Jannis Kounellis in Greece

There are two kinds of Greek; the one who has the capacity to love life more intensely than any other human being; the Greek who dances to express joy and drinks deeply of every known pleasure. Then there is the other Greek, the dark swirling soul who composed ancient tragedies, the finest interpreter of humanity's darkest corners.
Jannis Kounellis may be thought of by friends as a happy man. He may even have the gift to make people laugh, like Aristophanes. But "on show" he is the dark Greek, the Euripides of the art world. This retrospective is an orgy of death.

"But lo! from the house they come, dabbled
in their mother's fresh-spilt gore, their triumph proving the piteous
butchery. There is not nor ever has been a race more wretched than
the line of Tantalus." (Electra Euripides 420-410 B.C.)
As for me Kounellis is the arch tragedist, then his exhibition is best read as a play unfolding, room by room, act by act.

Room 1 - The prologue. An empty room with two walls covered in massive iron plates. On one wall five sections covered in rows of coal lumps anchored to the metal by wire (pictured below). Coal, wire, metal, rust. An inhospitable surface, like trays of cookies a child bakes and burns to cinders. Burnt offerings. The coal lumps decrease in amount so that by the fifth panel there are just a few lines. This leads the eye downward along a descent that points to the following room.

the wall of coal as exhibited in Piraeus, Greece 1995 aboard the cargo ship Ionion

On the opposite wall the metal plates overlap and I-sections pitched at a slant also prod you relentlessly onward toward the next room. Folded blankets are pinned against the wall by the iron. Coarse dirty grey and brown blankets of a type that offer no comfort. The type of blanket we associate with detention camps. Already the message is one of foreboding, a sense of doom at entering an environment devoid of colour and life. The journey has begun.

Room 2 - The parode or entrance ode
Coffee sacks stuffed with coal are neatly arranged on iron shelves. Metal meat hooks and steel cable suspend I-section presses that squeeze together different material; sacking, blankets, white painted canvas, industrial insulation. You have entered a factory - but what is processed in this factory? What is ground down, squeezed, compressed and hung up to drip dry - humanity itself?
Prepare to leave behind all your belongings, this is where the train stops, this is the point of no return.
Shelves lined with precisely arranged overcoats and shoes. Mens shoes, ladies shoes, elegant dancing shoes. The overcoats are dark and thick as only European overcoats can be. We see them on photographs of mid-20th century refugees. Would you put on your best pair of shoes before they herded you onto the cattle truck? Perhaps you would.

Room 3 - Episode - The Dormitory - a row of steel frame beds, one with a cage on top harbouring live rats, the others harbour the sleeping or the dead. Large sheets of punctured steel are rolled up to resemble bodies that lie under those sad grey blankets. Move closer and you see the slashes in the "bodies" resemble open wounds. Two framed paintings hang on the dormitory wall with crude arrows and glyphs drawn in black on cream paper.

Kounellis, untitled

Room 4 - Stasimon - Sacrifice - the cross on the wall is made of the poor materials so far revealed in this horror camp. Old pieces of mis-matched wood, blankets, I-sections all pinned to the ever-present rough iron plate. Next to this pathetic makeshift cross is another composed of a shattered plaster Apollo mask blood-spattered with black paint and the nails of crucifixion protruding from a vertical beam. Most graphic of all is a wall of iron stained by the fresh meat carcasses that hang there, dripping blood on the carpet. The meat immediately reminded me of Carracci but for most, it will remind of the abbattoir and in the context its shown, we can easily imagine human carcasses instead of bovine. Nearby is a shelf with a white hospital bowl and a long switchblade balanced in water, two goldfish (when alive) swim around the submerged blade.  Dissection, surgery, meat processing.

Room 5 - Episode - Disposal - a mass of grecian amphorae in varying sizes grouped in the midde of the room. As everything is on a Cyclopean scale in Kounellis' work, are these oversized urns of ashes? Tombs of the cremated dead? Storage jars like these carried grain, oil and wine and  have been found in Etruscan tombs. Today, you can visit any terra cotta factory in Greece and see a similar arrangement. Along the walls more sacks bulging with coal and strung up high above our heads. By now, you could be excused for thinking they contained body parts.

