An Essay by John David Ebert
In Paleolithic art, the magic of the paint which touched the surface of the rock walls of the cave had the effect of symbolically dissolving the walls so that they could become transparent to the presence of another world, composed of grazing animal herds, which could be seen as actually coming through the liquefied rock like a portal to another dimension. Thus, the walls of one world were eroded in order to make the reality of another world present.
In like manner, Jannis Kounellis’s famous 1969 Untitled, (shown above) in which he placed twelve live horses inside the space of a gallery in Rome, had the effect of dissolving the boundaries of one world in order to make tangible the presence of another. Kounellis’s horses were materializations into the museum space from another world — not, in his case, from a parallel reality — but a world from the past: the equestrian world of stables and horses, meadows and fields, barns and ranches. A world, in other words, of specific places with connotations for human Existenz of meaning and significance conferred on life lived in those agrarian places.
But in the world configured by technological globalization, it is precisely the significance of such places that ceases to matter, for in the global ecumene, as Heidegger pointed out, one place is ontologically no different from any other, since the far is made near and the near made far. The result is distanceless nihilism. Specific places – this or that bridge, barn or hilltop – with their historically acquired meanings and significances, are effaced and erased as they are overcoded by the value-neutral grid of electronic pulse signals and GPS maps which have the effect of rendering one place just the same as all other places. This or that hilltop where a god, perhaps, once made its presence known, or where a historical battle was fought, is rendered meaningless.
Kounellis’s horses, then, are part of a worlding process that is now taking place inside the the space of the museum, as also happened, once upon a time, in the Paleolithic. In dissolving the walls of the museum as a space set aside for art objects and recoding it as a place for the materialization of entire worlds, Kounellis is, of course, also dissolving the partition that separates the traditional art museum from the natural history museum, which is also a space set aside for the construction of worlds. Both types of museum, created as separate entities in the nineteenth century, are now colliding together, losing and effacing their own significances as separate spaces.
But Kounellis’s horses are only fragments of another world: they are living entities torn from their agrarian world horizon which, like the figures in a Chinese landscape painting, have had all the syntactical connections removed, requiring “fill in” on the part of the viewer, who must now supply the missing world-ground to the figures. With his horses, the gallery space is transformed before the viewer’s eyes into a portal to another world in which the viewer must supply the missing trees and barn, the meadows and hills. One is, thus, not just looking at twelve live horses, but looking into another space and another time. Another space and another time, that is, which has lost its significance in the distanceless world of late capitalism.
In his 1975 work, Civil Tragedy, Kounellis highlights this loss of significance even further. In this work, a single, lonely coat rack with a hat and coat upon it stands morosely before a wall that is entirely covered in gold leaf. An illuminated oil lamp burns on the adjacent wall, casting a dim and viscous light upon the scene.
The obvious point to make, of course, is that the gold leaf is an allusion to the Byzantine icon paintings of the Middle Ages, when gold backgrounds prevailed as the cosmic frame surrounding the images of the saints and heroes of the Christian cosmos. But notice that, once again, the viewer must supply the missing world – in this case, the figures, since the ground has already been provided — to the fragment from a larger universe that Kounellis gives him here, for it is precisely the absence of saints and heroes which matters in Kounellis’s image. In the age of Byzantine icon painting which lasted from the sixth century until about the time of Giotto (who substituted the blue sky for the traditional gold background), the human being was a figure of cosmic importance, scaled up and gigantified to the level of a Christ with piercing eyes that followed the viewer wherever he went. This was an age of giant humans magnified onto the walls of churches at places like Ravenna and Thessaloniki, where figures like Christ Pantocrator or St. George or the Emperor Constantine stared down upon the viewer from out of the faintly gleaming gold walls of the murky cavernous recesses of these buildings. In other words, the human being in those days mattered, for the cosmos was an artifact constructed by anthropogenic gods using anthropotechnic means.
The other thing about these old icons is that they were essentially two-dimensional: not only were they perspectivally flat, but they were ontologically flattened, as well, since an icon is a hieroglyphic version of a human being simplified to the level of a cosmic stencil.
But with the presence of the coat rack, with its single hat and coat standing in for the traces of an absent human, we have a signifier from the present day world, for Kounellis specifically modeled the coat rack on those found in Viennese coffee houses. The hat and coat are of a kind that might have been worn by a Kafka character (one of Kounellis’s favorite authors) and so it is, perhaps, an oblique reference to the labyrinthine landscapes of Kafka’s fiction, in which the human being is a cosmic entity no longer, but has been shrunken down to the level of a mouse running a maze.
