By Margarita Pournara
On the parquet floor of the neoclassical Stathatos Mansion, which houses a part of the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, sacks filled with brown coal surrounded a pile of broken casts of what resembled the heads of ancient sculptures. One visitor approached the Jannis Kounellis installation somewhat reluctantly. She then retreated, momentarily averting her eyes. As I observed her discreetly, she approached the installation again and it dawned on me that viewers’ reactions to the work of this artist are always surprising.
This is because they do not resemble the savoir-vivre code invariably associated with the visual arts world, which calls for concentrating on the works, being moved, silently and with a sense of decorum. There was something quite different going on here, something rather intense and expressive. People were not hiding their opinions and emotions -- whether positive or negative -- and were quite prepared to share their thoughts. Could it be a sign of the times?
“It was heartbreaking,” said the woman. “All these broken heads -- this is our ancient culture. Instead of appreciating it, we throw it away, break it into pieces and get to know it in fragments.”
The exhibition, which went on display at the museum in early April, serves as a reintroduction to the work of the Greek artist who has spent much of his life in Rome.
Following a large-scale exhibition organized by the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation on a cargo ship in Piraeus in 1994, Greek audiences have had very few opportunities to view Kounellis’s works. An installation went on display in Gazi, central Athens, in 2003, part of the vast international Outlook exhibition, which was followed by a solo show at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004 and, more recently, a collaboration with director Theodoros Terzopoulos, founder of the avant-garde Attis Theater, in a 2010 production of Aeschylus’ tragedy “Prometheus Bound,” for which the artist designed a stunning set.
In his essay “Mute Prophecies: The Art of Jannis Kounellis,” American art critic Thomas McEvilley writes about a young man whose desire for great things makes him abandon his homeland in all its serene, mythological splendor. The artist’s journey, says McEvilley, was not a customary one and didn’t resemble a vacation. When Kounellis arrived in Rome, he swore not to speak Greek ever again and did not return to Greece for the next 20 years. When he actually started going back to his homeland, he did so for a couple of days at a time and solely for professional purposes. Now Kounellis is back again and the timing is no coincidence.
Back at the Stathatos Mansion, another visitor reacted to the artist’s work: “I get depressed when I see coats hanging on hooks. I find the worn-out shoes disturbing. I don’t want to see works which reflect gloom; I want something joyful.” “Have you seen works by Kounellis before?” intervened Sandra Marinopoulou, president of the museum, who was acting as our guide.
Local audiences are not particularly familiar with the artist, who has identified himself with the Arte Povera movement. As visitors carefully observed the worn-out garments, shoes, sacks, glass and metal, you could tell they felt uneasy and were experiencing a sense of discomfort. “They remind me of Auschwitz,” said one women.
In Greece, rarely do art exhibits prompt discussion between viewers. However, Kounellis’s works seem to dispel reticence. Another visitor seemed almost angry: “So, why is it that a stone placed on a chair is considered a work of art? If I came up with something similar, would you put it on display in the museum?” he asked Marinopoulou. “The stone on the chair symbolizes the weight all of us feel at this time. Don’t you see it?” asked a fellow visitor.
Should art take on a comforting role? Should it be beautiful, shocking, awakening, political and autobiographical? “I’m leaving with a strange feeling, I feel as if I have to think of the future and that is the biggest burden,” said another visitor.
The exhibition runs to September 30.
Museum of Cycladic Art, 4 Neofytou Douka, tel 210.722.8321-3. Opening hours are Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on the exhibition, go to www.cycladic.gr.