Jannis Kounellis

PAC / Galleria Stein

Telling one’s own story doesn’t simply mean showing what has happened, but creating, first of all for oneself, a relationship between the past and the present. This act gives rise to communication between the various places of a person’s development. In these two shows, Jannis Kounellis condensed his artistic evolution and presented the viewer with both his own story and a sense of continuity with the birth of a new vision. This is not a new way of working for Kounellis, but is, in fact, the basis of his artistic process. What emerged from the shows was the necessity to give shape to the ontological vision of the artist’s true place of origin. This must respond to the search for artistic integrity and it must serve as a dialectic with the world. Origins may determine us, but they do not enclose us and restrict us.

The interaction between biological birth and artistic birth is a fact of Kounellis’ creative experience. He is Italian because he emerged as an artist in Italy. For him, then, the choice of an adoptive nationality doesn’t respond to a bureaucratic necessity, but becomes a symbol of the search for his own ontological origins. When he tells his story as a creator, this fact ends up as the key for entering the dialectic between self and the world, the dialectic with which the work of art always confronts us.

At PAC, Kounellis created a participatory stage space, where each visitor could trace his or her own path of belonging. Harmoniously, but not necessarily continously, he exhibited his creative life, suggesting the constant relationship of birth that each work sustains with respect to another. And in so doing, he accentuated the dialectic that is established between one’s past and one’s present. The harmony set up by Kounellis tended toward the emotionality of seeing, toward the perennial movement of sensibility. This vibration allowed us to recognize a change, even in that which we already know, and informed us of a passage to which we ought to yield. Nowadays particularly, we are not always comforted by a disruptive vision of the new; often change is tied to a more “secret” interpretation. Kounellis, who has often offered the disruptive image of a turning point, now focuses on a change that requires pause, harmony, reflection.

Thus, among the many historical works that punctuated his narration of his long development, the room that contained a pairing of two modalities of “writing” set the tone for the exhibition. On the floor was a 1988 installation of about a thousand glasses full of grappa, upon which rested lead silhouettes of faces, mysterious characters looking at this transparent olfactory scene. The idea of an animated text, calling upon all our senses, was determined by the relationship between the shape of the faces and the regular arrangement of the glasses of grappa. The piece was intoxicating, as when a literary text makes us feel the passage of time, and the physical presence of an emotion condensed in a character. And this “writing” reawakened the senses, and gave notice that there can be no reading without participation, without the risk of being infected by a certain intoxication.

The idea of writing emerged also in the large sequence of iron pieces inlaid with individual pieces of coal, attached to each other by wire. The coals are arranged in an alternating rhythm of pauses and spaces typical of a written page. Their long and enigmatic tale evokes the mystery of writing, the enormous discovery of the passage from sign-symbol to alphabet and number. And while we see this idea with our eyes and our minds, we think back to Kounellis’ early work from the ’60s, to his works on paper stamped with large numbers and letters, made alarming by masses of arrows that almost seem to urge the symbols to move beyond the edges of the piece. These early works, which were also in the PAC exhibition, correspond to Kounellis’ moment of birth as an artist. Yet the gathering of work in a single show was not perceived as information, but as the revelation of a moment when one idea touches another. This process creates continuity. And the message is that today, in order to reestablish a relationship with history, it is necessary to enter into emotional and physical harmony with writing: to search behind the written character.

Likewise, at the Galleria Stein, the key image dealt with the interaction between one work and the other. The space was measured off by pillars of rough wood, which supported pieces of furniture, held in tension between floor and ceiling. The space of enactment was thus shifted to the sky. The interstice between ceiling and furniture held signature images of Kounellis’ work, such as sacks of coal, stones, blankets, and fragments of wood planks. They brought to mind other works, other compositions, and the sky that they touched was the sky that overhangs the construction of the ontological site, where creative tension and desire take shape. These two shows expressed the inexorable dialectic between birth and creation: here, a space opens up between sky and earth, where Kounellis’ work concludes its voyage.

Francesca Pasini

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.