Kounellis, a dramaturgy of the matter

Fondazione Prada, Venice, 2019

I was called an artist in the Sixties because they didn’t know how to define a pile of coal. But I am a painter, and I claim my initiation in painting. Because painting is the construction of images and doesn’t refer to a manner or, even less, a technique.” (In Alessandra Mammi, Le parole per dirmi, L’Espresso, 1st August 1996).

There is no need to introduce Kounellis: he is a towering, inevitable figure in the post-war European culture, as one of the most convincing representatives of the group known as Arte Povera. The exhibition curated by Germano Celant for the Fondazione Prada on the occasion of the 2019 Venice Biennale is a manner of retrospective, but interestingly the setting of this 16th century palace allows for a different reading than in previous exhibitions.

Kounellis was born in Greece; in 1956, he chooses to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, where he will then live and work. He declared that seeing the works of Burri and Fontana was enough to make him wish become an Italian… His first exhibition was at La Tartaruga, where he showed “hermetic and rhythmic poems” consisting of letters, signs and numbers stencilled on a bed sheet; the point was to abolish perspective, abolish the “critical distance” created by easel painting and access the surrounding space, like if in a theatrical gesture. Here comes a key point in the art of Kounellis: the constant search for what he termed himself a dramaturgy, to be understood perhaps as a way for the artist to offer as a gift his own identity to the world, to embrace the world in a dialectic process, to re-enact the drama of the world through the catalyst power of his works.

In an interview with Jérôme Sans, which took place in 2011, Kounellis would state, speaking of his use of coal, fire and smoke: “I cannot separate the use of such a mass of coal from a dramaturgy which puts humanity at the forefront. The human being as protagonist of a social drama, of a suffering and marginalized humanity, the human being as a protagonist, with his body and gestures, of an epic which inhabits my imagination… Topicality is there because one must assert the drama.” This explanation is perhaps the best summary of Kounellis’s mindset and aspiration as an artist. Speaking of La Carboniera (1967), a kind of shallow iron container filled with coal, he explains: “With La Carboniera, the vision of the human person is present, just as the social and dramaturgic aspects; it contains coal, which you can touch, and your hands become black, but this does not mean that spirituality is absent”. When Kounellis says: “I used burlap jute sacks in many of my works. These sacks are related to the idea of maritime trade…the ship and the labyrinth also belong to the same territory. This is the territory where the Magna Mater once reigned”, he makes it clear how the dramaturgy is evoked, summoned by means of such very simple, very tangible objects. Tangible because simple, perhaps.

Dramaturgy means space, it cannot develop silently on a canvas; it is distinct from any representation of the drama, and in fact the artists which most impressed Kounellis such as Pollock, Burri, Fontana, or Kline, all contributed to the abolishment of representation during that post-war period. The quintal of coal cannot be glued to the canvas, or the wall: it lays on the ground, it polarizes space, it forces space into organizing itself around it; “it requires a public space”. This last remark makes you wonder how these works may express themselves, may trigger the unwinding of the intended dramaturgy, in the setting of this grand palace that is Ca’Corner della Regina. After all, the Venetian palace was indeed a public space, the space of a social representation, and any gathering therein could be conceived as a dramaturgy with different codes and different “actors” than today. Can any public space become the theatre of the human drama, and raise the corresponding emotions, or does the fact that the scene is refined, precious, elegant betray or downplay the intended impact ?  Oddly enough, the unexpected confrontation, the drama inside the palace, is not to the disadvantage of the drama because the presence of the work is so powerful as to tame its surroundings.

