Text written for Jannis Kounellis and published on “Flash Art” and “Exibart”

Here I am!

The shape of the letter K, which the artist Jannis Kounellis has drawn in the space of the museum of Cosenza (Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Arnone) as a pillar for a repertoire of images and materials that he (and thanks to him, also we) know well, leads us into a vast time and space. The letter K evokes a geographically enormous sound, heard everywhere in the world. A pungent, sharp sound, which is also a wide and generous one. A sound which hits our senses and our bodies like a penetrating cold wind, made up of Northern ghosts, freezing and impossible to escape; but also a sound which speaks of the south which we all come from, that Egyptian and Persian and then Greek south which transformed images and sounds into letters and words. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the initial of his surname corresponds to that very phonetic value which I have attempted to evoke; in him also, in his work, these two geographical directions, these two spirits (all too often seen as opposites, as if their atmospheres were incompatible), are combined, composed. “Kounellis” the man and “Kounellis” the work are the result of precisely this encounter. He takes on the form of a cyclone, given by the encounter of cold and hot air and, like a cyclone, undoes all that he finds on his pathway: our ordered idea of historical succession, our sense of proportion and of spatial orientation, our experience of stories heard and told, and finally our taste, forged out of the practices of the contemporary and of the anonymous. Precisely these two final terms, these values even, are the ones which Kounellis paints black, displaying them as sad, mournful, failed and, perhaps, as no longer necessary amongst the exhibitive rites of those who cultivate the avantgarde. By way of etching, of scratching the K shape in the space of the museum, it seems as if Kounellis wished to cry out: here I am! I am here and now, affirming a sense of the present which has little in common with the dimension of the contemporary, and a lot in common with the protagonism of a living being who wants to shed light on the fact that in every moment something precious flows; and he does so by exposing his own name, his evocative initial, his biography of images and of a person. The exhibition space which Kounellis designs, here like elsewhere, shares nothing with those abstract indistinct spaces which the public likes watching its reflection in when it goes to see contemporary art; the nitid quality of white – mirror of the soul, a bright and happy soul, which absolves to all the evils of the world by way of reason and of idealised comprehension. The work of Jannis Kounellis is never impersonal, never anonymous. In him, the indistinct finds no place, but by this I do not mean this his expression is bound to a ‘subjectivity’, or that it is produced arbitrarily, outside of language. It is that the general, the unformed abstract upon which all theories and practices of so called postmodernity rest, reclaims in Kounellis’ work its original identity as ‘People’ and not a people as mass (as the Frankfurt School used to call it) but people as persons. Billions of people, with their names and their surnames, with their colourful initials, with their joyful voices, their baggage of problems, each single one of them, as a singularity, is called to board that K–shaped ship, which momentarily leans on metal sawhorses, but which is nonetheless ready to depart; which is only momentarily anchored at the Museo Civico in Cosenza. This People has its icons and its saints, which it displays and uses as sails; sails the People breathe into, setting the boat into motion, transforming breath into form, into motive force. The Mattia Preti paintings which Kounellis shows and absorbs into his work bear the traces of that wind, which is what brings them to us, and which will also take them beyond us. In front of (or during) this work – both a spatial and temporal vehicle – any distinction between ancient and contemporary art appears forcefully fake; it is an idea completely replaced in a formal, physical sense, by that by now well–known sentence which goes: all art is contemporary because all of it is visible to us contemporaneously, in this place and this time, now, in the very same moment in which we are speaking, watching, moving. As we do all of this, the work of art shifts before our eyes, our different points of view, before our words, in an ever-changing accumulation of sense; and Kounellis stages this transformation: the work in Cosenza is a mobile accumulatory space of art (of all art), pushed forward by this People which, for a moment, recognises its gesture and hence makes it legitimate, makes it right, makes it beautiful. From this perspective, Kounellis isn’t an avantgarde (contemporary) artist, but a popular artist, whose works are akin to Matteo Salvatore’s ballads, or Bob Dylan’s or Tom Waits’, or to choral works like Bitti’s Tenores, or like a Gospel group singing in a church on the outskirts of the city. Truly popular art is not anonymous art: the only anonymous thing is that push, that wind – which doesn’t have a name, but which is given by the sum of the names of all of those people who push it, who breathe it; only the action is anonymous, but not the actor who, on the contrary, can have one or many names, all of which are equally recognisable. Whereas the voice of the popular singer is singular, because with his sensibility and his knowledge he is able to feel that infinite mass of names which have made the very song he sings; an ancient, archaic motif, the voices of which invest him with the responsibility of continuing that chant and its hidden personality, adding to it in perspectives and sensibility, in an intimate, autographous challenge. This is what Kounellis does in Cosenza: he autographs the space of the museum, wherein he deposits his initial which, in turn, becomes an inhabitable architecture amongst which, upon which, it would be nice to sleep. His act of autography is not crying: this is mine! Not an appropriating gesture, but the signature at the bottom of a private note, a sort of love letter which says: I am with you thanks to you and I would like to sleep with you. It is the manifestation of physical desire, that of lying down in the space of the city, finding rest within it in the perfect from of an exhibition. Finally, Kounellis’ work in Cosenza should be seen as a kind of rapid, immediate intimacy with the things of a city which the city should know and appreciate; amongst these things, first of all, are the spaces which Cosenza could offer to art, with which it could open up to art like a lover. Places within which that K could become one signature amongst many, and not an imperial seal representing (in my belief, against Kounellis’ will and poetics) the solitude of an act which will never be repeated.

Alfredo Pirri