Culture is Blood: dialogue between Alfredo Pirri and Jannis Kounellis, published on no. 1 of Alfabeta2, July 2010.
Pirri – Looking at some of the photographs you brought from China, images of your works and of cities, I better understood an aspect of your work, which appeared to me to be all the more extraordinary for the chromatic explosion it expresses itself through: the question of the fragment, and of how the world can be seen through it… The paintings you’re working on, depicted in the images, are made of pieces of broken multicoloured vases. Even the photographs of markets show us images of a fragmented world… In 1973, when I was a student at art school in Cosenza, I remember I used to come to Rome at the weekends to see the exhibition ‘Contemporanea’’. And I remember that even at the time I already had the impression, seeing your work, that this way you have of showing a fragmented world didn’t depend on a desire to recompose it mythologically, but that instead you accepted this being in pieces, this dramatically broken world.
Kounellis – In China I made fragments of porcelain. At markets, as well as the whole vases, they sell the broken pieces too. Later I learned that this was a thing of the time: the red guards used to break into people’s homes and break the objects they owned, because they were considered bourgeois images, commodities. So I decided to do it and to represent it in writing from left to right (the way we write, not the way they write). The Chinese have also done it with coal, but you have to have an enormous amount of material to do that. For this writing hypothesis, you had to place them next to each other and then make four holes in the sheet, and there were good Chinese people who would insert a piece of metal joining them; the important thing is how it’s made, not how it looks, and a lot of the time it looked like a form of writing, from the top to the bottom and from the left to the right. I loved the epic of China as great Great Empire; on the contrary, I didn’t appreciate the act of breaking plates, as image of the past.
Pirri – I see no mythology, no consolation in the broken Chinese pieces, but the same tragic attitude present in the flowery dresses incapsulated in lead, or in the coal given birth to by the Earth, or in the multicoloured multiplication of butterfly wings. These are shapes which, in a classical, ordered way, bring to mind maternity and joy, beauty and pity. These are ‘authentically’ classic and tragic images, because they seem to tell the story of humankind through its beautiful concreteness.
Kounellis – When I was composing the words, they were initially separated letters which then became phonetic, and that’s where you see the distances, the space, the rhythm, the will to sing in spite of all, although it is an hermetic phonetics; this was my beginning, which does have something in common with the fragment; later came fragments of humanity, I am a man of the 19th Century. Otherwise how would you explain Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters? It’s an image which is specular to that of coal, it isn’t distant, and it’s evident that there’s a humanity, an emotional, if not political, participation with this slice of marginalised people. I’ve never thought of myself as neoclassical, it isn’t my nature; I was born where in the morning, in the distance, you can see the Parthenon so that also forms a fragment. Even those things, in the 1970s, of bringing the pieces into the factories, had that type of ideology. The factory was also a fragment, an abandoned place, and I go from one abandon to another and there’s never a recomposition. Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, each one has a different head, it’s a fragmented image.
Pirri – Perhaps we should use a different word instead of ‘fragment’. The fragment makes one think of something which belongs to a lost, and constantly searched for, unity, whereas what I see in your work is a world in ruins, one which is tragically and gloriously broken.
Kounellis – Maybe there’s an inherent attraction which makes you see the world, it’s evident that within it many things are recomposed and we do our best to recompose, but in Europe, after the wars, that recomposition never took place. It’s enough to look at a Fontana, or a Burri, or at one of Piero Manzoni’s Shits: these are not composable things. And then there’s no style, which is first of all a gestural habit which then becomes informal; if you take style away you see reality fragmented, and you participate intensely at each turn.
Pirri – Earlier on you were talking about musicality, about song. The song you speak of is mostly litany…
Kounellis – Yes, maybe I lived a litany. Physically I lived a tragic period when I was a child, a moment full of ugly elements.
Pirri – A curiosity I’ve had for a long time: I’ve always thought of your passion for train sets, this childish passion which makes us think of travel and escape, as something which takes you away to show you unknown landscapes. But the train is both a fascinating game and, for example, the war machine used to empty Europe of its Jews. In your work there’s a liminal and foggy moment, a moment made of darkness, in which the serene infantile image of the train set becomes the painful image of adult understanding.
Kounellis – The train is passage, passages and their condition. Although, my train set was the Santa Fe train set; in fact the first painting I did was the Parrot: an iron field with cacti rather than flowers, and this was an epic dream of pleasure, as well as of escape without escaping, of a border from New York to Santa Fe crossing deserts, and that was the problem. Minimalism: the repetition of the railway model, these were little things, small details in the train set which then went on to be enlarged in the coal train, which nonetheless contains no minimalist ideas. Minimalism always hails a singular god, and for me that isn’t the question.
Pirri – In minimalism there’s no joy…
Kounellis – In effect there is no joy, because there’s a chant to a singular god, while I’ve always thought about an infinte journey as the only way to learn. For me being dialectical is very important; a minimalist isn’t dialectical because he only sees God. I see people.
