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
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, dabbledAs for me Kounellis is the arch tragedist, then his exhibition is best read as a play unfolding, room by room, act by act.
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.)
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
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
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.
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
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.
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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