as determined by history— not as valuable, but as capable of being loved. To do that required the alembic attitude toward historical materialism that Kounellis practices in his work, a revaluing of contradictions to neutralize their paralyzing effect on one’s consciousness.

Kenneth Baker is a contributing editor of Artforum and art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.