Room 6 - Stasimon - Memorial - A huge erect beam surmounted by a thick stack of white paper that flops over the top like the fronds of a palm. Another cross without a vertical, another monument to those who have disappeared. A single white egg on a dark iron shelf, a haphazard pyramid of stones on a mobile platform,  larger bundles swathed in black, no overcoats this time -  huge piles of funereal laundry sit on more iron shelves.

Room 7 - Episode - Witness - A towering Cyclopean wall of wood, perhaps railway sleepers, artfully form a patchwork of varying shades and depths like a framed forest. A powerful work, it hangs like a gargantuan silent chorus, the gagged witness. And what does it see?  On the opposite wall, one of the most chilling works in the exhibition a long parade of cadavers wrapped in the overcoats they had worn at the start of their journey. Their forms now shrunken, almost child-sized as they are swaddled and lined up for burial.

Room 8 - Stasimon "awful deeds" - Post mortem - shining blades protude from the wall and threaten your neck. Like a butcher shop the stage here is set - old desks are grouped together, the variety of table legs and faded paint surfaces forming a rickety makeshift dissection slab upon which lies the corpse - a giant figure constructed of three simple beams with boulders for hands and feet -  a man nonetheless.
Another massive raw wooden cross employing a vertical beam only, hangs from the ceiling and near its base, a sack of grain lies slumped like a body with an ugly great knife stuck in it. Kounellis' message here is explicit.

Room 9 - "Campi di Atene' 1994, long trays hold all the detritus of shipyards and industry with rusted chains, cogged wheels, nuts, bolts, pulleys - an elegantly arranged scrap heap. The only patch of colour relief is provided by the covers of stacked books in a metal box - all the titles in German. Next to this on the wall, is another projecting shelf with a row of wine and cognac bottles covered in dust and candle wax. The wine, the literature, the good times of the Germans gone stale?  Their literature is their culture, it harbours their ideals and their aspirations. Can we contain mass culture in a split metal box?
The exhibition up till now is as if Pandora's box has let out all the ills and wreaked universal havoc. All the material evidence of what Euripides called "the pollution of murder" (Andromache) 428-24 B.C has been hurled at us.  In this room are three fish tanks - and swimming merrily over rusting chains and machinery are pretty goldfish - finally - the gift of Hope who was also hiding in Pandora's box.

Kounellis, il
                sarcofago degli sposi

il sarcofago degli sposi

Room 10 - Exode - A ballet of peaked forms shrouded in crimson - almost like women, reminiscent of 3rd century tanagra figurines that pulled their veils around them closely,  these long robes conceal sacks of coal underneath. Coal and searing forms of sheet metal, softened and hushed up by the red shrouds. It is subtitled "il sarcofago degli sposi" (the sarcophagus of the bridegrooms). I expect what Kounellis is saying here is with every war throughout history, in every land there are always widows left to mourn. There are always young men dying.

On the cover of the exhibition catalogue, is a picture of Kounellis with a toy train emerging from his mouth. In room 9, three small white cubes on a shelf have three tunnels drilled in them. The first, has a train stuck in the tunnel, the second has a cloud of white synthetic string spewing out of it and the third has the train emerging clear of the tunnel. The exhibition is so grim, that I sincerely hope Kounellis, who lived through the occupation of Athens in WWII, has planted a synonym for us there - like the goldfish swimming above the rot, let the train be seen as our journey toward the light. If the human condition as viewed through Kounellis needs be read as a Greek tragedy, let it be like "Andromache" where after the gore, the savage murders and "awful deeds" one child and one mother were spared. I do not wish to believe this artist has chosen to totally ignore mankind's finer moments.  No Greek is that dark.
I live on the same island where Kounellis has a house and I pass him often on the port. One day soon, I will stop and ask him if this is what he meant.

Raichel Williamson Le Goff in Florence

Centro per l'Art Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato, Italy
9th June - 9th September 2001 (closed Tuesdays)

How to get there : Trains leave from Florence's main station Santa Maria Novella, every hour for Prato. The journey takes approx.
25 minutes. From Prato station you can take a bus or taxi to the Museum (10  minutes).

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