Sunday, July 17, 2016

Jannis Kounellis @ Karsten Greve & Centre Pompidou, Paris

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Jannis Kounellis, Untitled,1981

Having loved the Jannis Kounellis work on exhibition at Galerie Karsten Greve and the Centre Pompidou as a part of its Arte Povera exhibition, I am so disappointed not to have seen the Kounellis installation at the Musée de la Monnaie in March. Kounellis’ work is powerful and memorable, and appears to have a renewed relevance given current trends in migration and immigration.

Kounellis’ own story forms the motivation of works that speak loudly, but not overtly, about the challenges of migration, the alienating experience of arrival, the ongoing struggle of immigration, and the ultimate necessity of the journey. Although the works are not displayed at Karsten Greve in the narrative of a journey, I wanted to see an untitled oil on canvas from 1963 as both the dawn and re-imagination of the journey across the sea. The hope and possibility on the horizon of a gentle blue sea, looked over by brilliant, if soft, yellow rays of sunshine, show an optimism that is not everywhere apparent in Kounellis’ sculpture. 
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Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 1969
The works that appeal to me the most are those for which Kounellis has used steel, the material of apparent stasis, fixity, oppression and exploitation. And what makes these works fascinating is that the material of steel goes through a transformation when he uses it to represent movement, journey, and the theme of the moment: migration. In a more recent work downstairs at Karsten Greve, a military hospital bed is covered by a requisition blanket. Underneath the blanket are steel pylons and at its head, more steel plates. The evocation of warmth and comfort of the bed are mixed with exile, hardship, and narratives of endurance. These all clash with the beauty of the stalwart steel “bedheads.” The work is so confusing because it is at one and the same time filled with pathos, nostalgia and the lyrical tones and rhythms of treated steel. In turn, these rhythms remind us of the gentle waves of the sea in the oil painting.
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2000
In one of my favorite pieces, an image that has haunted me ever since, unevenly plaited hair falls through two holes in a steel plate: the absence of the head to which the hair belongs on the other side of the plate is its power. We imagine the imprisoned, trapped, presumably woman, who is held in bondage. The plaits are both a way of tying the absent body to the steel plate, and reveal a care taken by the person’s captor. In this untitled piece, steel hides life, enables struggle and we assume, eventual freedom. In keeping with Arte Povera’s challenge to the consumer society and the culture industry, I presume both the steel and the hair are found materials, raising further contradictions. Because the hair is so personal, and belongs to an individual, it is put into further struggle with the ideology behind it. Ultimately, I want to say that the intimacy of the hair wins the struggle, but as soon as it triumphs, the smooth, almost sumptuous surface of cold blue steel seduces the viewer away from the cause of the individual. This is complicated work that doesn’t always leave us with a clear conscience.
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2010. Detail.
The sea, human, and steel are fused in these provocative pieces to represent memory in its colorful wanderings. Simultaneously, they speak of entrapment, confinement, and the imperative to keep moving even when it’s not possible. It is these contradictions and impossibilities that make Kounellis’ art so attractive. The exhibition of Arte Povera at the Pompidou Centre confirms that so much of this appeal comes from the materials used by the Italian mid-20th century movement. The natural fabrics and materials are, in and of themselves, gorgeous, sensuous. And yet, the artists never let their materials rest in a comfortable place. They are always pushed into political and ideological discomfort.