Pirri – Besides, as you know better than myself, humanity is the first and ultimate sense of Christianity.
Kounellis – Minimalists weren’t really able to see this Christ covered in knife wounds. We have a God who died massacred and full of awful things, this implies that in order to describe this God, figuration is necessary; only figuration can really describe its extremely dramatic presence. For example in China there’s Buddha, there’s Confucius, there are philosophers. This Christ of ours is torn to shreds and this says a lot about the dramatic quality of European painting. This sign of violence is also present in Fontana. What is he without these holes? In the beautiful thing of Fontana’s there’s the hole, which isn’t painted but it’s there, and you can even touch it, and that’s extremely significant: this man of our postwar saw not figuratively but hyperfiguratively, that is he represented a stab wound in Christ’s body with a hole in the canvas, and then without composing he repeated this gesture in other works, with holes and with tears, perhaps a little hidden in spatialism because of modernity. But the thought was still the product of drama.
Pirri – and of the wait…
Kounellis – Yes, of the wait, of the future. He doesn’t give you an exit route onto a different tomorrow, he died making holes. And this is significant for European painting because, due to our recent history, we’re people wounded in our identity, and there is no recomposition if there’s no practice of identity. What exists is this infernal passage, this hell thought everywhere, between a fallen house and a fragment, memories. Even the most dramatic things like Guernica, that’s also fragment – you don’t even realise but there’s this polyhedric cubism in it, and polyhedra are fragmentations.
Pirri – there are also strategies other than neoclassicism to attempt a recomposition with. Today, for example, it passes through what philosophers have called the ‘triumph of technique’, and this is also an attempt to reconciliate (by dominating).
Kounellis – I think technique, and its triumph, is ideology; and you can see that in Caravaggio. His technique is Counter–reform, shadowiness isn’t reflected in Neoclassicism. But how can I forget the drama and the shadows in Caravaggio to become a symmetrist? If my vision is crossed with those shadows, out of love, out of pleasure, I am a marked man, I like internationality, but I can’t take Caravaggio’s shadowiness into this international space. There’s also this because it has to do with my own growth, with my true identity.
Pirri – The shadowiness in Caravaggio comes from the backdrop the figures emerge from, a backdrop which invades them to the point that even their contours are made of shadow, they’re never sharp as they are in minimalism.
Kounellis – Minimalism is made of flat colours, it represents the devil to me, and it’s simplistic with regard to the power of shade; it’s dogmatic. Shadows hold in themselves a pagan freedom.
Pirri – Shadows evoke life more than light; light, paradoxically, makes one think of death and the similarities between minimalism and the coffin are evident…
Kounellis – Minimalists tried to find salvation in mathematics, but they did so while hiding this dogmatic order which comes from a manifesto, not from dramaturgy bur from a thing of ‘imposition’ which has a strategic idea. I prefer Pollock’s passionate presence which destroys his own life, Pollock who doesn’t search for an a priori salvation, who lives and consumes life in this epic American space; while the others don’t consume it.
Pirri – When you said dramaturgy, I instinctively thought of the theatre; dramaturgy as preliminary writing and as prefiguration of the mise en scène. In what you say there’s the idea of a writing which draws out the personal destiny of each and every one. A destiny and an existence which Pollock interpreted until the very end as unique and unrepeatable act.
Kounellis – We have loved Pollock because he gave us freedom, he gave us the possibility of seeing space differently, without a critical obstacle. He lives reality inside the painting where he consumes his life as if it were on stage, with joy, without 19th century drama, and he like that he founded the American epic. Yes, because America teaches the epic, it teaches us to throw ourselves into unbound boundaries; whereas minimalism doesn’t, there’s an intellectual obstacle in it, in front of the ocean it thinks again, whereas Pollock lives the ocean.
Pirri – Minimalism represents consolidated America, America whose adventure has reached its end…
Kounellis – It represents a society that counts, a closed club that counts, minimalist America isn’t abstract vis a vis American society.
Pirri – but there’s also a utopian spirit in minimalism, like Donald Judd’s desire to build a city…
Kounellis – There’s a desire, yes, but still he only made the furniture… I often consider him as a romantic, and they got a bit angry at me for this opinion, but I love him also for this reason.
Pirri – Not only romantic, but also mystic. He even writes it in the first point of statements of conceptual art: “conceptual artists are mystical rather than rational. They reach conclusions logic can’t achieve.”
Kounellis – Minimalism becomes more dialectical than Pop Art which actually points to that position. When in 1958 I saw Pollock’s exhibition at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, I breathed; Pollock teaches me freedom, the freedom of finding my identity and my tradition. The others weren’t able to teach that because they were frozen into a position. But it doesn’t give me anything, while cubism gives me a lot. European art has been an expansive thing, including Munch who’s in the North; he also gives a lot. Munch’s Scream gives a lot and makes us understand that even our existence is an existential scream.