For most Italians of the post-war generation, Arte Povera conveys both a political and a religious reference, at the point of their reunion. It inevitably refers to Saint Francis, “il poverello” (the poor one), meaning both the one who abandoned all things material to follow Christ, and the one who lives in poverty, in extreme simplicity and austerity. Therefore, Arte Povera refers primarily to an art which has abandoned artifice, ornament, posture, rhetoric. In a sense, it is the exact opposite of conceptual art: form is not the vehicle of any message, of any concept. It begins and ends with a presence, and the artist enacts the transformation of an impression which he felt into a form, preferably a very simple one, without there being any obvious logical or visual connection – and certainly not allegorical – between the one and the other. For this very reason, Arte Povera bears an obvious relationship to mysticism, which is equally a matter of presence and is indifferent to doctrine. It would be a misconception to try and explaina work of Arte Povera as if it were to be deciphered, as if it could be paraphrased in words, as if it conveyed some symbolic meaning to be clarified. At the same time, in the context of the year when the term was coined, poor is opposed to rich, it denotes a siding with Revolution, the Third World, those who refuse the order imposed by all forms of power, and in particular the codes of tradition and the impositions of the market. We are reminded that even for the Church, these were the days of the “preferential option for the poor”, a phrase coined in 1968 by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, while a theology of liberation was developed by Gustavo Gutierrez in Peru. The word poor resonated in all these directions.

From the perspective of art history, you could say that Arte Povera is one of the rare instances when art could escape the tyranny of mental categories or the dominion of technology, could distance itself so radically from discourse to embody a gesture, a human work process devoid of a narrative in the sense that it is first and foremost a memorial to the impression which triggered its making, not a reminiscence, not an interpretation, even less a description. But of course, not devoid of meaning. The same could be said of Minimal Art, a term invented by Richard Wolheim in Art Magazine in January 1965. Although many things separate, and even oppose, Minimal Art and Arte Povera, they both belong to a period when art sought to free itself from the mastering of complex techniques, from the pains of apprenticeship and endless labouring, from the dialogue with tradition and masterpieces… probably a time which now comes to an end, as technology is bound to impose its tyranny upon art, as technology has become the instrument of a new maniera.

The label Arte Povera appeared for the first time in September 1967, on the occasion of an exhibition of Italian artists at the Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa, curated by Germano Celant under the name Arte Povera e IM Spazio. Despite having later negated the relevance of the term, Celant will use it again in the important exhibition which took place in Turin in 1984, Coerenza in coerenza, dall’arte povera ad oggi. And in fact, Arte Povera is better defined by its coherence than by any doctrinal formulation. However, the text published in Flash Art International two months after the publication of the catalogue of Arte Povera e IM Spazio is titled Arte povera, appunti per una guerriglia, and its overtones are clearly political, and philosophically Marcusian. It states: “Today society produces and man consumes. Everyone may criticise, attack, demystify and propose reforms, he must remain within the system, he is not allowed to be free…There a complex art, here a poor art, involved with contingency, with events, with the a-historic, with the present, with the “real” man (Marx)… a new attitude to repossess a “real” control of our being-here, which leads the artist to frequent displacements from his assigned place, from the cliché  which society has stamped on his wrist. From exploited the artist becomes a guerrilla fighter, he wants to choose the place of the fight…”. Even the unexpected success of the song Il ragazzo della via Gluck, which Adriano Celentano sang in 1966, tells of the anxieties, the moral dismay of that generation: “I do not know why / why they go on / building these houses / and they do not leave any grass … if we go on like this who knows / how we will do / who knows…”. Kounellis noted that what united the artists grouped under the heading of Arte Povera, despite their diversity, was essentially a new conscience. And as to reinforce the words of Celant in 1967, he would widen the perspective and deem all art as political by nature: ” When you produce a painting and sign it…it enters as of right into a vast philosophical and expressive debate, an inheritance of the Polis, and should not have a mere practical purpose”.

Although there is no theory of Arte Povera, one could say that Celant’s often-quoted words from the exhibition’s catalogue do provide a mood: “What is happening ? Banality is entering the arena of art. The insignificant is coming into being or, rather, it is beginning to imposing itself. Physical presence and behaviour have themselves become art. Cinema, theatre and visual arts … aim at registering unequivocally reality and the present … so as to result in a type of art which we could qualify as poor to use a term from texts in Grotowski’s theatre … We are living in a period of deculturation. Iconographic conventions are collapsing, symbolic and conventional languages crumbling.” One may remember that the great Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski put in practice the notion of “poor theatre” since the seminal staging of the play Akropolis in 1964, his methods culminating with the triumph of The Constant Prince in, precisely, 1967. This included the reduction of any staging effects to a minimum, relying on the actors themselves to transform simple objects and empty spaces into imaginary worlds by using emotional memory and all possible means of vocal expression; it stressed the importance of the actor’s encounter and engagement with the spectator to achieve what Grotowski called a “total act”. Arte povera brings forward the expressive means of humble objects or materials which become in a sense the actors of the “play” of reality, or rather of the tangible world. Our response as viewers takes on a co-creation role. Celant writes: ”The empirical and non-speculative character of the research is exalted, as much as the given of reality, the physical presence of an object, the behaviour of a subject…” None of this represents a theory, which would contradict the rejection by the artists of Arte Povera of any abstract construction which would sever the link between the body, the human being, and what he receives from his perceptions, but it represents a series of statements. Arte Povera is assertive, rather than discursive.  

Niente da vedere…

The group will soon internationalize, and some key exhibitions such as Prospect 68 in Düsseldorf or the When attitudes become forms at the Kunsthalle in Bern (1969) will demonstrate that the fluidity of the borders between Arte Povera, conceptual art, and land art opens a wider panorama and reveals many transversal connecting lines. Alighiero e Boetti’s Niente da vedere, niente da nascondere (1969) or Kounellis’s blocked doors have clear conceptual overtones, for instance.    

Celant himself has “suspended” the use of the qualification of Arte Povera during a few years, from 1971 to Italian Identity in 1981. He will state some of his most interesting comments in Critical Art, a text which is contemporary of Italian Identity, and later in an interview with Daniel Soutif on the occasion of the 1987 exhibition De l’Arte Povera dans les collections publiques françaises. In Critical Art, he restates in a different manner his earlier political rationalization of Arte povera: “Any mystical understanding of art as superior and hegemonic entity disappears in favour of a concrete critique of the system…art comes to being through ideology and practise”. Arte Povera is declared iconoclast, in opposition to what he perceives as a return to the aristocratic and individualistic spirit of the “superman”. This is of course partly in reaction to the success of Trans-avanguardia promoted by Achille Bonito-Oliva, and some resurgence of what we might call the “pleasure of the eye”, of an aesthetic formalism, in the mood of the 1980s. To this Celant wants to oppose an “Iconoclatic Art”. To some extent, the idea of an iconoclastic art is an oxymoron, which can only be resolved by extending the concept of “art” beyond the visual, to encompass ideas, concepts, thoughts, attitudes, lives… unless you mean that Iconoclastic Art opposes what I would call “kalocratic” art, an art which rejects all forms of beauty or visual attraction because at heart, in our Greek-originated culture, beauty is still penetrated by metaphysics. Celant, an able political navigator on the rough seas of the art world, was never really clear about this, as clarity would have imperilled the persistence of the subtle “glue” holding together the group in the eyes of the art world as of the artists themselves. And it would indeed be the artists who would best clarify this enigmatic concept by positioning their work as a way to overcome representation.

In a remarkable text dated 1967, Le ultime parole famose (literally “the last famous words” but which in reality suggests in Italian a grand statement later denied by facts), which it is worth quoting at length, Pistoletto said: “Man has always tried to duplicate himself in order to get to know himself…The mind built representations on the basis of its own reflection. And art became one of the specialties of this representation… The human being has started to pin on this reflection a strategic point for the measurement of the universe. Not content with the initial hallucination of himself, he is convinced to be able to duplicate the whole world in order to know it (…) measuring the universe from his own experience of life and death, he created good and evil; in the sunlight he said white, at night he said black (…). When I started painting, avant-garde art was abstract. It was moving towards the second life, the reflected one, because it seemed so true as to make you believe that it remained the only liveable one. And Pollock had started to live it for real (…) To bring art to the edge of life and verify the system in which both evolved was the aim and the result of my mirror canvases. After this there remained but one choice: either to go back to the system of duplication and conflicts with a monstrous involution, or to get out of the system with a revolution; either bring life back to art, as Pollock did, or bring art back to life, but not metaphorically any more”. Bringing art back to life, to the drama of life (δράμα meaning theatre, not tragedy, a point certainly not lost on Kounellis) is perhaps the implicit program of Arte Povera; a theatre where matter itself has a story to tell.

