Be’er Sheva, Israel

View of “Jannis Kounellis,” 2016–17. Photo: Manolis Baboussis.

View of “Jannis Kounellis,” 2016–17. Photo: Manolis Baboussis.

Jannis Kounellis

Negev Museum of Art

View of “Jannis Kounellis,” 2016–17. Photo: Manolis Baboussis.

Be’er Sheva, although Israel’s fourth-largest city, stands relatively neglected at the edge of the Negev, in the nation’s so-called periphery. Jannis Kounellis arrived in Be’er Sheva with, in his own phrase, his hands in his pockets—that is to say, without a project. One can well understand why Kounellis would be lured by the desert, for he was one of the leading figures of Arte Povera, once described by the critic Germano Celant as “a nomadism of action.”

Kounellis’s working materials typically vary in response to the locale he finds himself in. His concept for this exhibition is that Israel begins with the Negev. First come the desert stones, which he has placed along the museum’s interior perimeter. Next comes the rope, which, entwined around the stones, unifies the two floors of the installation. Then comes, in each room, one of Kounellis’s signature gestures: the home furniture found in a local flea market, for example the naked bed frame and the Thonet chairs, or the walled-in doorway filled with slightly smaller stones. The furniture is introduced, as always in Kounellis’s work, to substitute for absent human bodies. The desert stones are in turn anthropomorphized by their spacing, each a pace’s length from the last. Commissioned by the museum’s director, Dalia Manor, on the initiative of the Italian critic and art historian Adachiara Zevi, who curated the exhibition, this untitled installation is the first site-specific work ever mounted by the Negev Museum of Art.

In the late 1960s, Kounellis’s motifs tended to oscillate between references to the primitivism of Mediterranean shepherds’ dwellings and references to the imprisonments that followed the coup d’état of 1967 in his native Greece. Here, once again, the work must be approached through the framework of politics. The installation draws attention to its architectural container, a building constructed by the Ottomans in 1906 to serve as the governor’s mansion, in a modern city built by them from the ground up. The museum has a twin: the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures, lodged in a mosque of the same date, on the other side of the plaza. Running through this installation is the double theme of encampment and displacement. The leitmotif of the installation is rope entwined around desert stones, which is how Bedouins secure their tents in the desert. Kounellis’s romance with the desert can only have faded as he drove in search of stones through the impoverished townships built for the Bedouins, a result of forced “sedentarization” that accelerated after the founding of the Israeli state. Wistful and morbid scenarios alternate across the two floors. The twelve Thonet chairs arranged in a circle in the middle of the main room, each with a stone placed upon it, evoke a sense of community. So do the stones outlining the perimeter of that room like a string of rosary beads. This scenario is upended by the bed frame placed along the wall of the adjacent room, with stones gathered upon it like the effigy of a missing corpse. The same tension between pent-up violence and harmonious calibration of objects in space is found in the single large room on the ground floor. In the middle, an armoire is placed, like a coffin, on a bed of stones. Here the rope no longer makes it all the way around the perimeter. It starts as a coil, which can be read either as a desert well or a noose; continues through a number of loops hanging high on a series of large nails; and finally drops to terminate unceremoniously under another stone. This scenario is dramatic, Beckettesque: For what, indeed, does one do when at the end of one’s rope?

Romy Golan