Jannis Kounellis

Jean Bernier Gallery

In this gallery on Mount Lycavettos, one of the few galleries for contemporary art in Greece, Jannis Kounellis installed a massive L-shaped stone wall, 9 by 60 by 18 feet, that reached from floor to ceiling and incorporated into its shorter limb the upright beam of a large wooden crucifix. The stones, rough and irregular in shape, were quarried in the neighborhood of Marathon, near Athens. About one third of them had been partially dipped in black paint, then randomly incorporated in the building process so that in some cases the black part of the stone showed and in others it did not. On the gallery wall opposite the long limb of the L was a painted black square.

This massive construction, startling in its clean yet rugged presence, had many levels of reference, some of which seemed specific to its Greek setting. It related in a physical sense to peasant masonry seen in the Greek countryside, where in fact the windows and doorways of unoccupied buildings are sometimes filled with stones, as in earlier works by Kounellis. Metaphorically, it spoke of the isolation of Greece from both Europe and Asia, its nonparticipation in international culture, as did the black square, with its simultaneous evocations of Kasimir Malevich’s Modernist emblem and the blocked vision of an isolated culture.

In terms of the artist’s thinking, this work related to the theme of history, cultural change, and involvement in historical process. Two levels of cultural history were compacted together with the fitting of an ancient type of handcrafted wall within the sharp white space of a modern building. For Kounellis, architecture has to do with the scale or measure of humanity; it is a cultural unit of measure that changes from age to age as ideas of humanity and selfhood change. In this installation, architectural units of the past and the present interpenetrated each other; caught in their embrace, the crucifix—a negative measure of humanity—suggested the sacred duty of accepting history and working within it. This subject has a certain urgency in Greece, which has long subsisted as if outside history, as if it had fallen into a kind of blank space between the past and the present. Kounellis embodied that situation powerfully here in the largest stone construction he has done to date. But this installation was more than the embodiment of a cultural predicament. Kounellis’ wall, a symbol of enclosure, also suggested an opening, bringing contemporary European art into modern Greece and pointing hopefully toward a moment, perhaps very near, when Greece will more fully participate in the international art discourse.

Thomas McEvilley