How can we preserve the life - the-poetic strength - of art, in a world where the obsessive, exhausting repetition of signs and representations has ended up wresting from it all its power of immediacy, its capacity to amaze?
The entire career of Jannis Kounellis has been a persistent attempt to answer this question. An attempt in which the memory of civilization, the treasured remembrance of classical Mediterranean culture, is projected into the ark of Utopia.
In the artist's radical, poetical and political commitment, in an era characterised by conformity and resignation.
The artistic impetus is located in a set of unobvious presences. In a world where representation is redundant, Kounellis activates tracks: trails, signs, indications... of highly significant but non-obvious dimensions. Instead of explicit representation, a hint of the inevitable passing of things. Change, metamorphosis, disappearance.
How can we rekindle the extinguished spirit of our time? Kounellis' question delves into origins: today, artistic materials, in their radicalism, have to reach far beyond traditional artistic genres.
How can we paint a picture, give form to a statue, in a world where plastic language has irremissibly lost its expressive stability?
The artist becomes a tracker, an archaeologist of the vital experience of a civilization which nowadays seems to have fallen into the ashes of oblivion.
Along this trail, the first search is for materials. Here a whole range of echoes of the primordial aesthetic axis is located in Jannis Kounellis' work: the nature/culture contrast.
The world we live in has not only made the traditional language of art inviable and non-operative, but it has also colonised the natural so exhaustively that it has made it disappear almost completely. Or, at best, it keeps it in confined areas.
This is a process that goes back to the beginnings of modernity, a process which had already been considered, aesthetically speaking, by Friedrich Schiller, during the transition period between Enlightenment and Romanticism.
In his essay Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (1794-1795), Schiller wrote: "Today nature has disappeared from our sense of humanity, and only outside nature, in the realm of the inert, can we rediscover nature in all its purity."
Once nature has been lost, there is no direct return route; instead, we must take a roundabout way back through culture. And this is what reveals the difference between the Ancients (the Greeks) and the moderns: "They felt naturally; we feel the natural."
Hence the yearning, the deep melancholy that anything "natural" awakes in us. Its signs and images become the main points of reference for poets and artists. With these poets and artists, through their works, in which the most vital aspects of human culture are considered, man is able to return to nature.
Nevertheless, I feel that in order to fully understand the echoes of "the natural" in Jannis Kounellis' work, one needs to bring to this romantic melancholy the project of political and revolutionary emancipation which had its beginnings with Karl Marx.
I am referring in particular to the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 0f 1844 in which Marx underlines how, through modern technology, through industry, nature has entered human life in a practical manner, deeply transforming it and preparing the way for emancipation.
Consequently, according to Marx, "industry is the real historical relation of nature (and, therefore, of natural science) to man." It is this that allows the possibility of a future unification of natural science with the science of man. Since, ultimately, "history itself is a real part of natural history, of the conversion of nature in man."
With Kounellis, the natural does not appear as an ideal register but one subject to man's manipulation. The pieces of flesh leave bloodstains on the iron panels: nature, destined to serve as man's nourishment, is industrially "digested" by culture.
Kounellis contrasts "natural" organic or inorganic materials with artificial ones. And thus, instead of line and color, marble or bronze, he works with given elements (natural ones) and others which are already made (artificial ones).
The female body, horses, rats, crows, beetles, a parrot: a wide variety of living things. But also animal flesh, wood, leaves, stones, and smoke. And together with these: iron, wax, lead, plaster, tar, coal, candles, gas cylinders, lamps, flaming arrows, sewing machines, wool, sacks, shelves, shoes, overcoats, cupboards, arches, panels, windows and doors.
This rough list of recurring elements allows us to illuminate a whole play of meanings: the continuous, enveloping reference, in a long series of works and proposals, is the absent presence of the human being.
The "trace" of man, the trail of his life on earth, the mark he leaves on everything he handles, makes or uses. Elements to live: eating, sheltering, inhabiting, communicating, travelling... The arrangement of elements is not, however, a mere taxonomical register.
Kounellis' archaeological endeavor displays, at the same time, a significant dramatic, scenic, turn. It is not surprising, therefore, to find a text by Kounellis, a real poetics of theatre, which dates back to 1968 - a year that was ever so important in the West due to
the appearance of a new horizon for the political.
It is an essay which revolves around the categories of "the living" and "the true" and in which - with echoes reminiscent of Antonin Artaud - he talks of "the natural" and of "the living as theatrical authenticity."
Kounellis writes: "One can and must recommence from one's own body, as much as in what refers to the actor as to the spectator (on the stage as in life)." ("Thoughts and Observations", 1968).
In Kounellis' works, the arrangement of the elements is stage-oriented: here the trace of the absent body rests. Thus the implication of the spectator is initiated, arising from his corporeal and perceptive immersion where not only the visual operates but also the five
basic senses. Sound, smell and touch play a part in his work that is as important as the forms which act as their means of expression.