There is no need to look very far in order to understand the intellectual origins of Arte Povera:  it was all there, in the spirit of those years which pervaded most of the great cities of Europe and triggered the 1968 movements. These are the years of Belle de Jour, Bonnie and Clyde, Blowup, Teorema, Playtime, Farenheit 451…and even the Pasolini satire of the Hawks and the Sparrows : films which either expose the discomfort of society with the impending order, or its worries about things to come. Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man is published in 1964, Jean Baudrillard’s The System of Objects in 1968, Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage in 1967: it is all there. 

The program set out by Celant never went much beyond its initial expression, as ultimately the “system” befriended and absorbed the guerrilla, but one cannot deny a formal companionship to the artists grouped under this denomination; and in fact, Kounellis always compared the group to a family. Like the apostles, and after the Turin exhibition, they were to be and to remain twelve: Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Yannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Gilberto Zorio. This list also results from the elimination, expulsion, or withdrawal of a number of artists who were initially close to the group, such as Piero Gilardi, Emilio Prini, Mario Ceroli or Gianni Piacentino. Most of them worked in Turin, the great industrial city of Italy and therefore the one where the great conflicts and questionings of this vortex of ideas, economic growth and social change of the sixties were the most present. Pascali and Kounellis were the only ones to work in Rome, a city both stifled by history and ignoring mental boundaries, where art criticism was then very much alive until is eventually died from the diseases of mass tourism, corruption and stale politics.

The Arte Povera e IM Spazio is the inaugural exhibition of the label, but it was preceded by a number of important events such as Lo spazio degli elementi, fuoco, immagine, acqua, terra (“the space of elements, fire, image, water, earth”) at the gallery L’Attico in Rome (June 1967), where Kounellis, Pascali and Pistoletto, among others, had already opened the path of what was to be labelled arte povera. The “elements” – which are the symbolic building blocks of reality – are coming centre stage. In this exhibition, Kounellis presents his now famous metal daisy from the pistil of which a flame blazes, while Pascali comes up with 9 square meters of puddles, one square meter of earth, and two cubic meters of earth stuck on the wall. The art historian Maurizio Calvesi writes for this occasion in an essay titled Lo spazio degli elementi in which he focuses on the key relationships existing between image and reality, space and environment, material and form. He notes: “Water, fire, earth, air, were the principles and starting points (the Italian word has both meanings) sustaining all living matter; they composed in essence an allegory of life”. Interestingly, Air is replaced here by Image. Obviously, the title of the exhibition was not chosen by chance; it immediately evokes alchemy and the Greek tradition of Empedocles and Plato’s Timaeus. Like all spiritual traditions (whether they are to be taken seriously or not, I point it out as a historic reminder) alchemy – which is of Egyptian origin as the name tells – aims at “spiritualizing” the human being by transmuting “matter” into “light” or “spirit”. The body is then freed from the constraints of time and space, it becomes a “glorious body”. In the long-standing tradition of Alchemy, air is an intermediary between the opposite principles of fire (the Spirit) and water (the Matrix of all things); it is usually associated with the mental, the intellectual dimension of man. In Timaeus, we read: “…it is impossible to unite two elements without a third one, because they need a link which brings them together”. Air was always the symbol of “spiritualization”, what elevates, brings together the below and the above. The artists take up this ancient and implicit set of meanings to introduce the image in the function of elevation, so to speak, of enhancing matter itself, of means of reuniting the spiritual and the material, which is what the faithful believe actually happens through the icon.

Calvesi does not suggest that Matter becomes an icon once presented – barely transformed – by an artist, though he probably should have insisted on the transformational power of the artist’s intention over matter, as Fontana explicitly did; he chooses to insist however on the set of spatial relationships which the mere presence of “matter” inevitably creates. By its mere presence inside a space – whether defined by walls or by natural elements, or even mental representations – the object modifies our perception of this space, establishes a relationship – of scale, contrast, shading, or whichever other – with its environment, and the space reciprocates. Kounellis certainly questions the relationship between material and form by using materials which appear to contradict the form: metal is used to shape a daisy, which is fragility by antonomasia, while its heart projects fire, actual fire to figure the yellow-orange pistils to transform this organ of reproduction into a worrying, aggressive flame, although fire is symbolically the element of the Spirit.