As in the contrast between the Mycenaean heroes and the Greeks of the sixth century BC who regarded themselves as but diminished shadows of those mighty warriors – Herodotus writes of the Spartans finding the bones of Orestes, which were those of a ten foot tall skeleton – so too, in our modern civilization there has been a loss and a diminishment of the status of the human being, ontologically speaking. The Byzantine icons have shrunk, while the gold background of a universe animated by magical powers has disappeared, and the cosmos itself has enlarged to incredibly vast proportions which have all but dissolved the human entity into a mere speck of dust.
The contemporary human being may be a three-dimensional subjectivity by comparison with the hollow icons of the Byzantines, but he has suffered a corresponding diminution in his ability to inscribe a mark – in Derrida’s sense — on the cosmos. (In Derrida’s cosmology, he can only inscribe marks on texts since, for Derrida, there is no cosmos, ontologically speaking, structured by transcendental signifieds any longer). The various projects and projecting(s) of the sciences has sundered him from any kind of integration into a cosmic whole, and he now stands on his own – like the coat rack — as a fragment torn from a once mighty but now murky and obscured world picture. He is like Rudolf Steiner’s historical human being, who has differentiated himself as a subject, but has lost all contact with spiritual powers in the process.
As in the essays of Heidegger, the human being in Kounellis is at home in the universe no longer, but finds himself rather in an un-homed situation.
Another work which performs a similar contrast between worlds is Kounellis’s Untitled of 1991 (above) in which, in a museum in Naples, he exhibited a collection of traditional Mediterranean peasant amphorae, all compressed tightly together in a rectangular shape on the museum floor, and in which all the vases but one contained seawater, while the remaining one contained blood. Aligned at eye level along the wall was a series of steel plates (Kounellis’s preferred “canvas”) upon each of which had been mounted, in pairs, a sack of coal with a bent metal rod protruding from it.
For Kounellis, coal always signifies the industrial capitalist imaginary: the coal that was used to power the steam engines, for instance, of the various railroads that constructed the early phases of industrial capitalism as a world ecumene. The phase of commercial capitalism which preceded industrial capitalism was, of course, largely a Mediterranean invention of sea-faring merchant ships criss-crossing the world’s various oceans from Venice and Genoa to ports in India and China. As Fernand Braudel has described it in his three volume opus, Civilization and Capitalism, this was an affair not of the manufacture of new goods, but rather of the trading of already extant ones such as spices, metals, tobacco and textiles, coffee and liquors, etc.
The world configured by the various amphorae gathered onto the museum floor, however, is a much, much older world than that of the capitalist imaginary in either one of its early phases, for the amphorae signify the ancient world of the Greeks and the Romans, of a much earlier commerce of exporting olive oils and wine from the Greek islands all over the Mediterranean. Kounellis’s amphorae are not of the painted type, but rather traditional vases of the kind used by the Greek peasant in the countryside for hauling wine and water and grains. They stand metonymically as part for the whole of a very ancient way of Greek and Roman village life.
But the fact that the vases are full of seawater, while one of them is filled with blood, suggests the contrast of something living vs. something dead, and the implied notion of death thus evokes the ancient Greek cult of the dead, which also centered on amphorae. The Greeks burned their dead, and they placed the ashes of the dead body inside amphorae which they then set into graves such as at the Kerameikos cemetery at Athens which, as the name suggests, revolved around this whole custom. Nearly the entirety of Greek art, furthermore, came out of this funerary cult: the custom of Geometric vase painting and the early, sixth century BC cult of the Kouros statue which functioned as the prototype for the later statuary of the fifth century BC, for instance. In placing these vases inside the museum in Naples, Kounellis, as with his horses, is once again placing an entire world on the inside of a museum, although it is only a fragment of that world, which must be completed by the viewer.
And it is a world that is now in fragments precisely because it has been enframed and encircled by the capitalist imaginary of industrialization which surrounds and engulfs it like the sacks of coal along the wall of Kounellis’s installation. The industrial world was a coal powered one, a world of steam ships and locomotives, of factories and soot-blackening mill towns that saturated the atmosphere with a brown patina of CO2, which now today is creating the heat dome over the planet that is causing its sea levels to rise, a sea level rise that will, one fine day, swallow up many of the Greek islands.
As though they had never even existed.
