Jannis Kounellis

Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea

Monumental yet intimate, this new installation by Jannis Kounellis was a gigantic labyrinth of 143 vertical iron panels, each about eight feet tall, surmounted by a layer of coal. The work invaded the two vast entry halls of the Galleria Nazionale, almost completely obscuring the architectural space, but was illuminated by natural light from above, which was reflected by the comers of the iron sheets and modulated into infinite shades of gray. The work never touched the surrounding walls, maintaining an existence independent of its environment.

There was a single entrance and exit from the labyrinth, but no center to be reached, no goal—just a sequence of corridors, right and acute angles, and culs-de-sac. After becoming repeatedly lost, one could only retrace one's steps. The apparent linearity of the structure—sometimes broken by oblique side panels that promised potential ways out, always negated—was transfigured into a circularity that expanded one's spatial experience. In the ambivalence of choosing between possible paths, in the uncertainty as to whether one was coming or going, spectators experienced what the ancient Greek hero must have felt as he wandered lost in the labyrinth-anxiety, loss, and frustration, but also the sense of surprise at unforeseen discoveries.

Among these discoveries were spaces of respite, small chambers or corridors as narrow as niches, which contained traces of earlier works by Kounellis: heaps of coal; coal-stained burlap bags sewn together to form a sort of cloth; an iron cot with two blankets thrown on top; bags full of coal resting on large shelves, in turn suspended from iron butcher's hooks; small shelves holding coffee grounds. These weren't quotations of particular pieces but suggestions, scraps of recollections, flashes of memories. Kounellis neither recounts his past nor proposes innovations. He offers the visitor signs of his own memory, revealing a present that is dense, palpitating, and made up of both dead matter and living emotions. If he alludes to a sort of silent restaging of classical myth, he does so in such a way that the drama that unfolds within the walls of the labyrinth is always new and unrepeatable. The very title, Atto unico (One-act play), 2002, indicates both the work's theatricality and the uniqueness of the individual's quest.

A further discovery awaited those who walked around the labyrinth's exterior perimeter, through the narrow and far-from-inviting space between the labyrinth's iron walls and the tall gray walls of the museum. Circumambulating the piece clockwise, as in rituals prescribed for sacred sites, one passed a sequence of blind and inaccessible walls. Then, suddenly, from the east wall of the labyrinth, there emerged like a theatrical curtain the other edge of the cloth made from sewn burlap bags. This was a masterful baroque touch, one that made the whole structure reverberate on a higher note. The entire wall seemed to expand like an outsize theater backdrop to contain this overflowing, passionate, operatic sign: marking not only Kounellis's ever lively interest in tragedy and opera, but also his affirmation, once again, of the circularity of the work of art. It is the pivotal indication of the radical rupture of linear time within the work. Instead, time expands, contracts, or fragments, only to solidify once again, unfailingly, in the present moment.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore