PRINT January 1995


LAST SEPTEMBER THE CARGO SHIP Ionion, with Jannis Kounellis on board and a summa of his work in the hold, docked at Piraeus, the Athenian port where Homer’s words still echo in memory: “Great man, many faceted genius . . . he went wandering, drifting, little by little crossing the high seas, and he saw cities and met many, many types of people.” Awash in that Mediterranean light immortalized, in other navigable waters, by Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre,” Kounellis’ boat appeared like a phantom, establishing a new sanctuary along that already golden shore. In fact that mute, floating architecture was a dense image of time and form, having arrived precisely at the point marked by the Piraeus town hall clocktower, which no longer exists but still marks the hours in the artist’s heart. The tower, too, is a phantom, invisible to the hurried passerby, but not to the artist who, in his youth, departed from this very port for Italy.

Kounellis steered the boat precisely to that point on the quay from which one could enter the vessel through the door carved into its side and descend an iron staircase into the slightly rocking cavity. On the lowest level of this secular crypt, Kounellis had gathered together the remains of over thirty years of his pictorial navigation. In an echo of the ship’s mast, he erected his own axis mundi, a column with spiral volutes, on which a small toy train paused, mid ascent. This work was conceived as a unique vertical thrust of the entire longitudinal nave of the boat, which the artist rewrote in his own spatial idiom.

Kounellis’ volumetric articulations in this “crypt”—like women’s galleries, niches, apses, transepts—claimed membership in a single, metaphysical, architectonic organism. It is fair to say that this floating space became “sacred” to art. Conceived like Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel in Florence, or like Monet’s Nymphéas room in the Orangerie in Paris, or like the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Kounellis’ boat is destined to become an emblem of his identity. The juxtaposition of works seemed as deliberate as if they had been placed by a medieval artist within the spatial scansions of a crypt. Witness the plastic dialogue between Senza Titolo (Carboniera) (Untitled [coal container], 1967), placed atop a vast shelf, and the sheet-metal piece from 1988 (composed of wool in a sack, lead, and an iron square and cross ties) that was raised up alongside it. Opposite these works, distributed around the ribwork of the poop deck, two pieces established an equally striking spatial relationship: Senza Titolo (Cotoniera) (Untitled [cotton container], 1967) stood above a Malevichian “black square”—a kind of deep-toned philosophical credo-painted on the rough surface of the bulkhead. But the variety of always intense and significant relationships that structured the entire vessel was also based on works like Margherita di fuoco (Flaming Margherita, 1967); the 1988 Senza titolo of iron sheeting, sacks of grain, iron cross-ties, and one work from the series “Hommage à Van Gogh” (Homage to Van Gogh, 1991); and the Senza titolo of 1969 with a bed and a roll of lead, in which one could discern Kounellis’ relationship both to a European art history—from Kasirnir Malevich to Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana, from Van Gogh to Picasso—and to the open spatiality of Jackson Pollock. Here, Kounellis proudly affirms his place as heir to the historical and poetic lineage not only of art but of all the values that lie within the memory of popular consciousness.

The Ionian underlines the ineluctable continuity of artistic action, its inexorable linguistic work as a metaphor for a voyage that makes existence and dreams coincide; the awareness of the responsibility that comes with ethical and semiotic transport; and the assertion of an irreducible and ideal centrality that turns the artist into a protagonist of history and culture. Kounellis is a diverse and anarchic figure who, even when subversive in his gesture, suggests a new order, the basis of which lies in the transmission of the renewed data of tradition. With his boat, Kounellis also lays claim to the possibility of the spatial transformation of his own work, which is opposed to any kind of archival rigidity. To achieve this goal, Kounellis tightly welded the works to the iron walls of the boat, redesigning them and establishing new plastic relationships. They became organic to the hull, almost as if they faced the same destiny as the boat.

The Ionion made it possible to review the fragmentary succession of much of the process of formalization in Kounellis’ work, from Apollo, 1973, to Albatros (Albatross, 1991) in “Metropolis,” to, finally, one of the most significant episodes of fragmentation in the artist’s oeuvre: his great Senza titolo of 1988, seen in 1993 in dismembered form in the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, where Kounellis was able to generate one work from another. What was once extremely split and fragmented is momentarily reunited here. The work is a recomposition of Kounellis’ own mobile wholeness, just as the prisoner, in extremis, resorts to knotting together bedding, shirts, and every rag in the cell to escape the art system and social conventions. But alongside the ideological and project-related issues this “ship temple” raises (different from those suggested by the work of Maria Nordman or liya Kabakov) lies a definition of space as the interaction between works; the use of the cavity as a theatrical value; and the necessity continually to conjugate the new spatiality Kounellis discovered with the “exit” of the framed work and with Cavalli (Horses, 1969), and also with the small shelves holding coffee grounds (1969), and the tubular bed frame with five bonfires (1969). Kounellis’ language is a linear one capable of conjoining past and present, of interpreting the world, of voyaging.

The boat as the return to the sea of Homo erectus, who gazes at the stars.

And now I understand why Kounellis said on the island of Hydra: “The boat is not a joke! I will need to prepare it and leave.”

Bruno Corà is a critic who lives in Rome.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.