Pirri – It also represents a different way of confronting nature and mimesis. Munch used to leave his canvases under the snow ‘to mature’… Nowadays, in your opinion, how can we confront the representation of nature?
Kounellis – there’s nature and there’s naturalism. The problem of nature can’t be reduced to a question of mimesis, because like that we wouldn’t understand its greatness. The ancient civilisations were right, in order to understand nature it’s necessary to dominate it, that’s the only way we can perceive its force and its greatness, not in mimesis.
Pirri – But today we can give new meaning to words, even to those which are worn, frayed. Mimesis could be rethought with a more authentic meaning: imitation, but also desire.
Kounellis – Mimesis automatically becomes representational. The Greeks used to say that ‘the work of the painter is to draw lives’ and there’s absolutely no idea of mimesis there because life is superior to mimesis. When you see Masaccio in his renaissance ideology there’s no mimesis whatsoever, there’s an ideology, a dramaticity, and a kind of power; there are men who represent an ideology but not from a mimetic point of view, there’s a new way of seeing a glorious Christ and that’s where the problem is; otherwise we get stuck in this apology of nature, typical of the Anglosaxon world.
Pirri – Ecologist views start in a position which is correct: being in conversation with nature and penetrating within it. But I don’t know if it would be right to completely annihilate the dominium that man has taken over landscape… it would be like taking the figure away from the backdrop, leaving him alone to dominate the painting…
Kounellis – because of an excess of modification, because of the destruction of landscape which has happened, there’s something of the salvation army in ecologists (slim women in black, with this attitude of the well to do), because the poor would never think about it, because they’re obliged to live in terrible conditions, and there’s something minimalist in this, in the way that it doesn’t cause an outcry. They tell you there’s a god and that everything’s dominated before us, if you’re in the street and you see an old beggar, he isn’t included in the square because he’s superior, he’s of Egyptian descent. The question gets even more complicated when you take a man as a model: his story, his sensibility, his life and his loves. I’m interested in that, and in its dramatic scene, I like this will to create a drama in order to see the truth.
Pirri –Let’s go back to the question of the broken vases. In it, as you know, lies the origin of the word ‘symbol’: pieces of a vase reduced to fragments split amongst brothers who leave for different parts of the world and await to meet again, to confront the various pieces, to make them coincide, and to recognise each other. The act of recomposing the vase contains also the recomposition of the family unit, its truth and its existential reality, the fundament of all Western human nuclei. It seems to me that this recomposition of blood into concrete doesn’t interest you much.
Kounellis – It’s an idea of blood, but I like the idea of Dracula, and that’s also an idea of blood. I’m interested in this; apart from this, I don’t think about blood, but about the huge unifying power of culture, the true blood which can become familiar for everyone; the rest is about antiquity. The problem of blood has submerged the foundational value of culture.
Pirri – This is an extraordinary idea, and it’s against the ideas at the base of authoritarian societies: the identity of earth and blood.
Kounellis – That has only given our Europe terrible pain. I much prefer American history, the condition is begins with: what counts is culture, popular unity.
Pirri – In fact, since Europe was emptied out of its Hebrew culture it has lost a great deal of its fascination and of its very identity…
Kounellis – These are insane things. It was an absolute act of madness, unbelievable. This anachronism sometimes becomes politics, racism, and everything terrible and true which has happened in our contemporary history. We need to be ready to understand that the nucleus doesn’t exist, that you can’t be right because of blood.
Pirri – Today we’re seeing the extension of the concentration camp on a planetary scale; the idea that lead to the final solution, to the purification of race, has extended its dominion to the world of ideas, to what needs to be erased…
Kounellis – Together with the interests of the banking system this has become the common morality. In fact if you don’t think like this, it’s you who’s immoral.
Pirri – The extension of the concentration camp is part of the triumph of technique… part of the triumph of technical thinking, that is thinking non–ideologically, or even anti–ideologically…
Kounellis – What matters is who owns this technique. Caravaggio had it in his beautiful hands, but on the other hand there’s a bureaucratic organisation that monitors ‘technique’. I understand it while it’s Caravaggio representing a technique, in each one of his paintings there’s the idea of life and of death; the other kind seems an obvious, military thing to me, it’s always present even if it’s just about taking your cigarettes. Behind that gesture there’s a military idea that says: if you do this, you’ll die. But who cares about that truth? Because then tomorrow they can come and tell you ‘if you don’t write this, you’ll die’. There’s always some sort of prohibition, but what I’m afraid of is that one day someone will come knocking on my door with a sheet of paper on which it says what I can and what I can’t do, what can be written and what can’t, and that there’s a curfew and I have to be home every night by 7 PM. For some, all of this is a good thing, but I know from age and experience that it’s a terrible condition.