On a secondary level, the senses awaken associations and memories. And then the leap of the poetic sense is set in motion. The spectator's biography is thus fused with the artist's and, through this poetic sense, with the history of a shared culture.
In any event, the stage arrangement does not mean that Kounellis' own body disappears. The artist is present both as actor and companion in an aesthetic game which alludes to and vindicates the ritual background of art.
A series of works in which the medium is photography, reveals that role of the creator as actor and psychopomp - a companion in the ritual.
Jannis Kounellis: on the deck of a ship sailing on the sea (1969), his lips covered with a mould of gold (1972), holding fire lit by propane in his mouth (1973), with a plaster mask, in front of a table on which fragments of plaster casts and a stuffed crow are arranged (1973), in a collage in which half of his face is joined to a pile of stones painted
fragmentarily (1985), his bare foot resting on an old sewing machine (1989), holding in his lips an iron plate with a lighted candle (1989), or in the poster in which his arm holds a lamp before an image of a boat being loaded and unloaded (1989).
There are some very important aspects in that series of images of the artist. In the first place, the use of photography, which reinforces the emphatic character of showing himself. His absence from most of the pieces has a counterweight here in the explicit presence of the man who created them.
Yet secondly, what is common in these photos is the fragmentary appearance of his body. With the exception of his distant figure on a boat (1969), what is seen in the rest of the works mentioned above is always a part or fragment of his body.
The most obvious thing about this showing of himself is that it is a metonymic presence: one part of his body is shown or highlighted. I do not think this is accidental. On the contrary, I find it very significant if we are to understand the kind of aesthetic construction Kounellis is aiming at.
We know - and psychoanalysis has stressed it - that our vision of others' bodies is always partial, fragmentary: the scopic pulsion isolates the planes of the body of the other person; planes which make up the anchorage of desire.
And we also know that the dissolution of Classicism implies the explosion of the organic work of art, its shattering into fragments. The artist reveals himself, as a sign of his surrender, offering his body in the process of the work. But the sign of that presence, in the
post-Classical era, cannot now be that complete, solid presence of Classical figures but the sign of fragmentation.
Once more the trace, the mark, although here by means of the expressive intensification of metonymy, in which one part stands for the whole. A whole which is now non-existent or inaccessible in our universe of aesthetic representations.
We can also now appreciate the methodological and expressive importance of collage in Kounellis' aesthetic ideas. In fact, the nature/culture contrast which appears regularly in his pieces is never presented as an expressive "whole" but rather as collage.
Kounellis' approach avoids a relapse into idealism, that fabrication of a unity of nature and culture based on the "spirit" or the idea. Indeed, what appears in his pieces are material parts of the world, fragments of the earth inhabited by man.
Organic and inorganic materials, heat and cold, light and dark, objects and traces, join and face each other, not like pieces of machinery but like fragments "stuck" to vision.
This view -like memory- rescues parts and motifs, selectively and accidentally, and mixes them in a register that is open and expansive.
What at first sight appears to be accidental is really vested with strong expressive meaning. A piece of wood is also the vertical part of the cross, thus alluding (in an intense polysemic register) to the materials of nature as much as to the truncated spiritual history of our civilization.
The piece of the cross, Christianity broken, is also an indication of the absence of spirituality in our world. This is an ever-present assertion in Kounellis' work, in which we continually perceive the resolute will to make it evident that the secular is one thing and the absence of spirituality another.
The iron flowers, the scales with coffee powder, the amphorae containing sea-water or blood, the gas cylinders - their tubes spread out like snakes on the floor or in the air - are not "mere" expressive paradoxes: they connect the plastic with the nutritional.
They show that man places a sign of elevation. a spiritual mark, on the simplest of material elements. Kounellis recurrently vindicates the spiritual character of human labor, something which, beyond all idealistic deception, clears the way for the understanding of the spirituality latent in the material world, on the earth we inhabit.
Fire and iron establish a nexus, a conjunction of the primordial, from which light springs - probably the decisive plastic material (which frequently goes unnoticed) in the whole of Kounellis' work.
In all his pieces, light articulates the drama tic sense of materials and fragments. Light, which springs from the depths of the earth. Which accompanies us and illuminates our way in what would otherwise be a world of darkness. Light, which from the humblest and tiniest material in the world, rests on our retina, allowing us to fly upwards, to aspire to spirituality.
By means of all this, Kounellis' works break traditional limits of expression. They belong neither to "painting" nor to "sculpture". Rather, they obtain their nourishment from both - from a memory of both - and fuse in a plastic process of drama tic and theatrical organisation of space.
The result is an "enveloping" register in which, through fragments and pieces (signs of humanity) we are able to feel and experience the great issues of our civilisation: life, change, decadence, death, disappearance...