It was wise, as could be expected, of Germano Celant to include in the didascalies not some explanation but the recollection by the artist of what impression gave “life” to the work.

The well-known German curator Jean-Christophe Ammann, who titled in 1970 the exhibition of this group in Luzern “Visualized thinking process, young Italian avant-garde”, most certainly headed in the wrong direction. Much more relevant is the statement of Alan Jones, as quoted by Maīten Bouisset : “in contrast to the consumerist banality of pop art which preceded it, arte povera stressed the prodigious, the marvellous: the universe of things was at the heart of the spiritual materialism of arte povera, a western Shinto in a sense, a reminder of the elegance of the vow of poverty of Saint Francis of Assisi”. And indeed, if we accept – in a scandalously gross over-simplification – that Shinto is about the forces or the energies embedded in animate and inanimate things, and that harmony with humans and nature is at the heart of the attitudes expected from the Shinto followers, there is something to be said for this comment.   

Early on, Kounellis questioned the sterile environment of the gallery, and engaged into an exploration of space, or spatiality, which his works order around themselves, rather than letting themselves fill a pre-determined environment. “My early paintings, those with the letters and numbers, were also phonetic and, therefore, profoundly musical. They related to the experiences I was living at that time, when I was still attending the Academy in Rome. I think that those phonetic paintings were also influenced by Ungaretti to a certain extent. Then my work evolved and my “feeling” the space became the main concern, even through music. This intent, this seeking to “feel” the space by any means possible is still present in my work today.” (Mario Codognato and Mirta D’Argenzio, Echoes in the darkness: Yannis Kounellis, writings and interviews, 1966 – 2002, London 2007. The collaboration of Ungaretti with Lucio Fontana or Alberto Burri is known, whereby the poet tries to capture the light which is so central to the works of such artists and use it musically, transform it into a motive, combine it with words to reach an integrated visual-verbal reality. “Words will never succeed in communicating the secret which we harbour within ourselves, but it comes close to it”, said Ungaretti. And Shopenhauer: “only the light which we lit for ourselves then shines for the others”.

Kounellis always claimed that its works have in common a relationship between structure and sensitivity, that they relate to a certain kind of story and a certain kind of pleasurefrom which art may not be separated. Or this and other reasons, he could not accept the idea of conceptual art, in which he found a contradiction.

Structure is everywhere in the work of Kounellis, starting with his immutable rectangle of 1.80 x 2.00m which stems from the measure of a king-size bed, the metaphor of life itself, of the drama of life which begins and ends in this bed, of love which inhabits this modest setting. It is easy to connect the structure of the coffee heaps on those lines of small scales in the staircase of Ca’Corner with the traces of soot left on the wall behind each shelf, and indeed the repetition of the shelf motif, the shelf which presents the object or its trace.

In his interview with Jean-Pierre Bordaz, published by Neue Kunst in Europa, (11 December 1985), Kounellis expressed with more clarity what he meant by structure, and the importance of the relationship : “In a work like the cotton piece there exists a relationship between a sensibility – that’s the cotton – and a structure, in other words the metal, in which that cotton in located. This is the first relationship. The same relationship exists between the small metal scales and the coffee, and between the coal and the coaler. These are real relationships. This is not a material in and of itself, but rather in its interaction with another element; an element that can also be its opposite”.

This may be complemented by his words in Le parole per dirmi published in L’Espresso (1 August 1996): “Fire, for me, is the equivalent of the parrot in 1967. It is alive, turned aggressively towards the exterior. But none of them, neither the fire nor the parrot, would have made sense without their iron support. They are alive, real, but above all they are signs of an image constructed on relationships; and, in the long run, they are both painting to me. I am asked if I am a realist painter, and the answer is no. Realism represents while I present”.

