When drama and life merge with creativity

In one of his critical essays from the late 1960s, the Italian art critic Germano Celant – the man who coined the term «arte povera» – refers to the work of the arte povera artists as «a shelter and cathedral of survival… the image of the nomad or the vagabond who does not believe in the secure object but in the dynamic contradiction of life itself.» Almost 40 years down the road, Greek-born and Rome-based artist Yiannis Kounellis, one of the most renowned names of arte povera, continues to make works that resemble «places of refuge and shelter,» works that are not mere objects but entire surroundings filled with poetic nuances. Resonating with the avant-garde vision of the 1960s, the art of Kounellis shares the vivacity and drama of life and comes from a tradition that set out to bridge the gap between art and life and to invest the artist with a political and moral role. A traveler of the world, Kounellis associates himself with Ulysses and considers himself to be an epic artist. In a way, his works seem like episodes in an epic poem. They take the viewer back in time and draw from Western civilization, particularly the Greco-Roman civilization, the Italian Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution to offer an artist’s insight into the human condition. More than a decade after his exhibition on the cargo ship Ionion in Piraeus and a year after his one-man presentation at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, Yiannis Kounellis presented one of his older works at the Attis Theater in the area of Metaxourgeio. Curated by Denys Zacharopoulos, the exhibition – which lasted for only a few days and ended just before Christmas – showed the artist’s preference for non-gallery spaces that create a new context for art and brought to mind the artist’s first exhibition in Athens in 1976, held at the Apollon taverna in Thiseion. Set on the stage of this small theater, headed by Theodoros Terzopoulos, Kounellis’s work was a two-part installation: Densely stacked sacks were placed on the back wall and on each of the adjacent walls a number of large rusted iron panels were positioned in a symmetrical fashion. Petroleum lamps were placed on a metal structure attached to each panel and in the middle was a piece of fresh meat. The work was made in 1989 on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall and was first presented in Barcelona. For an artist who associates art with the concept of drama, the choice of a theater as an exhibition space seems appropriate. Just as with all of his exhibitions, the space in which the work is presented is part of the work. «All of my works are inside a ‘cave that has theatrical connotations.’ I like the idea of something that is contained, that rests ‘inside’ something else. An example is a work that I made inside a well somewhere outside Florence. Even with the exhibition on the cargo ship Ionion, there is always that idea of something that protects and envelops, the idea of space as something that harks back to a maternal concept,» Kounellis told Kathimerini English Edition during his visit to Athens on the occasion of this latest exhibition. The works of Kounellis refer to archetypes and have an earthy feel to them. They are conceptual as much as they are sensual. They have a corporeal, physical sense about them and tap into the collective unconscious while also stimulating the senses and grabbing the viewer’s attention with their sheer presence. There is the odor of hay, of sacks, coffee or meat, a sense of physicality, of live presence. «One may think that sculpture has nothing to do with odors and aromas. But for me it does. The artist that is incapable of putting across the sense of something that is alive does not comprehend life. Painting is nothing other than a way of thinking about life. It comes from the experience of a man who loves life,» Kounellis said. Even the fresh meat is, for Kounellis, a testimony to life, not an indication of violence. «The meat is as beautiful as a flower, like human flesh in renaissance painting… To be drawn to human flesh is the same thing as being drawn both to life and death, the two go together.» Kounellis considers life and art as inseparable and beauty as associated with the drama and experience of life. For Kounellis, beauty is not about form or style but about a way of thinking. «Beauty is revolutionary. It is never something cute but something grand.» Like beauty, creativity is also associated with the intensity and drama of life and, in consequence, with pessimism. «Beckett, Munch, Pollock, all those people who we have come to admire were all pessimists, dark characters. All the important artists are people ‘of the shadow,’» said Kounellis, while also expressing his dismay at the optimistic, programmed artist who, according to Kounellis, seems to have become more prevalent today. Beauty is about the new, about change and revolution. The Italian Renaissance was, according to Kounellis, one of the most revolutionary moments in art. His admiration for and deep understanding of that period in art history was one of the reasons that caused him to leave Greece in the mid-1950s and move to Italy. «The Renaissance is the ideology of the new, a new way of seeing man. It is the opposite of Byzantine painting, dogmatic painting where one only sees saints.» Besides the Renaissance, Kounellis also singles out ancient Greek civilization and prizes it for inventing the «golden mean» and setting the foundation for Western civilization. «Western heroes are all rooted in ancient Greek mythology, in the labyrinth, Ithaca and Ulysses,» said Kounellis. «I carry Greece within me, not because I was born here but because I am a Westerner. I always carved for a Western Greece. Plato is Western, (the naif artist) Theophilos less so,» said Kounellis, who is usually mentioned as a Greek-born, Italian artist, much to the disappointment of the Greek art world. Yet whether Greek or Italian, in the end it does not matter, for Kounellis is above all a traveler of the world both in the metaphorical and literal sense. He is constantly traveling the world, showing his work around the globe and experiencing the variety of life, its «aromas,» its people and their traditions. Greece, both its past and present, are the stops on an incessant journey that is both mental and actual. The art of Kounellis is the outcome of this «journey.» Based on a knowledge of Western civilization it draws on our collective unconscious to raise contemporary issues and address life’s bigger questions.