As Stephen Bann rightly points out in his monograph on Kounellis, there is a certain weight and gravitas about Kounellis’s work. All the vectors of his art point decidedly downwards, for it is the earth archetype itself that is the dominant structuring feature of his works. It is almost as though Kounellis, as an Italian artist, had rediscovered Galileo’s Law of Falling Bodies all over again, for whether we are thinking of the various rocks and stones that he has hung suspended from the ceilings of various buildings, or the rows of furniture hanging by cords along the inside gallery of a piazza in Naples (above); or the wall composed entirely out of chiseled stones at a gallery in Naples; or the various scales weighed down by coffee grounds that he has hung at several locations (below); it is all very weighty and heavy, very solid and very material.
Galileo’s discovery of the Law of Falling Bodies supplied Western science with its visionary frame of a material world governed by material forces that could be enslaved and manipulated by trapping them into heat engines and various combustion machines. From Leonardo to Galileo and Torricelli, it is a world that was first unveiled by the Mediterranean imagination, in which the most important motif of the Christian imaginary is that of the Deposition of Christ, where the accent is placed upon the weight and heaviness of Christ’s body as it is taken down from the cross in the various imaginings of this event from Fra Angelico in 1432 (below) to Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross in 1633 (precisely the time in which the inertial laws of physics are being worked out from Leonardo to Newton). It is the depleted body of Christ which becomes the iconographic prototype of Western science and medicine, as depicted, for example, in Arnold Bocklin’s 1868 Mary Magdalene Lamenting the Body of Christ, an object that has become bereft of life and as a result, can be dismembered and taken apart by the processual analysis of the scientific scalpels of reason.
The dead body of Christ has been carved and cut into pieces – like the Egyptian Osiris – and has disappeared into the various works of Kounellis torn and scattered into the various stones and rocks and walls of his constructions. It is this body of the dead Christ, not the descent of the Living Spirit, that forms the (implicit) subject matter of Kounellis’s material cosmos, with all its ancient gravitas. This becomes momentarily explicit in his Untitled of 1972, which features only the bottom part of the cross with the structure known as the suppedaneum upon which Christ’s feet rest, signified in the image by a golden pair of child’s shoes. The emphasis of this rather unique image of the Crucifixion (characteristically, only a fragment that must be filled in by the viewer for completion) is upon the feet resting on the ledge that supports them. But the Deposition is also indicated more directly in works like the one in the Teatro Margherita in Bari, 2010 (below), in which a symbolic cross is configured by two intersecting girders tilting towards, as well as touching, the ground.
Kounellis’s semiotics are, in this sense, diametrically opposed to those of Damien Hirst, whose world is a capturing of the transcendentalist imagery of late hyper-global capitalism, with all its ontologically deworlded entities that have no relationship to being-in-a-world of any kind. Hirst’s luminous butterfly windows, for instance, form a decided contrast to Kounellis’s rock walls (or wooden boards) that are frequently placed inside of window frames to block out, rather than facilitate, the flow of light (an example shown below). And Kounellis’s entities, like his museum horses, are never deworlded, but are always embedded in a specific world from a specific earthly place, although it is a world that must be supplied by the viewer in order to complete the (syncopated) image.
But there is a principle of luminosity in Kounellis’s work: that of fire, although it is not the fire of the tongues of flame of Pentecost that signifies the ability to communicate and disperse the power of the Word through media that eventually become electronic and self-luminous; it is rather fire understood in the sense of the old alchemical use of fire to melt down and transform matter in order to use it to shape new materials, which process later became the basis for production of new materials through chemistry and industrial design.
In the Untitled of 1985, for instance, in which the walls of a gallery space in Milan are lined with a horizontal row of steel plates across which propane gas torches are arranged like arrows moving from left to right, a series of these arrows is aimed directly at the fragmented Crucifix which Kounellis had used in the earlier 1972 Crucifix with child’s shoes. These are the fires of Western industrial transformation that melted the cross down as a signifier and traded out the Christian imaginary for the industrial capitalist imaginary. But this meltdown of Christian signifiers left a series of semiotic vacancies in the fabric of the Western cosmos, and it is precisely these vacancies which Kounellis depicts in works like his Untitled of 1984 in which 32 steel shelves are arranged in rows along the gallery wall, each with traces of burn marks where previously oil lanterns had been lit. The lanterns have been removed (see below), and Kounellis’s emphasis here is on what remains: the scars of semiotic vacancies which once used to be filled with meaning. It is a portrait of a cosmos of depleted signifiers where the flames of transformation have all long since disappeared. It is not a universe that communicates to us any longer, but only a realm of shadows where forms once used to reside.
