Jannis Kounellis

Whitechapel Art Gallery

Jannis Kounellis’ installation is an inspired use of this space as a total signifying structure. None of the works is new; but by a judicious choice of those whose common motif is primarily fire, and through a sensitive use of every dimension of the space, the artist has evoked a place of ritual appropriate to both the sense of the work and the gallery’s cool, pillared interior. The centerpiece in the lower gallery is an assembly of lighted butane-gas burners whose long tubes snake across the floor, drawing the viewer into a space pervaded by sound and odorous fumes. Other works are placed at different viewing levels: high on the walls like temple sculptures, or in corners like hero shrines. The most obvious votive piece is a black board inscribed “Viva Marat Viva Robespierre,” before which is placed a lighted candle. This is paired with a pile of stone slabs from which a sooty trace sears up the wall and over an artists’ palette. Stone slabs are used again to wall up the interior of a cupboard/confessional. The disturbing quality of this work is echoed in Kounellis’ reconstructed chimneyed oven, with its ash and sooty remains, and in the Apollo Notturno, which occupies the upstairs space.

Kounellis’ primary reference point is Classical Mediterranean culture, the root of Western civilization, whose myths are a celebration of patriarchal strength. Yet in these works the phallocentric order seems suspended in a state of unease: the roaring energy of the gas burners is dissipated into empty space; the row of shelves bearing sculptural fragments are capitals devoid of columns; the fire in the oven has burned out; the redundant palette is a memorial. Time has wrought transformations on our world, leaving the residues (soot, ashes, odors) of spent passion and extinguished ambition. The vertical, phallic vigor of the flame is ceded to images with the ambiguous aspect of the androgyne: the oven/ chimney, the columnless capitals, the snake-burners, and above all, the Apollo Notturno. In this work cast fragments of a male classical sculpture litter a table top, in the center of which is a mask. To this is attached a vast wig of black female hair whose form, stretching voluptuously across the wall, suggests a reclining woman or billowing smoke (symbol of the feminine aspect of fire in alchemy). Apollo Notturno, night sun, is a chimera: a narcissistic, bisexual god who incorporates his obverse, Artemis the virgin, the moon, the darkly mysterious.

Of particular relevance in this installation is the way that Kounellis uses the symbol of fire, in all its manifestations, to create a sense of the mythic. Within the context of the current resurgence of “mythic” content in painting, this aspect of his work has special critical significance. Structuralist and psychoanalytical studies, in revealing its roots in ritual and its identity as language, have clarified myth as a conceptual model of how the individual creates social relationships. If myth is defined by its function in society rather than by its formal structure, we see that its vitality lies not within narrative per se, but in what it embodies as a situation of profound psychic significance whose needs are satisfied by the repetition of its rituals. Classical mythology is the domain of the sexual. As symbolized in Apollo Notturno, it testifies to patriarchy’s absorption of femaleness into its phallocentric meanings. By its own reference to myth, feminism has sought to recuperate that femaleness. The way the language of myth is used is therefore revealing of where the individual now places him- or herself within the politics of socio-sexual exchange. From this perspective we may begin to distinguish art practices according to the ideological positions they assume.

If we take as an example of the traditional, anecdotal use of myth the work of the English painter Christopher Lebrun, we find that his Xanthus confronts us with the image of a rearing winged horse, implying a narrative whose meaning owes as much to the exclusively male and Romantic mystique of the Artist as that of mythology depends on the Hero. This is a specular image, an object primarily to be “looked at,” whose traditional pictorial boundaries effect a closure from our world, and whose descriptive codes address us with all the authority of an omnipotent Other. This illusion of “wholeness” reinforces that imaginary aspect of myth that seeks to dissolve contradictions between the self and society, and denies us an active relationship to the work.

By contrast, Kounellis’ work, like that of Joseph Beuys, engages us in ritual. In many respects the two reflect the traditional duality of the European sensibility: the former Southern, pragmatic and logical; the latter Northern, enigmatic and arcane. Common to both, however, is a sculptural form whose language is constructed from a familiar vernacular of objects and materials which involve the viewer in immediate and sensual experience but which, in the incongruousness of its juxtapositions, provokes unexpected meanings. In our effort to create a unified meaning from the work’s disjunctive elements we become participants in a ritualistic act. In Kounellis’ installation all our senses as well as body movements are activated. The real time of our journey through the work is paralleled by a temporal passage symbolized by the transition of flame to ashes, and the classical fragments which unite memory of the past with our perception of the present. The meaning of the work, through its broad cultural visual and verbal associations, spills outside the boundaries of the gallery. In drawing us into a nexus of atavistic and psychic metaphors it engages us in symbolic discourse. Thus, Kounellis’ installation, while it is neither a subversion nor an affirmation of patriarchal order, at least with considerable eloquence reveals its contradictions and current, brooding anxieties.

Jean Fisher