When Kounellis states that his interest in fire dwells not only in fire itself, but in the medieval legends where fire is a symbol of purification and punishment, in reality two moments of the same, and remembers those images where people had to cross from Earth to Paradise via a narrow path suspended over the flames of Hell, he typically refers to a founding impression, an inaugural sensation, which then led him to use fire as a building “object” to be used in his construction of images; but he obviously never explicitly or implicitly refers to any particular legend, or to Hell, or to purity…

The poetics of Ungaretti is about the becoming, the fragility of all things between the void, the silence where they originate and the silence to which they return; it may be observed that most great poetry  is in a sense heraclitean, as opposed to all thoughts in search of an essence. As excellently expressed in Manuele Marinoni’s essay, “The battlefield, for Ungaretti as for Schönberg, is made of the forms or language. It is within the language itself that findings occur, that illusions and losses crumble”. (Manuele Marinoni, La musica, il nulla e l’evanescente Ungaretti e la poetica del «suono infranto»: appunti sulla Terra promessa, 2017). In a similar way, one could say that the battlefield for Kounellis lies in the matter, in its fundamental components which may be iron, wood, or coal. It is there, within the realm of matter, this gift of Magna Mater, that his inventions and findings occur, that images are brought to existence, become present of this particular presence which cannot be ignored or dismissed. But these images are not about matter, they use matter as a structuring element around which, so to speak, the sight – and therefore the mind – wanders. This may happen because matter, by means of its sheer opacity and the texture of its surfaces, literally forces light into specific modalities, which may be roughly described as intensity, colour, brilliance, scintillation, vibration, smoothness, and so on. And this light reveals something, whereby we touch upon the inevitable metaphysical dimension of all great art, that something being equilibrium, harmony, justice.

Let us read carefully what Kounellis himself tells us: “To be radical is not just about how you look at things. Perhaps all new ways to consider things is always radical… Beauty is a revolutionary factor, and beauty as such is an indication of equilibrium…there are many ways to achieve beauty. Moreover, when one has an idea of formal justice, there is always beauty in it. And, obviously, it appears independently. No one searches for iconographic beauty. Beauty appears to us as an indication; it is given to us, and that is why it is so pleasant.”. Beauty is an indication, a trace, a sign of equilibrium, and equilibrium signals what is at the right place, in the right proportion, properly tuned, i.e. just. The English language seems to lack a word to express precisely what the French would term justesse, and which may be roughly translated as “the nature of being exactly where it should be, in its proper place”, while the German language has so many (Richtigkeit, Genauigkeit, Triftigkeit…) that it perhaps misses the general link to equilibrium.

Relating beauty to justice is of course eminently Platonic. We could also remember the words of Simone Weil: “Justice, truth and beauty are sisters and allies” (in La personne et le sacré, written in London in 1943, the year of her death). We may be surprised to find such an assertion by Kounellis, but after all, when asked in 2016 whether he believed in God, he answered: “All artists believe in God, for one motive: God is the reason of synthesis”, thus complementing perhaps what he meant by justice and equilibrium in the previously quoted sentence: a synthesis which goes beyond language and beyond the immediacy of reality.

Relationships are always at work in the art of Kounellis. The metal plate exalts the cottonness of the cotton and the fragility of the flowers, while the matte of the metal plate resonates with the gloss of the coal, for instance. But relationships can also be built on contradictions which are so intrinsic to matter itself once transformed or combined: the smoothness of steel belies its hardness; the gloss of coal which so pleases the eye distracts from the dirt left on the hand which touches it; the hanging cupboards fly when the should crash, the door blocks when it should leave passage; the modesty of the migrants’ clothes lined up in the grand setting of a palace. The dead plastic landscape where plants strive to grow. The white canvas covered with a curtain as if to hide the nudity of its untouched whiteness, the paucity of art yet unable to accomplish its task, the scandal of failed accomplishment. The drama here verges on tragedy, which as we know stems from the contradictions born out of conflicting values, natures, situations.

Sometimes a paradox leaves us wondering, such as that stemming from the coat and the hat on the hanger: they would normally signal a presence, someone at home, or in his office, while here we feel left alone in the vast room, as if the person had actually left without his coat and hat, leaving us abandoned with this illusion of presence. However the gilded wall, for a Greek, must refer to the background of the icon, which signals that what is shown is not of a terrestrial but of another nature. The presence suggested by the coat on the hanger is therefore not a visible one, just as art itself organizes a presence which we are to feel and receive without actually visualizing what is to be seen.

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