Art as a Singularity
Kounellis’s later works have a tendency to monumentalize and apotheosize his earlier works. A good example of this is the exhibition held in 2010 at Ambika p3 at the University of Westminster: the centerpiece of this exhibition is a series of eleven steel bins raised on benches elevated slightly above the floor, with coal deposits at the top of each bin. The bins form the shape of the letter “K,” and many of the sides of these bins feature rows of empty glass bottles, as though to allude to Warhol’s rows of Coke bottles. (below)
Seriality and repetition of the bottles suggests capitalist mass production, which is also signified by the coal; but most of the cases feature a black or a white muslin cloth that has been tied across the center of the composition (shown below) in such a way as to suggest the crossing out or effacing of this principle of mass production which Kounellis sees as inimical to the work of art. For him, mass production of the glass bottle or the beer can, as he has elsewhere stated the matter, is part of the capitalist consumer imaginary which is completely opposed to the work of art that functions as a singularity designed to rupture and neutralize this commodification process. Hence, the black muslin cloths are Kounellis’s way of crossing out the effects of capitalist consumerism with the singularity of the unique, and never to be repeated, phenomenon of the work of art as a whole.
In an adjacent corner of this exhibition space (shown below), Kounellis has created a little alcove which features workers’ jackets hanging at intervals along the wall. Cases of serialized bottles are arranged on the wall above them, together with their black muslin cloths which have been wrapped around them.
The coal bins which have been arranged into the “K” shape not only refer to Kounellis’s last name, but also to “Kafka,” one of Kounellis’s favorites. The labyrinthine design of the exhibition refers us to the labyrinthine corridors of the topologies of Kafka’s novels, in which various office clerks are swallowed up into the bureaucratic machinery. The character of Joseph K. in The Trial is engulfed by the machinery of the judicial system which swallows him alive, never to be heard from again.
Thus, Kounellis’s world here – the same space also features the hat and coat rack of Civil Tragedy – is a return to that 1975 work on a higher turn of the spiral: for now the hat and coat signify not the Viennese coffee houses that were earlier contrasted with Byzantine civilization, but the industrial factory world of capitalist mass production and its transformation of the human individual into a mere servant of the hive. The shrinkage in stature of the human being across the centuries reaches here its final phase: from the gigantified human of the Byzantine icons to the Medieval grail quester, and then down to the silly antics of Don Quixote and onward to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, in which the human being becomes ontologically no more significant than a bug on the floor, the gradual dismantling of human autonomy as the result of the diminishment of the human presence in the cosmos has resulted in the waste land of fragmented meanings from broken cosmologies that now surrounds the human being today.
The human world that was once a humanistic world has now become a world of factories and automation in which the human presence is negligible at best, and serves only to keep the machines running.
Kounellis’s overall vision, then, is one of fragmentation and loss: throughout the entirety of his works, he has striven to piece together from the collapsed midden heap of European civilization the once mighty age of what Fernand Braudel has called “Memory and the Mediterranean”: a world of ships and ports, of the transportation of coffee beans and lentils; of Homeric voyages and discoveries; of buildings made out of stone and wood, and quiet little peasant villages and towns tied to specific places and spots of the earth that once conferred meaning and significance upon those places. Places in which, as Heidegger put it, things thinged and worlds worlded precisely because they integrated concrete objects – buildings, bridges, jugs – into the ordered cosmic fourfold of earth and sky, mortals and divinities. The global capitalist world order, on the other hand, is what ruptures such connections by effacing place and rendering locality obsolete.
It is as though Kounellis’s Mediterranean cosmos were a lost world that he, like an archaeologist, were trying to reassemble bit by bit: some scraps in a museum here; some horses in a gallery there; broken stones negentropically arranged into various meaningful patterns in various places. A world that is today shattered and lies in ruins, but from which, Kounellis insists, meaning can still be found through the patient processes of reconstruction.
Thus, the resurfacing of a submerged civilization that has been paved over by the freeways and shopping malls of hypercapitalist consumerism has been the main thrust of Kounellis’s project as a contemporary artist of place and space, memory and meaning.
It is not a world that is indifferent to place, or in which distance is meaningless: but rather a world of specific spaces and places that requires journeys and travels in order to get to them.
In the process, the museum and the gallery are reterritorialized by Kounellis for becoming portals of entry, at various access points, to this one single (largely hidden) world that he is busy unearthing. Each exhibition and each installation opens up a different window onto this lost cosmos: an age of boats and ships powered by wind, water and wood and later, railroads and factories powered by steam and coal.
It is art as Earth used to build up a World and to set it forth in classic Heideggerian fashion.
 See David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (UK: Thames & Hudson, 2004).