The artist does not deceive. In Kounellis' archaeological investigation there is no room for ornament or aestheticism. In these times of oblivion and neglect, "the pretty", what is apparent and superficially "beautiful", is iniquity. A moral imposture.
Kounellis' aesthetic register is the expression of pent-up rage, of a rebellious nonconformist attitude which does not accept that the struggle for the human configuration of life, of the world, has irremissibly ended in defeat.
The deeply melancholic character of all his work is to be found in this point. Kounellis himself made this explicit when he spoke of "melancholy as a proposal" (1985).
Aesthetic fullness cannot be presented as something banally within reach, under penalty of lapsing into the concealment of oppression. Arcadia is beyond our reach and, in its proposals, art has to make this fact explicit:
"My wools, which reflect Arcadia lost to sight and outside time, may be acquired, so they tell me, with 150,000 cans of beer." ("If
the House is Square...", 1988).
And yet, even at the risk that this invocation of the Arcadian may be translated into a quantity - may be purchased - it continues to be necessary as art's commitment to the human search for happiness, for fullness.
Memory and melancholy are, therefore what set Utopia in motion. They are purges for the non-acceptance of the existing state of things. The past and the images glimpsed of a time of fullness tell us that the world is not yet finished.
The vindication of Ithaca: "Ithaca, visionary Ithaca", the homeland of Ulysses' return (but also the image of what is always beyond) is in Kounellis the assertion of the spirit of Utopia: "Thus, in the teeth of the wind, towards the harbor where harmonies and paradises take refuge, even in the knowledge that the right and desired destination is far away." ("If the House is Square...", 1988).
The sea and navigation, primordial living spaces and spaces for symbolisation of classical culture, of the ancient Mediterranean civilisations, thus discover their essential role in Kounellis' whole aesthetic universe. Life as unfixed navigation, sometimes unsteady, but full of determination, heading for islands of happiness.
Obviously, few thinkers are closer to Kounellis' aesthetic proposals than Ernst Bloch, that great thinker on Utopia. But apart from a coincidence with the main principles and formulations of Bloch's philosophy, what has caught my attention is their proximity in the use of certain expressive images and procedures central to both.
In 1930, Ernst Bloch published Spuren [Traces], an unclassifiable book of non-argumentative, non-linear prose, in which a non-ostensible, non-declarative philosophy is put forward by means of tales and fables arranged in a kind of narrative collage.
What Bloch displays is a literary unravelling of a philosophical question: Is the world of appearances itself becoming exhausted or can we find among its folds "something" which overflows?
The stories in Spuren -which have an oral, ancestral flavor, as if originating in the depths of memory - relate, through a play of presences and absences, the track, the traces of that "something" which brims over the world of appearances and forms the nucleus of human self-transcendence - the image of Utopia.
In Bloch's tales - as in Kounellis - two images possess great importance: windows (particularly red ones) and doors.
Jannis Kounellis has written: "If a window frames a landscape, the seer accentuates its meaning as long as the sight lasts." ("If the House is Square...", 1988).
The text "The Red Window" in Spuren by Bloch contains the equivalent of a sign that is fixed in adolescence, the period when the "ego" of the individual is definitively formed.
It is a mark which, although not springing from a concrete plane of experience - the home, nature, or the ego - refers to all: "Everybody keeps a sign from this period. This sign has absolutely nothing to do with the home, or nature, or with the known ego but does, if it is so desired, cover everything."
"With the window as a mask," Bloch concludes, we set out "towards freedom," The window frames the inside and outside of ourselves, but above all it marks the step to the outside, the experience of freedom. Through it, the world is presented as a territory readily available to man.
Another very dense image in Spuren is the door, which Bloch calls "the lethal original symbol of the Door," Once someone crosses the threshold, he is no longer seen. He disappears all of a sudden, as if he had died, as a train disappears round a bend.
This intense motif reveals its connection with artistic activity in the Chinese tales recalled by Bloch, in which the door leading to the work merges with the door leading to death.
In one story an old painter shows his last picture to his friends. They see a strange red color in the painting and turn towards the artist but he is no longer there with them. He is inside the picture, advancing along a strange pathway which leads towards the marvelous door. When he reaches it he stops, turns, smiles, opens it... and disappears.
The door. The sign not only of what is closed but al so opened, is the limit of what our eyes cannot see, but which our heart longs for and has a presentiment of.
Why from "here", from this world of appearances, from difficulties, suffering and pain do we walk towards it? In the final words of Ernst Bloch: "The uninhabitable earth, with its few symbols of happiness, is a good preparatory school for the real dreams beyond the door."
Windows and doors. Signs, images of the human presence, the trail of the passing of man on the earth. And, thus, symbols of the human possibility to see beyond and cross the limits. Images of Utopia.
Windows and doors, ever present in Kounellis' work. He has written: "If the door has a human dimension it is because man crosses its threshold." ("If the House is Square... ", 1988).