Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Jannis Kounellis, Boîtes: 1989-2015 @ Galerie Lelong & Co

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2005

There is a lot going on inside and around Jannis Kounnellis’s boxes on view at the Galerie Lelong’s rue de Téhéran space. In fact, they are so full that despite their size and their often sparse contents, it’s difficult to take everything in. In typical Kounellis style, the boxes are overflowing with contradictions and offer no stable place from which to understand them. The steel box itself is the first thing that’s all wrong: the box with a  glass face surely references the cabinet of curiosities which is meant to be viewed from above, not hung on a wall. Similarly, in the tradition of nineteenth-century collecting and displaying, the vitrine is usually made of wood, connecting it to the natural world and the natural order of things. The contents of these boxes are anything but natural.

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2006
Each box is, on the one hand, deeply personal, and on the other hand, stridently political. Thus, when a woollen sleeve or four worn shoes walk over a splash of paint on paper, we feel the heartbreak of the individual who has lost their clothing. Where are the feet that belong in these shoes? Where is the arm once threaded through the sleeve? The loss and the melancholy of these pieces is overwhelming; clothes without a wearer are always a powerful way to convince the viewer of tragedy. And then when the shoes in question are filled with Murano glass, bound in place with wire like masking tape as if over a mouth, the silence of the missing owners reverberates. With the references to the memorials for public genocide, these pieces move into a political realm. They shift to be about violence, torture and political injustice.
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2009
In one of the most frightening boxed displays, a front page of Corriere della Sera has been pierced with shards of glass, and the word Notte with two definitive black lines underneath is written in thick black marker across the page. We read the additions as expressions of an opinion about what is being reported. On the page, Teheran, il pugno dell’ayatollah headlines an article that includes a photograph of a distressed woman, although it’s difficult to know why she is distressed because the marker has written over her image. Yet, the message is clear; the fist of the Ayatollah has consequences that are not all to be celebrated. Perhaps Kounellis as the violator of the paper is highly critical of the evening news, rather than the stories it carries? This would be in keeping with his lifelong concern with moral and social issues that began in his work as an Arte Povera artist.  Similarly, the head of an axe painted in the colours of the Italian flag, wedged in a block of lead might recall Kounellis’s past language -- his recurring creation of Italian flags out of everyday objects, the simultaneous weakness and resilience of lead, for example -- but next to the shoes filled with glass a mandolin filled with coal, there is an anger and a retaliation for manipulation in the name of the State.
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2009
Kounellis’s sculptures are often most disturbing because things are all out of place. In the vein of the unusualness of curiosity boxes made of steel, tram tracks have been soldered at midpoint of one box to form a ‘V’ ‘that I interpreted as a V for violence. And so, even though the black splash of paint (reproduced into a lithograph) may be a homage to Jackson Pollock and the later Abstract Expressionists, as is often noted in discussions of Kounellis’s boxes, I watched and imagined black become red blood. The splash as the background of a violence committed has a highly polemical significance; it is not simply black aesthetic gesture. And when a household clothes iron hangs from a meat hook of a kind that we are more likely to find in an abattoir, even though the background is covered in black abstract lines, the thought of the person chocking that has been replaced by an iron is hard to shirk. I started to have trouble breathing as I stood before the chilling contents of this box. Kounellis’s sculpture is mandatory viewing: we get a sense of our own guilt as we look at these works that are so beautiful and sensuous thanks to the materials he uses (steel and paint) but at the same time, they overwhelm with the vulnerability of human emotions, suffering, and mortality.

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